Iraq’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for 12 May 2018, will serve as the first national referendum since the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in 2017. Observers of the lead-up to the elections will invariably examine the sectarian Shia versus Sunni rivalries during the process, to the neglect of the intra-sectarian Shia rivalries that have evolved since 2003. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shia factions did run on a single ticket, the United Iraqi Alliance.
Fifteen years after the demise of the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq is still struggling to keep faith with the promises generated by the fall of one of the most brutal regimes ever ascending to power, able to maintain its grip on the “land of the two rivers” for decades despite internal opposition, external pressure and ill-fated military operations.
The Western Indian Ocean (the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian/Persian Gulf) is the new Gulf powers’ battlefield. Saudi Arabia and Iran, as already in the Middle East, are vying for hegemony in this sub-region: the Gulf monarchies also compete for influence, especially after the 2017 Qatari crisis and Doha’s boycott by neighbours.
The war in Yemen has enhanced transnational insecurity between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, with the Gulf of Aden as the epicentre of this insecurity: nevertheless, Yemen and Somalia still maintain distinct features.
Too often depicted as yet another arena in the proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, the Yemeni conflict has much more to do with a domestic struggle for power rather than sectarian – and supposedly archaic – rivalries. But with the opening of a new round of conflict after the 2011 Arab Spring, and even more after the 2015 Saudi-led intervention, the conflict underwent a dynamic of “sectarianisation”, or politicization of religious identities.
The military expansion of the Houthis and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh into Southern Yemen in February 2015, after the flight of president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to Aden, exacerbated the north-south division of the country, highlighting its fragmentation. This led to a strong military response in the South to what appeared to be a new invasion by Northern forces after the 1994 war: from that moment on, new military and political orientations have risen in the South, as well as increased popular support for separatism.
After Houthi rebels executed a coup against the government in January 2015, and marched towards Aden, absorbing the territory of the internationally-recognized President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign in Yemen (26 March 2015), under the declared aim of reinstating the legitimate government and protecting its southern borders. From that moment on, the conflict has escalated and fighting fronts extended, resulting in a complex war that has so far defied all efforts at peacemaking.
The rise of the Houthi upended the tribal political alliances that formed the backbone of republican Yemen in the north but without altering the dominance of tribes and tribalism. The Houthi adroitly manipulated local tribal politics in the north during many years of conflict to defeat the Houthi enemies in the tribal leadership that had dominated the north under the Saleh regime. At the same time, the Houthi attacked the political bases of the Islah party and the allied military forces of Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar.
Yemen’s tribal army does not exist anymore, replaced by a plethora of militias, sometimes institutionalised: only a federal-based reform of the security sector could limit the rising territorial power of warlords. A survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Centre in 2017 sheds further light on this point: at the question “Who brings security in this area?”, only 16% of Yemenis all over the country answer “the police/security authorities”.
“That’s what we will be working on, to follow the president’s instructions. We will try to complete all the phases by the end of 2018 or early 2019”, said Petroleum Minister Tarek El Molla with great fanfare. It was on February 1, at the inauguration of the first phase of developing Zohr, the giant offshore gas field near the Egyptian coast. Zohr is estimated to have a reserve of 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the largest in the Mediterranean.