OPINION by Shafiq Morton
THE other day I was vilified for urging caution on what I believe was a manufactured diplomatic crisis, even a false flag event, surrounding the alleged Houthi scud attack against Makkah on 27 October.
I was called a rotten journalist, a ‘Saudi hater’, the ‘Voice of America’ and a ‘garden variety dumbass’ for questioning the veracity of the rocket being aimed at the Ka’bah. I was also labelled a ‘Shi’ah sympathiser’ for saying that labeling Shi’ah as kafir was contrary to our Sunni ethos.
I made the comments in the light of a press conference held by a local Islamic organisation condemning the Houthis for the so-called, and much publicised, Makkah assault. My words, spoken in a context far beyond the media statement, also urged that we should be aware of what is happening to Yemen. This upset a number of people – my remarks being taken out of context by social media trolls.
For the record: no, I did not criticise the organisation. And, no, I did not mention any individuals from it by name – but I must confess that it has disturbed me to see how many people have since thought that I was talking about them.
What was most disquieting was the suggestion that because I was a journalist, I had to buy unquestioningly into the group-think on Saudi, and did not have the right to interrogate geo-political issues – or to know my Deen.
As a consequence, I have decided to provide proof as to exactly why I said what I did. My reply will be in two parts – the first dealing with Yemen, where I declare false flag on the Houthi attack, and the second where I suggest we should not import the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East to South Africa.
But to Yemen, a country of shimmering oases, misty mountains and prophetic descendants bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. It straddles the southern-western edge of the Arabian Peninsula and forms the eastern flank of the Red Sea Gulf, which projects into the Arabian Sea.
Yemen’s history is ancient, rich and deep: from Neolithic times to the kingdoms of Aksum, Qahtan, Himyar and Saba to the Qur’anic tribes of the ‘Ad and the Thamud; to the Marib Dam, to the prophets Hud and Salih and to Queen Bilqis, the bride of Nabi Sulayman, master of the jinn. And finally, to Imam ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Alawi al-Haddad, the author of the Ratib ul-Haddad, a litany we all recite in Cape Town.
Prophetic traditions on Yemen
Islam came to Yemen early, in fact during the life of the Prophet [saw] and the miracle of Auwais al-Qarni becoming Muslim without seeing the Rasulullah [saw]. The Prophet [saw] mentioned Yemen favourably many times, sending the Companion Sa’d ibn Mu’adh there as its first governor. In one tradition the Prophet [saw] pointed south and said:
“True faith is yonder (in Yemen), but sternness and mercilessness are the qualities of those who are busy with their camels, and who pay no attention to the religion where the horns of Satan will appear. Such qualities belong to the tribes of Rabi’a and Mudar.”
Narrated by ‘Uqba ibn ‘Umar and Abu Mas’ud, this Hadith is an interesting cross-reference to another one which bestows blessings upon Sham and Yemen – but not the Najd – from where the Prophet [saw] said great calamities would emerge. The tribes referred to here are from the Najd, the seat of Ibn Sa’ud, which is now bombing Yemen into the dust.
And for those who say I’m a ‘Saudi hater’ – as opposed to a lover of truth – there is a further tradition that a Companion once suggested to the Prophet [saw] that the best of men were Najdi. “You are a liar,” the Prophet [saw] had replied, “the best of men are the people of Yemen. Faith is Yemeni and I am also a Yemeni.”
We do not have to elaborate further that as the contemporary Custodians of the Holy Cities, the House of Sa’ud has obliterated over 90% of our Prophetic heritage, has ensured that the Hajj and ‘Umrah have become unaffordable and that Al-Qaeda and ISIS have been able to fester as by-products of its extremist religious policies.
However, let it be said – that despite the negative traditions on the Najd and lest I be accused of being a ‘Saudi hater’ again – of course there are good people in the Najd, like there are good people anywhere else. It is for this reason that the highwayman Fudayl ibn ‘Iyad became a saint, that Abu Hanifah’s drunken neighbour became a faqih and that the king Ibrahim ibn Adham became a dervish.
The acid truth
The acid truth is that Yemen – a friendless country since the 2015 Saudi-allied bombardment – has developed into a disaster zone, just like Syria, where civilians have borne the brunt of a cruel and vicious conflict. The most recent Gulf war, which appears to benefiting only the arms industry, has witnessed horrifying scorched-earth outcomes.
Today more than 80% of the Yemeni population is in need of humanitarian assistance, one in five is internally displaced, 50% have no food, 700,000 children are malnourished, cholera is rife, over 70% have limited access to water, over 1,000 schools are dysfunctional and 14 million people have no health services. All conventional wisdom says we should be campaigning for peace in Yemen, and yet we are not.
