Abstract: War in Yemen involves old enemies yet has roots in contemporary global tensions. The focus is on a tribal group, the Houthis and news media have distorted the history and motives of this group. Considerable cultural understanding and background are necessary to have a clear picture of the war and the local as well as international players. History of the Saudis rise to power and their religious association with the Wahhabi movement and Saudi support for its proselytizing activities abroad and especially is a central element to understand the conflict. Also important is the history of imperialism in the area, especially the Ottoman and British invasions.
Key Words: Houthis, Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, Iran, Sunni, Shia, water, oil
Today the news is focused on the war in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and the idea of an opposition of geographic frontlines between Shia and Sunni populations. This ignores the fact that these populations are spread out over the Middle East and the north of Africa and southern parts of Eurasia unevenly and in most areas are intermixed. A simple view of this distribution (leaving out immigration to Europe and the Americas) is shown in Figure 1. Arguments of Saudi and Iranian confrontations take place outside of reality as the Shia are already in Saudi Arabia as there are Sunni in Iran. The threat from Yemen is not that the Houthi might drive from Sana’a to Mecca (about the distance from Los Angeles to Portland, given an indirect road system) but that the Saudi regime might collapse both due to outside pressure and internal stress. Thomas Hegghammer (2008) has given a concise analysis why this is unlikely though possible, yet past threats were blunted by the Saudis calling in the Egyptian military as they have done now.. Hegghammer (2008) reviews the history of Saudi repression and it is chilling how the kingdom has maintained a brutal silence over the past near 100 years. Nevertheless, while a moderately secular Iraq became a substantial threat to Saudi rule under the
Figure 1 Dark green nominal Shia, light green basically Sunni
Baathist Party as it did Iran (Khadduri, 1988; Khan, 1975), revolutionary Iran posed a combined threat of Shia sect and democratic change. Saudi continuity and hegemony depend substantially on western power and the implication that no change to its existence or authority will be tolerated by the west. The continued resistance of the Houthis to Saudi hegemony is seen by the west in almost black and white Sunni-Shia opposition, mixing the Iranian threat with fundamentalism. A more wrong-headed conception is hard to imagine, yet western fantasies about the Middle East have been so consistently devoid of fact, as Edward Said noted (Said, 1978; 1981), one should not be surprised.
But an opposite trend has also occurred within this readjustment. For example, in the case of Saudi Arabia, where its internal tensions from the process of modernization (Al-Yassini, 1982) were defused at home (which peaked with the repression of the November 20th, 1979 attacks on Mecca and Medina by Juhaiman). But they were successfully projected onto other points of the region by geopolitical events as in the creation of the jihadis for resistance of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the struggle against ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia (Hegghammer, 2008) . The success of the Saudis in this projection continues today in Syria, Libya, Chechnya, Iraq, Somalia and Central Africa, India, Pakistan and Indonesia and the Philippines. The uprisings against Saudi rule, as in the Arab Spring, were quickly repressed and redirected. This genius of Wahhabism is behind both the export of jihadism as well as the repression at home and is a remarkable development.
Saudi Wahhabism was brought to power by the British in their support of Abd al-Aziz or Ibn Saud with arms and advice before the First World War to undermine Ottoman attempts to suppress the violent fanaticism of Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad Ibn Sa’ud that followed their uprisings after 1746 (Al-Yassini, 1982; Wilson and Freeth, 1983). What is contradictory is that while the west concentrates on militant groups in various Islamic countries that are fighting for Sharia law and an Islamic state, this is what Saudi Arabia has now and has promoted abroad through its donations, foreign aid and educational foundation activity. But as Doran (2004) notes, the Saudi government has a long history of promoting conservative Islam, trying to balance its role in a secular and Christian dominated world and yet attempt to limit the role of Shia Islam.
The consequences of this support have stemmed from the creation of the totalitarian state of the Saudis and the spread of fanatic Wahhabism by the use of oil money. In the past two decades increasing international confrontations and competition for resources have escalated. Current assaults on national territories from Yemen to Columbia in search of a pacification of activities that are seen as “terrorist” and inconsistent with global capitalism often reflect a process of repression of local political resistance to development (Abbot, 2015; Feldman, 1994; Shah, 2013). Actors are frequently left little recourse to peacefully resist after corrupt legal processes deny their standing to block development. These pressures are bound together as in the case of Saudi based Wahhabi proselytizing and regional (e.g. Egyptian bombardment of Sa’da) and international intervention (Soviet and American client support) (Hamidi, 2009). Yemen was divided into north and south portions between the British (south) and Ottoman (north) at the beginning of the 20th century. Main resistance to outside control, whether Ottoman in the 16th and 17th centuries or British has been from the Zaydi. Yet Zaydi influence has been contested by Sunni Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia and that conflict has continued to the present (King, 2012). The present Houthi rising can be seen as a continuation of this conflict.
