For most of the past decade, the “War on Terror” has been focused on eliminating Afghani strongholds of Muslim extremism. While these efforts are necessary, the Obama administration, until recently, has neglected other terrorist hideouts, such as those in West Africa, Maghreb and most notably Yemen. Yemen, outside of Afghanistan, has become one of the largest centers for Al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups. The United States has long neglected this area since the reunification of North and South Yemen, but it seems as if America’s past ambivalence about the region has come back to haunt it.
Much of this conflict stems from peripheral problems of the 20th century. In 1918, the British, already established in Egypt, longed for control of one of the greatest naturally occurring ports in the world, the Yemeni Port of Aden. It is important to note that this port is located on the shipping route from Europe to Asia, contains access to one of the largest known oil reserves in the world and is deep with minimal silt build up, which allows it to house the tankers that fuel the world.
After the British lost control of the Suez in 1957, they realized they could no longer control the tiny Arab state and left King Muhammad Al-Badr’s fragile government to fend for itself against growing civil unrest.
The Soviet Union seized the opportunity, supported the civil unrest, and along with the pro-Soviet Egyptian government, successfully stimulated a coup in 1967. The result of the coup was a division between the democratically aligned Northern and Soviet aligned Southern Yemeni governments. This strategic shift in South Yemen created a fundamentally weak state dependent on the Soviets for protection. This strategic support was crucial to Soviet hopes of expansion, as it gave the Soviet government control of a key strategic port to ship its goods and exert a greater influence in the Arabian oil trade.
In 1990, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, North and South Yemen reunited to form the government that exists today. Yet some parties didn’t gain the advantages that they hoped during this unification process.
In previous years, the Saudis had been eyeing the port Aden for its strategic importance in fuel shipping and distribution. The next largest port, into which the Saudis could fit ULCC supertankers to satisfy the world’s fuel demands, is nearly 1,300 miles further along the Suez-Asian route. It can cost anywhere from $40 to $90,000 dollars a day to charter a supertanker, and with that additional distance that could translate into millions if not billions of dollars in wasted shipping costs annually, so Saudi Arabia has a clear economic motive to control the port.
In November of last year, Saudi Arabia began to capitalize on the region’s instability. Saudi Arabia conducted bombing raids against Shiia strongholds in Northern Yemen and committed itself to military action. For now, it seems as if these actions are largely targeted against Shiia al-Hwathi tribesmen, but this could only be the beginning. This could just as easily be a ploy to create larger Saudi involvement in the region in order to harness control of the port. It is possible that Saudi Arabia’s intention is to ferment conflict, quell it, and pick up the pieces for greater hegemonic control of the world’s oil trade.
It is now time for the Obama administration to act. It must attempt to control the current political landscape in Yemen. If it doesn't, not only will the Gulf fall into chaos, but the United States will become less secure and even more susceptible to terrorism.
Joshua Schoen lives in New York City.