OPINION by Shafiq Morton – What country in its right mind would bomb another from the air with no boots on the ground? What country would attack a people who are its enemy’s enemy to get at its other enemy?
The answer is Saudi Arabia. The invaded people are the Houthis of north Yemen. The “other enemy” is Iran. In the convoluted politics of the Middle East where the enemy of my enemy can equally be my friend, it is often difficult to understand what is really going on.
The five million-strong Houthis – who consist of some 400 tribes and who are about 40% of Yemen’s population – are the arch-enemies of Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP are the sworn foes of the Saudi monarchy. But today, for reasons which we will explain, the Houthis are now the enemy of the House of Saud.
For the AQAP Wahhabis, the Houthis are deemed unbelievers worthy of death because they belong to a Shi’ah sect, the Zaidis. For the Wahhabis, all Shi’ah are kafir, notwithstanding that the theologically moderate Zaidi’s are deemed to be close to the Sunni Shafi’i legal school of thought.
As Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour, Yemen has been no stranger to conflict in the modern age. Unease marked the post-Ottoman era, the British maintaining a presence at Aden in the south from 1839 to 1967. Up north in 1962 the Houthi Mutawakkilite Kingdom, the first independent Arab entity of modern times, was overthrown and the Yemen Arab Republic established.
But not after great unrest, during which Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported the royalists, and Egypt and the USSR the republicans. Egypt’s president Gamal Nasser committed over 60,000 of his troops to what became a quixotic conflict, it ultimately costing him the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel.
At the heart of the Yemeni discord is the fact that the country was divided north-south during the Cold War with the south enjoying communist rule. The need to co-operate on oil and economic matters saw moves towards unity during the 1980’s. Yemeni unification took place on May 22, 1990, when the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) was united with the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), forming the Republic of Yemen.
At the helm of the new government was a strong-man from the north, Abdullah Saleh. He would stay in office until the Arab Spring. Angry Yemenis would unseat him due to corruption, human rights abuses and his alliance with the US to fight Al-Qaeda, whom he – a Houthi – secretly fostered to keep the US aid pot going.
Yemen – which is the Arab world’s historically oldest, but least developed country – is situated strategically on the south-east straits of the Red Sea. Yemen abuts the Rub al-Khali, the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert, with fertile coastal highlands to the west. The country has oil reserves, but due to political instability, they have been inadequately exploited.
With many of its young men working in the Gulf States, Yemen’s economy was bolstered by their monthly remittances. However, after the 1990 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia expelled 800,000 Yemeni workers in retaliation for President Abdullah Saleh’s refusal to support the US-led coalition.
This devastated the already fragile Yemeni economy where nearly 50% of the population hovers under the bread line. The economy would take another hit in 1994, making Yemen largely reliant on aid to survive. With its laudably humane – but financially unsustainable – policy of offering open refuge to those affected by tumult in Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Syria, Yemen hosts 250,000 foreign refugees in addition to its internally displaced 400, 000.
But whilst there are religious agendas at play, the real struggle in Yemen is a political one. What has been happening has been about power: north-south power; Houthi political power and Sunni political power; this all balanced against Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies feeling uneasy after President Obama’s rapprochement with Tehran.
Apart from perceiving Iran as a mortal enemy in terms of regional affairs, Saudi perspectives are weighed heavily by the Wahhabi creed of regarding all Shi’ah as an undesirable influence. With US capacity for intervention in the Middle East waning, Saudi Arabia perceives an urgency to become the region’s number one broker.
So when a “Shi’ah crescent” sweeps from the north into the capital Sana’a and to Aden, alarm bells will ring in the marble palaces of Riyadh. Despite Houthi leadership having adamantly denied any direct Iranian influence, the Saudi-led coalition has seen it that way.
This has prompted the Saudi-Gulf coalition bombing and support for the government of President Mansur al-Hadi. The point here, as we’ve already mentioned, is that Yemen has no tradition of Shi’ite-Sunni sectarianism. However, outside powers have disturbingly taken sides along those lines.
This, of course, doesn’t address the delicate issue of the balance of power in Yemen, a harsh and rugged country that was historically ruled by the Houthis for centuries before the colonialists arrived. The tragedy is that prior to the Houthi uprising – fuelled by notions of being marginalised – Yemen was wobbling towards a political equilibrium of sorts, despite AQAP insurrections.
Unfortunately, the Saudi coalition – expressing a desire that the bombing would persuade the Houthis to come to the political table again – has in the short term achieved the opposite. Instead, by hobbling the Houthis the Saudi coalition has empowered AQAP, and even the Islamic State, to rush into a vacuum once policed by the Houthis.
This does not bode well for Yemen, a starving country short of water and infrastructure that can ill afford any more calamities than it has already suffered.
Shafiq Morton is a photojournalist, the anchor of VOC’s Drivetime show, and an author of three books: Notebooks from Makkah and Madinah; Surfing Behind the Wall, My Palestinian Story; Imtiaz Sooliman and the Gift of the Givers.