Like me, you’ve probably been listening to the news a bit the past few months and occasionally hearing strange, vaguely familiar words: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf Cooperation Council, for example. What do I look like, you’ve probably asked yourself, some geography nerd? I don’t have time to keep track of this, especially with the NFL in full swing, NBA starting up and the baseball playoffs generating so much excitement.
I share your concerns and priorities. But even though this might sound irrelevant to your life, it’s actually pretty important. So turn off your TV and sit back and relax: in five minutes you’ll be a lot smarter than you were before and able to impress friends and strangers with your vast knowledge of world events.
It sounds like an impossible dream, right? Trust me, I pull this off multiple times per day and if it works for me — a person who pretty much doesn’t watch or read news — it will definitely work for you. The key is listening to a few people smarter than you, appropriating their ideas with minor, passing credit, and posing as an expert. So let’s get started, shall we?
First off, some of the analysis that follows comes from a long-time source who lives and works in the Arabian Peninsula and is intimately familiar with Qatar. I usually but don’t always agree with him, but he’s whip smart and you disagree with him at your own peril. If you don’t entirely know what you’re talking about, you’ll come out looking dumb.
Now, before moving ahead read — or don’t, it’s not essential — this boring Economist item, “Qatar crisis complicates Yemen civil war,” about the broad situation I’ll be discussing. More importantly, you need to know that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is “a regional political organization comprising the energy rich Gulf monarchies – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates,” this item says.
My source, who is far better informed and insightful than The Economist, tells me that a number of GCC countries are upset with Qatar for having an “incompatible relationship” with Iran.” This is more than just some Sunni-Shia divide, he says. Qatar’s GCC critics will debate issues but they try to avoid open conflicts and that’s what they believe Qatar has done by aligning itself with Iran in Yemen, among other places.
But Yemen is the main point of friction. Iran is deeply entrenched with the Houthis, who, if this article is to be trusted, are fighting “the internationally-recognized government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, based in southern Yemen. Houthis took over the Yemeni capital [Sana’a] in 2014, forcing the government to retreat south. The war between the two sides intensified when a Saudi-led coalition backing the Hadi government launched air strikes on rebel areas. The fighting has cost 10,000 lives and an outbreak of cholera with the risk of mass of starvation even near due to blockades by both sides.”
(Here’s another backgrounder that seems useful and tells another perspective. It’s written by Al Jazeera, which is based in Doha and funded by the government of Qatar, so caveat emptor.)
Qatar picked the Houthi side and have contributed to making the conflict more and more lethal and unmanageable. The Saudis, the Emirates and the rest of the Arabian peninsula support the government and see the Houthis as being Iranian surrogates.
The U.S. has seemingly given Saudi Arabia a green light to bomb Yemeni civilians and create a horrifying humanitarian crisis. However, my source says the Trump administration has “stepped on its own dick” because it is very convenient for the U.S. to have a large military base in Doha, which has led it to take inconsistent and stupid positions in regard to the conflict.
The wild card in the whole story is North Korea. The facts are not entirely confirmed, but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Pyongyang and Tehran are secretly increasing contacts and building an informal alliance.
What’s the evidence? Well, a bunch of North Koreans have been in and out of Sana’a, which is largely under Houthi control. Sana’a is very chaotic and the U.S. has no collection capability there, unlike in Doha, and it’s hard to see what North Korean officials would be hanging out in Sana’a for other than to meet in secret with Iranian counterparts.
Meanwhile, Yemen maintains one of its largest and most active embassies in Pyongyang, North Korea. There’s not a lot of trade between the two countries so what is that all about? (Note here that the Houthis may be getting the upper hand in Yemen, and may well be running the Pyongyang embassy.) Furthermore, some suspect that Iranian technicians are in North Korea collaborating to test military equipment and analyzing nuclear test data. The whole thing is starting to percolate and is becoming of greater interest to a variety of intelligence agencies and governments.
(Furthermore, on a semi-related note, Qatar is using North Korean slave labor to build its World Cup infrastructure, and that is definitely not cool.)
Let me make clear here, that I believe the primary victims of all this are the Yemeni people, who are dying in droves. There are no good guys in this story and Yemen has become a playground for the Saudis and the Iranians, much the way that so many poor countries, including Yemen, became pawns of the CIA and KGB during the Cold War.
“The Saudis and the Iranians are the two biggest problems in the Middle East,” my source said. “They are fucking up Yemen and the Qataris are in the middle of it, and the whole thing is starting to fracture. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is an important military alliance and the Iranians are using Qatar to undermine it.”
I don’t entirely agree with my source on some of these details, but this, combined with some minor research I conducted (on Wikipedia and elsewhere) is a serious analysis worth mulling over. I told my source that I’m no fan of the Saudi or the Iranian regime, but I have a lot more sympathy for Iran than for Saudi Arabia.
The latter is a retrograde, fictitious creation and its leadership has generally served U.S. interests slavishly since the end of World War II, which, combined with its oil reserves, is why it is such a close American ally. Meanwhile, it promotes a twisted, extremist view of Islam that has been adapted by Al Qaeda and ISIS, groups with which the Saudis have far stronger ties than are generally known or discussed.
I have a lot of issues with the Iranian mullahs, obviously, but Iran is a great civilization and I admire its people. I also admire the fact that the country kicked out the CIA coup-imposed Shah and the U.S. back in 1979, even if things today aren’t rosy.
Anyway, before you were wondering WTF was going on in Yemen. Now you know, more or less.