Strained by the consequences of the ongoing conflict between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, France may be destroying all prospects for peace in Yemen, in a bid to secure energy resource from the United Arab Emirates.
Considered to be home to the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history, according to the United Nations, earlier this year, its people saw glimmers of hope towards ending its seven-year long war. A ceasefire truce, which has largely held since April, has been viewed as the first step towards reaching a UN-mediated solution for peace between the Ansarallah government in Sanaa and the Saudi-led coalition forces which claim to represent the internationally backed Yemeni government in exile.
According to UN estimates, the total number of people killed in Yemen’s war already reached 377,000 by the beginning of 2022. The civilian death rate is said to have doubled, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), since the controversial withdrawal of UN human rights monitors last October.
Although Saudi coalition forces and Ansarallah, popularly referred to in Western media as the “Iran-backed Houthi rebels,” have managed to keep fighting to a minimum during the past months, another major player in the south of Yemen has recently decided to go on the offensive. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), often called Yemen’s southern separatists, are backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and declared the start of a new military operation in the Abyan province “to cleanse it of terrorist organisations.” This follows territorial gains by the STC, in neighboring Shawba province, against the Muslim Brotherhood aligned Islah Party and others. The offensives launched by the UAE-backed STC have been regarded as a major challenge to UN efforts to end the conflict in Yemen, as well as having imperiled the Saudi initiative, which it calls the ‘Yemen Presidential Council,’ aimed at solidifying the legitimacy of the alternative Yemeni leadership in exile.
Where France Comes In
Although its role is little known to the Western public, Paris is the third largest arms supplier to the UAE and Saudi Arabia for their war efforts in Yemen, ranking just behind the US and UK. In fact, Germany, Spain and Italy have also sold weapons that have been used in the devastating war. Despite criticism, from human rights groups, of French weapons being used by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to commit war crimes, the sale of weapons has continued from France.
April 15, 2019, French investigative magazine, Disclose, published an expose on Paris’s role in Yemen’s war. The information presented was based on a leaked French Military Intelligence (DRM) report dating back to September, 2018, clearly proving that the country had sold offensive weapons that were used in civilian areas, a charge that the French government has denied. As far back as June, 2018, credible reports began to emerge that French special forces units were operating on the ground in Yemen, alongside forces belonging to the UAE. Last December, Paris decided to further tighten its relationship with Abu Dhabi, signing its largest ever weapons sale to the UAE, worth 19.23 billion US dollars according to a report from Reuters.
France first turned to the US
France is now desperately in need of alternative energy suppliers to Russia, in order to meet its required needs, fearing that as the winter hits, Moscow may strategically cut off its natural gas completely. As part of NATO, Paris is backing a US-led initiative which seeks to make Russia pay an economic and military price for its offensive in Ukraine, however, this strategy has majorly backfired economically.
US President Joe Biden made two major foreign policy pledges when running for office in 2020, which are relevant to the current French predicament. The first being to revive the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and the second being to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Yemen. Due to the ongoing NATO-Russia conflict, seeking a revival of the Iran nuclear deal has re-emerged on the political agenda of the his administration in a major way. Iran, free from sanctions, could become an alternative source to fill the energy needs of Europe in the future, yet it could take some time for this to actually happen.
On the issue of the war in Yemen, Joe Biden pledged as part of his first speech on his government’s foreign policy goals, that he would hold Saudi Arabia to account and seek to find a solution to the crisis in Yemen. However, the war in Ukraine clearly changed his approach to Riyadh, so much so that Washington signaled ithe review a decision to not sell offensive weapons to the Saudi government. The US President was heavily criticized by Human Rights Watch for traveling to Saudi Arabia in July.
Despite US attempts to have Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states increase their oil production, none have yet complied in the manner that Washington had hoped for. Specifically in the cases of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it is clear that both are seeking to fast track their journey to diversify their economies. That has meant them hanging onto their strategic reserves of oil and gas, during a global energy crisis, which has made fiscal sense for them. In the cases of Venezuela and Iran, despite the US having seemingly reached out to both, neither seem to be a real replacement to Russia in the near future.
All Bets On Yemen
France is now looking for alternatives on its own. In June, the European Union announced that it had signed an agreement with Israel and Egypt. Under the deal, Israel will send gas through pipelines to Egypt, where it will then be transported to Europe. Although this may work, Tel Aviv does not have the capacity to replace Moscow as Europe’s main supplier of gas. Israel seeks to double its gas output, but in doing so is already running into potential problems over its maritime border dispute with Lebanon and its planned extraction of gas from the ‘Karish field’ in September, considered to be located in a disputed area. Lebanese Hezbollah has even threatened to strike all of Israel’s gas facilities in the event that Beirut is not given a fair deal to access its own resources.
