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Yemen’s thorny path to democracy

Capture of Iranian ship laden with arms underlines the need for political parties to come together and thwart the designs of vested interests that aim to harm the country and isolate it

Gulf News

The capture of the Iranian ship Jihan that was allegedly carrying arms to Yemen has raised many questions and prompted as many assumptions. The US has spearheaded the international outcry over the issue.

Iran has stoutly rejected Yemeni claims about the weapons on the ship. If Iran is to be believed, it must be assumed that the weapons were loaded on the ship at sea, after it left the Iranian port. This raises two possibilities: First, given that it was the US Navy that assisted Yemen in flagging down the ship, it is possible that the US deliberately placed the weapons on the vessel. The second possibility is that Yemeni sailors placed the weapons on the ship as part of an agreement with a third party.

Iran requested the Yemeni government to let it participate in the investigations, but was rebuffed. Iran then requested the Yemeni government to allow its foreign minister to participate in the investigations so as to clear the ambiguity and settle the issue. Yemen refused again.

Why did the Yemenis snub Iran? Given previous experience, the Yemenis perhaps suspect Iran’s motives.

The Yemeni claim about the ship’s cargo seems more realistic. After all, the ship departed from an Iranian port, some of the weapons found in the cargo were also made in Iran, and Yemen had previously thwarted four weapon smuggling attempts in the past, all of which originated from Iran.

In any case, investigations are under way, and will be completed soon. Investigations have so far revealed that the weapons were being smuggled to Al Houthis in Sa’ada, which is on expected lines. The investigation is expected to focus on identifying the sectarian affiliation of the sailors.


It is well known that Al Houthis have good ties with Iran by virtue of their sectarian affiliation. Hussain Al Houthi, the spiritual leader of the group, received his religious education in Iran many years before his death in Yemen in 2004. These ties became apparent during the war against the Yemeni regime in 2009. The war ended when Al Houthis withdrew their men from Jebel Al Dukhan.

What does this incident mean in Yemen, which is passing through a critical stage in its history? Is it possible that the incident is merely imposing facts to serve the objectives of vested interests that aim to harm Yemen, and isolate it?

The other question here is: Was the arms smuggling incident a form of trade — the delivery of free goods to a buyer — being conducted by Iran? If this is the case, then Iran has violated a UN Security Council resolution which imposes international sanctions on the country.

Another scenario is that Iran wanted to send these weapons to Al Houthis to help the group develop its military capabilities.

Many political observers agree on facts related to Iran, such as Iran’s approach to the Gulf and Middle East in general. Iran has a clear strategy and policy, and it is working on implementing it at the domestic and foreign level. Just like any other country, Iran will never care about anyone, but itself.

Iran wants world powers, led by the US, to recognise its regional relevance. It has never been confronted by regional states for its actions except for denunciations and statements broadcasted or published in the media. These have no effect on Iran.

Iran will remain a key regional political player that cannot be trifled with as long as the political realities and priorities of world powers remain unchanged. Hence, it is necessary for countries in the region to adopt a clear policy towards Iran.

The arms shipment will not be the last issue. Whoever thinks that military supplies to Yemen’s Al Houthis will stop after this incident is underestimating the issue. Yemen’s biggest and growing issue is not the ship, but the fact that someone is trying to stop the rise of a prosperous Yemen that is democratic and free.

Yemen needs to move towards real democracy by meeting the terms of the Gulf Cooperation Council power-transfer initiative signed in April 2011, but the delay makes it clear that Yemeni political powers are unable to comes to terms with the agreement.

It also means that these political groups will be incapable of standing up to challenging scenarios if the current situation continues, which will see a yawning divide between the north and south. The separation of various other areas in the country will turn the idea of a unified Yemen into a unattainable dream.

The voices of separatism and isolationism are getting louder, and ideas of confederation are no longer held in secret. There are also parties behind the scenes who have malicious designs for Yemen.

Political weight

Apparently, there is no country in the region, regardless of its political weight, that can resolve the situation in Yemen. It is only the US that can do so, particularly after statements issued by its foreign secretary in mid-February indicating that Washington is now convinced that the situation in Yemen has become more complicated.

It is essential to ensure that former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh does not sabotage the political transition. His presence in the country and his political activities will not help in the implementation of the GCC initiative.

This phase must be successfully overseen by the Yemenis in their efforts to establish state institutions and start a new phase of comprehensive development in education, health care, social services, agriculture, industry, as well as the development of natural resources.

This will create job opportunities for hundreds of thousands of Yemeni youth.

The Yemenis are the only ones who can help rebuild their country. Its neighbouring countries could have done a lot more in the past to prevent Yemen from becoming what it has. However, there are parties who do not want things to move forward. It is imperative for the Yemenis not to wait for a saviour, and to take matters into their own hands.


Mohammad Hassan Al Harbi is a writer and journalist.