Yemen, the poorest nation in a region known for its riches and conflicts, has become the latest theatre of war. Only four months ago, US President Barack Obama had hailed the Arab country as a successful example of what the Washington-led war on terror can achieve. That narrative has spectacularly sunk to the bottom of the Gulf of Aden.

The latest flare-up is rooted in a long-simmering conflict. To explain it in brief, in one corner is the Western-backed (read US and Saudi Arabia) government, currently led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had taken over from Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 after an uprising. In the other corner are the Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who are widely considered to be backed by the Iranian regime (although the Houthis deny it).

Though not new, the conflict has become another arena where Saudi Arabia can look to corral Iran’s growing regional influence. Riyadh’s paranoia about Iran has led it to build a pan-Arab military coalition that is orchestrating air strikes against the Houthis. The rebels have made considerable advances in and around the capital region of Sana’a, and are progressing towards the southern port town of Aden, where President Hadi has been camping since February because of the supposed home region loyalties and advantage.

With the violence escalating, the Indian government has been fairly quick to orchestrate the extraction of its citizens from Yemen. The Indian Navy and Air Force have been pressed to evacuate people using the small coastal African nation of Djibouti as the base. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken to the king of Saudi Arabia on the issue, Minister of State for External Affairs Gen VK Singh has been dispatched to Djibouti to oversee the operations.

The Indian Embassy in Yemen has already used Aden to get the first 350 people out on INS Sumitra. It now plans to send another vessel there with a capacity of 1,500. Simultaneously, the government is looking to use the reportedly damaged airport of Sana’a to fly more people out after negotiating flight ops with Riyadh. The Air Force’s first C17 Globemaster transport aircraft with Short-Takeoff-and-Landing capabilities, which has already reached Djibouti, can operate from a damaged runway.

None of this has been easy of course. Even though India has orchestrated evacuations flawlessly in recent times from countries such as Iraq and Libya, Yemen has proved to be a bigger challenge. In a tweet External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj explained that the situation was “very complex”, with the Sana’a airport being under the control of Yemen (no clarity on whether under Hadi’s government or Houthi rebels) and the airspace being under the control of the Saudis.

Fortunately for India, it has a deep defence understanding with Riyadh, and the Saudis have assured that they will do whatever they can in aiding India’s evacuation efforts. Riyadh has also announced that it has ‘secured’ all of Yemeni coastline, which for now sounds improbable since it is more than 1,900km long.

Other than logistics, the other problem the Indian government may face is the general unwillingness of some Indians to be rescued from the conflict zone. Many Indians who reach West Asia take big loans to make this migration successful. This is particularly true for those who come from the southern Indian states and those who end up working as nurses, contract labourers and truck drivers in the region.

According to a report in The Indian Express, Indian nurses working in Yemen, who have been only paid thrice in two years, have refused to return due to the burden of debt that awaits them at home. As no state-based relief or rehabilitation processes exist for such expatriates, many Indians find no options but to stay put and continue to work while risking their lives.

More problems in the future

By all signs, it appears the conflict in Yemen will run on for long. As it stands, the nation is caught between parties interested in its stability and instability. There is of course the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that includes the likes of Qatar, Egypt, UAE, Jordan and may include Pakistan. There are the Houthis, who supposedly enjoy the support of Iran and are backed by their foe-turned-friend, former president Saleh. And then there is the growing clout of the Islamic State, the existence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula besides assorted tribal sects who have joined the Houthis’ cause out of desperation.

The Houthis, whose rise has been attributed by some to Riyadh’s “religious interference” in Yemen’s politics and tribal lands, have larger agendas. They do not see their version of Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam as limited to Yemen. In a BBC documentary titled Yemen: The Rise of the Houthis, a spokesperson for the movement said they cannot be “defined by sect or borders” and will help “oppressed people” everywhere.

How the Yemeni crisis plays out will no doubt have implications for a multitude of issues. It will impact the military balance in the region, particularly since the US is minimising its presence there, and how the power centres of Shiite Islam in Iran and Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia play their cards. With Iran already fighting a proxy war in Iraq, Riyadh had more reasons to militarily interfere in Yemen, which it had done on more than one occasion in the past. Saudi Arabia is hoping that its action will yield the additional benefit of undercutting Iran in Iraq and the ongoing nuclear talks in Switzerland. But there is also the possibility that Iran-backed militias fighting ISIS in Iraq could react to the events in Yemen by turning their backs on the US-backed Iraqi forces. Whichever scenario comes true, there could be extended problems for everyone in the larger West Asian region.