To understand the current conflict in Yemen we have to first look at its modern history. Space does not allow room for all the complexities, but we can begin by saying that the Zaydi’s (a branch of the Shi’ah known as the ‘Fivers’ who arrived in Yemen in 893 CE) have always been the predominant class.
The Zaydis – who disagree with the Iranian and Iraqi Twelver Shi’ah on the number of Shi’ite imams, the ‘isma (or infallibility) of the imams, the hidden imam, temporary marriage (mut’ah) and the concept of taqiyyah (or dissemblance) – have always been regarded as ‘moderate’. They are about 40% of Yemen’s population, the rest being Sunni.
Yemen, a rugged country with hundreds of tribes, was never more than a nominal province during the era of the Islamic dynasties, its interior impossible to tame. The last dynasty to have any say was the Ottoman one, which collapsed in 1923. In 1803 CE the Wahhabi brigands of Ibn Sa’ud invaded Yemen, but were driven out by Egypt’s Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha 15 years later.
In 1918 Imam Yahya, a Zaydi ruler, took power in north Yemen, the stronghold of about 400 Zaydi tribes. In 1926 the rebirth of the Sa’udi house saw the province of ‘Asir succumbing to Saudi Arabia.
Yemen bruised by war
The British colonised Aden in the south in 1839 as part of ‘British India’ and in 1934, a Saudi war with Yemen saw the Treaty of Taif, which formerly recognised the borders of the two countries. In 1962 a coup in north Yemen had Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the British aiding the Zaydi royalists, with Egypt supporting the coup in what was now called the Yemen Arab Republic.
Egyptian President Jamal Nasser, acting as a Soviet proxy, committed 70, 000 troops to a difficult, draining and unproductive campaign which opened him up to defeat by the Israelis in 1967. In the meantime south Yemen – the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen – had been taken over by Marxists after the British departure from Aden in 1967.
In 1978 a young Zaydi strongman, Abdullah Saleh, took power in the north. And after a turbulent twelve years, he would be voted in as the president of a united north and south Yemen – a Yemen bruised by war, fractured in spirit, still divided by socio-economic and political issues, but nevertheless one country.
Like so many Arab states, Yemen entered the 21st century with a myriad of unresolved challenges damped down by oppressive and corrupt government. The Arab Spring of March 2011 only served, in my opinion, to open up a Pandora’s Box – and as the powerful Abdullah Saleh was forced into exile, his Sunni vice-president, Field Marshall Abdu Mansour al-Hadi, became president.
This only ratcheted up Zaydi and Houthi insecurities, which were based on political frustrations and the expansion of Al-Qaeda. This lead to an uprising in the north and the takeover of Sana’a in 2015. However, we have to quickly add that the political situation in Yemen is a lot more nuanced than just being a simple sectarian one. Abubakr Al-Shamali, writing in the Yemen Times, makes precisely this point, adding that Zaydis and Sunnis had always got on together.
Professor Thomas Juneau, Assistant Professor at Ottawa University’s School of International Affairs, adds that the Yemeni crisis has been driven more by local political grievances, and that the Houthis – actually a Zaydi resistance movement started by Hussein al-Houthi in the 1990s – are certainly not Iranian puppets as some pundits so loudly proclaim.
Juneau says that Yemen is a ‘minor investment’ for Tehran with the ‘prospect of interesting returns’. In other words, Tehran – whilst locked in a bitter Cold War with Saudi Arabia – does not have the ability to shape events in Yemen as it might wish. My contact in Sana’a, the film-maker Nasser al-Arabiyee, independently concurs with Juneau.
Writing in Time Magazine, Jared Malsin quotes Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, as saying that Iran’s military role in Yemen is ‘negligible’ as Iran is unable to ship weapons to the Houthis in large quantities because of the US naval blockade. Even a Wikileaks cable confirms no wide scale evidence of Iranian intervention, although it does refer to Iran’s ‘nefarious intentions’.
Reports in The New York Times citing claims by ‘unnamed’ US officials that the Revolutionary Guard was smuggling significant quantities of AK-47, rocket propelled grenades, and other arms to Houthi rebels in Yemen, have never gained traction.
The Israeli Institute for National Security Studies reports that Yemen does not represent an Iranian interest of high order, though it does offer the potential of a useful foothold. But with Iraq, Lebanon and Syria its prime investments, it reckons Iran could fall into the trap of an over-extension of commitments and an inability to fulfil them.
Iranian support ‘insignificant’
Yemeni political and tribal figures have consistently dismissed Iranian support as insignificant, noting that the Houthis have plenty of weapons already from Saudi Arabia, which has been supplying Yemeni factions with arms for decades.
