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Yemen colonial cauldron

Since the 19th century, the Middle East has been the epicentre of much global power conflict, thanks to its attractive waterways, strategic positioning and — later on — it’s gateway points to the Jewel in the British Crown, India. However, what stood in the way was the Ottoman Caliphate that dominated the region and inevitably complicated ‘the Great Game’ of trying to step into the Middle East.

After the Crimean War 1853-1856 (which involved a multiple state alliance of Britain, France and the Ottomans against Russia) one witnessed a divergence in strategic interests, with Britain and France turning against the Ottomans, with a multiple and systematic attack on the Ottomans that even involved troops being shipped in from British colonies, such as Australia, New Zealand and India to inflict a fatal blow on the Ottomans, leading to the collapse of the Ottoman strength and its territories being carved out by the French and British in the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, with strategic interests of colonialists dictating new borders that were drawn with no consideration given to the geographic, ethnic or religious make up of the region.

The newly-born nation states were given a complete new identity, with political systems and constitutions being introduced and new kings and leaders taking power who would in principle be under the supervision of the new masters of the region, the French and the British. For example, it was an open secret in Egypt, that King Fuad and King Farouk did not hold the reins of power, which was held in the hand of the British High Commissioner to Cairo who called the political shots. This would create grounds for the 1952 Egyptian revolution, which would trigger a wave of coups in the region, from Syria to Iraq, and would ultimately raise the flag of Arab Nationalism, anti colonialism and Pan Arabism.

The Yemen crisis cannot be understood in isolation; this is a conflict that requires understanding of the recent history of the region.

Britain would not just sit back and allow its influence to be minimised in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Yemen, but instead exerted itself as it did in the invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the covert war against Colonel Abdullah Sallal in Yemen when he overthrew the Zaydi Immamate in North Yemen in 1962, as Britain feared being kicked out of Aden which it had colonised since 1839. According to Chatham House’s Yemeni Expert Mark Curtis, London was used as a clearing ground for British mercenaries that were paid £150 by the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. In Aden, Tony Boyle, the aide-de-camp to the Aden Governor, evolved a system for passing mercenaries through customs while Sherif Hussein organised ‘safe houses’ in Beihan from which the operation into Yemen could be launched against the North Yemeni government.

It is interesting to note that the Kennedy government, according to classified documents, recognised the North Yemeni government as the Americans believed they could steer the Abdullah Sallal government to serving her interests in Yemen.

This caused a diplomatic rupture and crisis between Britain and America but showed that America was now exerting itself in the region, opening up an Anglo-American struggle that had began since the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and increased with the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957, which penciled out the Middle East as being strategically important to the US. The traditional colonial powers were facing challenges to their penetration and influence across the region, with the rise of anti-colonial movements, Arab nationalistic coups and with America shedding its isolationism and pushing more into the Middle East.

In the Gulf, the British had quite successfully signed a number of treaties with the Sheikhdoms that would last from 1820 until 1971, which meant that Britain was given a free hand not only in determining the political medium in the Gulf but also had control over foreign policy, defense and security to the extent that no economic contracts could be given without the permission of the British. With the British withdrawal in 1971, and America re-focusing its Middle East policy towards the Gulf through the Nixon Doctrine in 1969 and the Carter Doctrine in 1980, America saw an ascendancy in the region.

However, Tore Peterson in his book Anglo-American Policy towards the Persian Gulf, 1978-1985; Power, Influence and Restraint, mentions that talk of American ascendancy was premature as Britain had switched from formal control to informal neo-colonial control, in that she had put in place a vast array of administrators, advisors, consultants and trainers that would continue to direct relations with the Sheikhdoms and perpetuate British penetration and influence in the Gulf.

Peterson argues that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s developed a very aggressive policy in keeping British influence in the Gulf, while being fully aware of American intrusion into the region and its aggression in pushing American influence in the region. However, despite the Iran-Iraq war (1980 to 1988), and the First Gulf War in the 1990s leading to American militarisation in the Gulf, Britain was able, through a complex informal network in the Gulf and the larger Arabian Peninsula, to keep its interests preserved. Britain, being the old fox, was the master of compromise and political manoeuvring, with Thatcher willing to stretch her hand out to Reagan in the Gulf when America’s key strategic interests were at stake but clenched her fist when it came to British interests and say in the region.

Given the backdrop presented, of colonial power interests in the region and rising Anglo-American tensions since 1947, is it possible to view the Yemeni crisis devoid of this framework? Is it possible to understand the local and the regional players and their positioning without taking this framework into consideration?

If we were to dismiss history, and what has been played out over the decades post Syke-Picot 1916 and view the Yemeni crisis through a reductionist prism, then yes, the crisis in Yemen is about Saudi and Iran using their proxies to fight it out; yes, it is about a Sunni-Shia conflict which risks spreading in the region; yes, it is about the hegemonic ambitions of the Saudis and Iranians; yes, it is about Saudi trying to flex its muscles while Iran is being brought in from the cold as exemplified by the preliminary nuclear agreement in Lausanne; however, anyone with a insight into the region, colonial penetration and global structures, will come to the conclusion that the Yemeni crisis is just another in a series of conflicts in the region, in which colonial powers are embedded with various factions fighting for influence, penetration and a greater say, with local and regional players subordinate to the interests of the international actors. There is integration between the three, as studied in World Systems Theory, with the top layer (the international actors) being the key determinates of how the local and regional actors position themselves.

So in my opinion it would be wise for the Pakistan army to stay far away from this conflict, not because it would be a violation of International law, as this itself has become meaningless over the years, as proven through the illegal war in Iraq or because it would risk a Sunni-Shia blowback at home but because the Pakistan army would be sucked into a complex multi layered political struggle, with no strategic gain other than Pakistan’s natural relationship with Yemen being ruptured and its resources being consumed.

Despite the parliamentary debate on Yemen, with political parties giving their take on whether Pakistan should intervene or not, regurgitating much of the analysis which has been given over the last few weeks, there is no doubt the Pakistani military leadership will have a definitive say over what action Pakistan takes and it is important that the political and strategic thinking cap is well on to keep Pakistan out of a dirty war that is taking place for overlapping and interwoven strategic interests in Yemen.

If an emotional or short-sighted action is taken without a thorough insight into what is unfolding in Yemen, then Pakistan will face the repercussions at various level, from military exhaustion, to economic drain and importantly being played as a regional proxy and this would be a great shame given the huge potential of Pakistan to be a major regional player in the Muslim world, given the assets it has at its disposal and its positioning which makes it a pivot to the Middle East, Far East and Central Asia.


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