Back in Roman times, Yemen went by the name "Arabia Felix," Latin for "Happy Arabia." It's hard to think of a greater misnomer for this Arab state on the southern tip of the Persian Gulf, a few miles across the water from the Horn of Africa.
The Romans had a pretty miserable time there. Aelius Gallus, who was the Prefect of Egypt in 26 B.C.E., tried to conquer the territory and was roundly defeated. Through the ages, Yemen maintained its warlike image, with its various tribes doing battle with the Ottoman Turks and the British Empire. The north won independence from the Turks on 1918, while the south remained under British rule. By 1967, there were two states in Yemen.
In the north, you had the Yemen Arab Republic, and in the south you had the People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen; the north was oriented towards the Arab states, while the south was a run by hardline communist government.
The two Yemens fought several brutal wars throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In May 1990, however, the communist south dissolved itself into a unified Yemen – interestingly, this took place just a few months before communist East Germany was dissolved into a unified Federal Republic.
Any similarity between the two situations, though, ends there. If unified Germany was an attractive combination of a dynamic economy and robust democratic institutions, unified Yemen quickly became a failed state. Political conflict between northern and southern leaders, often degenerating into full-scale violence, continued to plague the country. By 1994, the country was consumed by another civil war. The international community, which signally failed to prevent genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda in the same year, barely noticed.
This admittedly potted and incomplete history should, nonetheless, give a flavor of the inherent risks involved with Yemen, which is now a battleground for Saudi Arabia on the one side, and Iran on the other. It is also the base of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, widely said to be the most ruthless and brutal of the terrorist group's regional branches. In October 2000, Americans were given a taste of what lay in store for them in September 2001, when Al-Qaeda launched a suicide attack against the USS Cole in the port of Aden, killing 17 U.S. servicemen.
Yemen's warring parties have been subsumed by the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. For more than a decade now, Shi'a rebels from the north known as Houthis (named after their leader, Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed by government forces in September 2004) have waged war against the Sunni-dominated south. In 2009, the conflict even spilled into Saudi Arabia, when the Houthis briefly conquered a small area on the Saudi side of the border.
Come 2014, and the Houthis took over the Yemenite capital, Sana'a, which resulted in the resignation – later rescinded – of President Mansour Hadi. This year saw Yemen brought, in the words of the United Nations, to "the verge of total collapse." In March, Islamic State entered the fray, in shocking attacks against Shi'a mosques that claimed the lives of more than 100 worshippers. And last month, the Saudis launched "Decisive Storm," ostensibly a bombing campaign against Houthi positions, but in reality a war against Iran's growing influence.
This week, just as the Saudis announced that the bombing campaign was over, Iranian warships were spotted off the south coast of Yemen. The U.S. is already sending its own warships to the region, with the goal of preventing Iran from smuggling further weapons and other assistance to the Houthis. A tense standoff potentially awaits.
Indeed, the Saudis have now resumed bombing, much to the satisfaction of President Hadi, who praised, from exile in Riyadh, his "Arab and Muslim brothers ... for supporting legitimacy." Such rhetoric doesn't mean very much at all. The political situation hasn't exactly been transformed by the Saudi assault; its most tangible outcome has been the death of nearly 1,000 civilians, and the wounding of more than 3,000 more.
Those countries backing the Saudis, among them the U.S., have been silent on the civilian death toll, in marked contrast to the outraged condemnations that greeted Israel's defensive operation against Hamas in Gaza during the summer of 2014.
At this moment, therefore, the conflict in Yemen is unresolved and could well expand. The fact that 40 percent of the world's oil ships pass through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, in the southern part of the Red Sea, gives some idea of the global impact a conflagration in this part of the world could have.
It is tempting to regard the Saudi intervention in Yemen as welcome, insofar as it targets Iran. But we should be wary of any arrangement that gives Arab states a regional policing role, and not just because of their dismal human rights records. Like other Arab states, Saudi Arabia has responded to Iran's nuclear ambitions with similar ambitions of its own. In the long run, the military empowerment of the Saudis could be just as negative for Western and Israeli security as an Iranian nuclear bomb, not the least because of the Saudi kingdom's historic role as an incubator of radical Sunni Islamism.
If Iran's regional designs are to be rolled back, that has to be done from the outside. Regrettably, there is very little chance of that happening while the Obama administration remains in the White House. Obama's strategy of allowing Iranian power to fill the vacuum left by an American withdrawal from the Middle East is one key reason why Arab states like Saudi Arabia are opting for war over diplomacy. Consequently, Yemen could turn out to be only the latest chapter in the epic, bloody story of the civil war between the Sunni and Shi'a branches of Islam.