The Cold War in the Middle East: Yemen

David Vergara is a first year international relations student and the MENA regional editor for International Relations Today.


In this pilot article of the segment: “The Cold War in the Middle East”, the subject of the first theatre of war is Yemen, where a proxy civil war has waged since 2015. The Yemeni Civil war since its beginnings in 2011, has led to one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the decade, which has been grossly underrepresented by the mainstream media and international community, especially when compared to the coverage of the simultaneously developing Syrian Civil War. The objective of this article is to briefly discuss the notion of an emerging Cold War in the Middle East between Sunni majority Saudi Arabia, and the Shia dominated Iran. Furthermore, in this article specifically, the Yemeni Civil War will be analyzed as one of the many proxy conflicts that have surfaced due to the Saudi-Iran struggle for regional hegemony and religious supremacy.

A “New” Cold War?

Originally coined by George Orwell in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” in 1945, there still exists no official academic definition of the term “Cold War”, which was largely adopted ad hoc as the United States’ and Soviet Union’s ideological struggle spilled into the 1960s. However, if we were to go by the Oxford Dictionary, “Cold War” is “a state of political hostility between countries characterized by threats, propaganda, and other measures short of open warfare.”

The origins of the Middle East Cold War can be traced back to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which propelled Ayatollah Khomeini to power and established a quasi Shia theocracy. Not far away, Sunni majority Saudi Arabia was already considered the leader of the Islamic world, not only acting as a protector over the holy sites of Mecca and Medina but also having established good relations with the West, making it a key ally for the United States. The rise of Iran in the international sphere challenged Saudi’s self-declared Islamic and regional supremacy, and sparked the on-going conflict, consisting largely of proxy wars in unstable neighboring countries, fueled by sectarian and hegemonic motivations.

Yemeni Civil War

Much like the Cold War turned “hot” in Korea and Vietnam, Saudi and Iranian backed militias have engaged in open hostilities not only against each other but also against their adversaries’ conventional military forces. Examples include the Syrian Civil War, the ongoing conflict in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. However, except in Syria, none of the other conflicts have turned out as destructive, or as inhumane as the Yemeni Civil War.

In 2011, a Shia tribal group called the Houthis began a small scale insurgency against the central government in Sana’a. In 2015, an attempted coup d’état by the Houthi rebels against President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s Sunni majority regime led to the establishment of a parallel, internationally recognized government in the city of Aden. In response to Hadi’s appeal for international intervention, Saudi Arabia led a nine-country coalition against the Houthis to restore Hadi’s government. Although the United States withdrew its support for Saudi’s campaign amidst international scrutiny, and despite the continued efforts to achieve a stable cease-fire and begin peace talks, Saudi Arabia and its allies are determined to completely subdue the Houthi rebellion, regardless of the immense human suffering occurring as a result.

However, the humanitarian crisis can hardly be blamed on belligerents from only one side. Iran, although much more obscurely than Saudi Arabia, has also contributed weaponry and financial support to the Yemeni Civil War. Sharing a common Shia fundamentalist ideology, Iran internationally supported the Houthi rebel’s campaign to overthrow the old government. Although Iran publicly denies its role in arming and funding the Houthi Rebels, the United Nations alleges that Iranian materiel support for the Houthis began in 2009. Moreover, Yemen’s geopolitical context is also significant, not just due to its large natural gas reserves, but also due to its control over the strait of Bab al-Mandab, which controls shipping into the Red Sea and by extension through the Suez Canal. Thus, it is due to sectarian and religious differences as well as geopolitical and regional hegemony that the Yemeni Civil War became subsumed into the larger struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

International Disinterestedness & A Bleak Look at the Future

‘International disinterestedness’ is, unfortunately, the most accurate descriptor for international sentiment towards this conflict. According to the UN Crisis Relief and Human Rights Watch, since the outbreak of large scale armed conflict in 2015, there are upwards of 22 million people in need of humanitarian aid and protection, with more than 8 million in starvation, including 440,000 malnourished children. The death toll has reportedly surpassed 100,000, and sadly, the data and current situation on the ground suggests that 2019 will be by far the deadliest and most destructive of the last 4 years of fighting.

To quote the UN Crisis Relief  “ending the conflict is the only way to resolve the humanitarian crisis.” Unfortunately, there seems to be no immediate end in sight. Previous attempts at peacemaking including the “Riyadh Agreement” proposed in 2019 have already begun to collapse, and the multifaceted conflict is on the verge of adding another layer of complexity with the increased infighting within the pro-government coalition.

The underlying issue remains the lack of international concern. Although the United Nations’ humanitarian efforts have been helpful, international institutions have been powerless to end the conflict. Powerful allies to the regional adversaries including the United States, Russia, and China have no vested interest in the conflict except to profit from increased arms sales.

The harsh reality is that until either Iran or Saudi Arabia experience their own Perestroika mirroring the Soviet Union in the late 1990s, their competition for regional hegemony and religious supremacy will continue to spill over into neighboring conflicts, such is the nature of a Cold War.


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