French President, Emmanuel Macron, has attempted to persuade resource rich Algeria to become part of the EU’s solution, also going on a three-day trip to Algiers in order to mend ties. Algeria, which maintains close relations with Moscow, withdrew its ambassador from Paris for three months last year, during a diplomatic row. Macron had accused the Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s government of “exploiting memory” and “rewriting history” of the colonial era and even questioned the legitimacy of Algeria as a State prior to French settler-colonial rule there. Around 1.5 million Algerians were killed in the battle for independence from France, which its resistance eventually managed to win in 1962. The tone of the French president has now dramatically changed from that of last year, with Macron remarking that both nations “have a complex, painful common past. And it has at times prevented us from looking at the future.”
The other major alternative path that France seems to be now seeking, is through its close alliance with the UAE. As mentioned above, it has been clear for some time that Paris has been involved in supplying weapons, logistical support and even boots on the ground to its allies in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, aiding their fight in Yemen. However, it is also clear that the UAE has not been interested in cutting into its strategic oil reserves to meet the demands of Europe.
In July, as President Macron hosted the Emirati President, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, in Paris, the French ministry of economy announced a new strategic energy agreement between the UAE and France. An aide to the French president noted that France was eager to secure diesel fuel from the UAE, hinting that the cooperation agreement involving France’s ‘Total Energies’ and the UAE’s ‘ADNOC’ may be linked. Although it is unknown as to what the specifics of the “strategic agreement” are, it has been speculated that the deal could potentially be worth billions.
Then, in August, the UAE-backed STC suddenly began new offensive operations in both the Shabwa and Abyan provinces. It just so happens that the STC forces decided to take over the energy sites in the Shabwa province too. Leading human rights NGOs had urged Paris to keep in mind Abu Dhabi’s human rights abuses in the advent of the signing of the strategic energy agreement, calls clearly not heeded. On August 21st, when UAE-backed forces seized the oil facilities in Yemen’s south, it may have been with the French deal in mind. Yemen’s former foreign minister, Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qirbi stated on Twitter that “preparations are being made to export gas from the Balhaf facility in light of increased international gas prices.” This was then followed by an announcement from the parliament of the Sana’a-based National Salvation Government, warning of suspicious movement from both US and French forces.
The key Balhaf facility, in Yemen’s Shabwa province, has reportedly been turned into a base for forces belonging to the UAE, with allegations suggesting that Paris could “provide protection for the facility through the French Foreign Legion.” There are also countless reports of the UAE looting resources from Yemen, which would seem to support the idea that they could be attempting to extract them to send to France. The latest reported looting of Yemen’s resources, from June, quotes Yemeni officials as having alleged that a Gulf Aetos tanker, carrying 400,000 barrels of Yemeni crude oil, had departed from Rudum port and was being operated by the UAE.
What these offensive moves by the STC also mean, is that the Saudi-backed forces in Yemen and Ansarallah will likely also get involved in the combat too. This could mean the dissolution of the ceasefire truce between the two sides, the renewal of the Ansarallah offensive to take the oil rich Marib province from the Saudi-backed forces and the death of any potential peace initiative to end the war.
It is unlikely that Ansarallah will stay silent, if the STC are aiding in the theft of Yemen’s resources for the sake of France. One of the major reasons behind the dramatic escalation of violence last year, was the Ansarallah offensive, launched with the aim of taking out the last northern stronghold of the Saudi-led coalition, Marib. The purpose of taking the resource rich area would be to stop the looting of Yemen’s resources, which according to reports is amounting to the theft of millions of barrels per year. Some sources claim that an unofficial agreement is in place between the US and Saudi governments, to purposefully keep the resources of Yemen away from its people and instead, divert the profits to Saudi banks.
Part of the reason why there was a Yemeni revolution in 2011, then a seizure of power in 2015 by Ansarallah in conjunction with the country’s military, was the popular belief that the past two Presidents of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, were corrupt. The people of Yemen were fed up with Saleh for a multitude of reasons, primarily that he mismanaged resources, had sold out to the United States and was corrupt. President Hadi was later to be seen as a stooge, controlled completely by the Saudis.
Perhaps the biggest problem here however, is not just that Yemen is a resource rich country, with a starving population, being torn apart by foreign powers, but also that nobody even knows what their governments are involved in. On August 25, then British prime minister, Boris Johnson, stated, about rising energy bills, that “While people are paying energy bills, people in Ukraine are paying with blood”. Yet, it may turn out that for Europe to keep the lights on, the people of Yemen will pay with their blood. Except in this case, the UK, US and France can’t blame that bloodshed on Moscow, this is their own doing.