Alexander Boylston in the Georgia Political Review says regional tensions and separatist sentiments have been brewing in Yemen ever since its unification in 1990. The 2012 election of Hadi, a southerner, was the final straw for certain parties who felt – as we’ve already mentioned – that the Zaydis in northern Yemen were losing political ground not only to the south, but to Al-Qaeda in the Arab Province (AQAP).
“The Houthis are not trying to establish something new but rather continue what has been the norm for Yemen since its unification,” he says.
Brian Whitaker of The Guardian writes that relations with Saudi Arabia have always been a central feature of Yemeni foreign policy, not just because the kingdom is the dominant state in the peninsula and Yemen’s most important neighbour, but also because the Saudis’ perception of their security needs is that they should seek to influence Yemen as much as possible in order to prevent it from becoming a threat.
Saudi interests are best served by keeping Yemen ‘on the wobble’ – though not so wobbly that regional stability is jeopardised. Before the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, this amounted to ensuring the Cold War tactic that both parts of the country focused their attentions on each other, rather than on their non-Yemeni neighbours.
My personal assessment is that the post-Arab Spring Yemeni state came into being with too many unresolved local tensions and an inadequate understanding of the transitional process that it needed for long term stability.
But to the infamous Scud attack, allegedly aimed at Makkah by Houthi forces, who fired a Volcano 1 – or Barkan 1 – scud into Saudi Arabia from the northern Saada province on 27 October. Weighing eight tons, 12.5 metres long and with a payload of half a ton of explosives, the Volcano 1 is a bulky missile with a range of 800 kms and unknown accuracy.
According to the 67-word Saudi statement, the scud was shot down by a Patriot missile 65 kms outside Makkah, and was travelling ‘towards’ the ‘Makkah area’. Why this attack was ‘special’ after six or more other rocket attacks on Saudi military targets, is easy to comprehend given that Makkah, the Holiest City in Islam, is a religious sanctuary, a place sacred to all Muslims – and an emotive rallying point second to none. The point is: claim that the Holy City is under threat and widespread reaction will be guaranteed.
However, there are too many questions surrounding the Saudi version of events. What would the Houthis, Muslims themselves, have to gain by blowing up the Ka’bah? Indeed, Houthi spokesmen were quick to deny that Makkah was their target, saying that the King ‘Abdullah military airbase, housing the RSAF’s 4th and 20th transport squadrons, at Jeddah was.
I took out a Google map and drew some lines, demarcating the Makkah province – the ‘Makkah area’– and the possible trajectory of a missile from northern Yemen. Jeddah, I discovered to my amazement, was 66 kms east of Makkah – didn’t the Saudi release say that the missile was intercepted 65 kms from Makkah?
And didn’t the original dispatch say: ‘the interception of a ballistic missile launched by Houthi militias at 21:00 Thursday evening from Saada province toward (the) Makkah area’ to which Jeddah belongs?
The Australian journalist, Michael Brull, did a similar experiment and came up with almost identical results. Like me, he found the reference ‘Makkah area’ not satisfactory grounds to conclude that Makkah had indeed been the target. According to Brull, the facts were perfectly consistent with the Houthi claim, and that that nobody had actually bothered to investigate the scud attack.
He says: “I argue that (i) there is no evidence that a missile was actually fired at Mecca, and the Saudi media dispatch is consistent with the missile being fired at the airport in Jeddah, which is also in Mecca region (not the city). (ii) The release is worded so that it praises the ‘Kingdom’, the ‘custodian of the two holy sites…’”
Brull then goes on to reprove the statement for failing to mention the dire state of the people of Yemen, as it invokes unqualified support for the Saudi kingdom. A day after the alleged attack on Makkah I received information from a source in the coalition who said that it was a false flag event designed to whip up sentiment against the Houthi movement, and by implication, Iran.
Of course, even the idea of an assault on a holy shrine – anywhere in the world – is a despicable notion that needs to be condemned in the strongest of terms, but in this case, it seems as if the Saudis – and not the Houthis – were well wide of the mark.
 Sahih Bukhari, Book of the Beginning of Creation, no. 3079 and Sahih Bukhari, Book of the Virtues of the Prophet and His Companions, no. 3261.
 Sahih Bukhari, Book of Tribulations and the End of the World, no. 6641.
 In Tabarani and Ahmad, with all the narrators in the chain authentic, or thiqah. See: Majmu’al-Zawa’id, 10/44.
 The Houthi rebel group, also called Ansar Allah, or ‘Partisans of God,’ is rooted in a movement called Believing Youth, which was formed in 1992 by members of the Houthi family led by Hussein al-Houthi.