Houthi History and Identity
One should keep in mind the Houthis have legitimate issues and these date back to the British and Ottoman period, the Cold War contest of north and south as well as the role the people of the Marran were to play in the time of Badr al-Din al-Huthi. Al-Huthi was both a Zadyi religious leader and member of the Yemeni parliament at one time and gave voice to the aspirations of the people of the interior. The people of the Marran and other interior areas had long pressed for a voice in government and complained of the corruption in the capital. Yemen’s historic north and south divisions created tensions along this regional line between the British (south) and Ottoman (north) at the beginning of the 20th century. Main resistance to outside control, whether Ottoman in the 16th and 17th centuries or British has been from the Zaydi. Yet Zaydi influence has been contested by Sunni Wahhabi from Saudi Arabia and that ideological conflict has continued to the present (King, 2012). The present Houthi rising can be seen as a continuation of this conflict. Al-Huthi led a regional movement for self-government and the government put a bounty on this head of $55,000. He was hunted down and murdered some time between June of 2004 and the 10th of September 2004 (Hamidi, 2008). Numerous claims concern al-Huthi’s intentions, separate state, revolution, etc. and claims of his assassination have been rejected by the government.
Aside from the Western Soviet support for different elements in Yemen’s history, with Soviet (Russian) involvement going back to 1928 and an agreement followed shortly after 1926, when Imam Yahya declared himself king of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, becoming a temporal as well as a spiritual leader as a Zaydi. It is possible that the Zaidiyya originate in the 8th century schism of Islam, but it is more likely that the foundation for Zaidiyya was a fertile culture of independence and separate identity long present in Yemen.. Yemen is a land of tribes and its relation to the Saudis has been tenuous or hostile, not only in the loss of territory as in 1934, but in the presence of separate Yemeni tribes that dominate routes into the Saudi peninsula or the water resources along the border. Water has been a substantial problem in recent years as pressure for farmed products has changed needs and destabilized water rights and usage (Lichtenthäler, 2000).
The Houthis come from the Marran region of Sa’da district and Hashimi scholars. The Saudis (Sunnis) have pressured the Zaydis in northern Yemen ever since producing war in 1934. Saudi and Egyptian forces invaded the country sparking a war in the 1960s. After the national reconciliation of 1970 and in 1990 a unification of north and south took place after liberation of the south from the British. Saudi intervention continued resulting in civil war and has continued its interference with money and the infiltration of proselytizing. Houthis are opposed to al-Qaeda and ISIS yet neither they nor Saudi elements have sufficient support to rule the country.
Saudi Destabilizing Influence and Fragility
Saudi influence has been historically destabilizing and corrosive. The bombing and death toll of civilians parallels that of the past. While the world condemns ISIS and the Taliban for destroying and defacing artifacts there is hardly a squeak at the damage Saudi bombs are doing today.
Figure 2: Saudi destruction of 2,500 year old UNESCO World Heritage Site in old city of Sana’a.
From 1962 to 1970 Egypt invaded Yemen at the bequest of the Saudis. The war did not go well and the losses to the 70,000 troops in men and material were telling and have been noted as a factor in the poor showing of Egyptian troops in the 1967 war with Israel. Today Egypt is faced with internal unrest as well as involvement in a minor war in Libya and ISIS in the Sinai. A draining war in Yemen could collapse the Egyptian government and open the Saudis to a greater problem than before. To explain this we have to realize the handicaps the Saudis have and why their regime could disintegrate.
Figure 3: Saudi-Egyptian damage to historic sites in Marran in 2004 from Hamidi (2009)
Saudi Fragility, Foreign Workers and Repression
Saudi Arabia’s population is just under 30 million; Yemen’s about 25 million. A third of the Saudi Army is made up of Houthi Yemenis and related tribes. About 20% of the Saudi population is Shia and about one-third of the population are immigrants from poor countries, especially places like Pakistan and Indonesia. I would predict that the Houthi (Shia) have about the same potential for overthrowing the ruling absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia as the Saudis do of pacifying Yemen. Yet Saudi arms buildup, especially purchases of weapons and helicopters has been seen as a destabilizing element in the area (Sugrue, 2010).
Again, the Houthis have legitimate issues and the west has bet on the Saudis who have used their money to spread their fundamentalist Wahhabi sect which is at the heart of the struggle in Yemen. It is hard to construct a narrative to support the Saudi government. It is spreading fundamentalism across the region and into Asia and Africa, it sits as a minority of a minority in its territory ruling by terror and its military intrusion into Bahrain in 2011 (Blincow, 2011) to save the ruling family there showed the cruelty and violence they are willing to engage.
Figure 4 Ottoman Empire
Iran, Oil Prices and the Nuclear Negotiations
One of the interesting aspects of the current confrontation in Yemen is the framework it appears in, for example, the negotiations with Iran over nuclear issues. One would imagine that Iran, appearing to want the treaty and sanctions lifted, would be less likely to be fomenting the Houthi. Their cooperation in Iraq with the Iraqi regime vs ISIS seems to support this idea. Yet the media presents an active Iranian support for the Houthis (Dorell, 2015). Nevertheless, Yemen is more complex than that simple view, one has to been in mind that the former president Salah who is now (with his substantial supporters) allied to the Houthis, has waged war against them twice (Barron, 2008).
But from another frame of reference one can see that those in the oil and gas industry might want to both:
- cut back Saudi oil production to allow the price of oil to rise to stop losses in oil sales (given the drop in oil price has created huge losses where producers have sold futures or leveraged sales over time), or those who have losses or potential losses in oil derivatives and other contracts, as well as the fracking industry that is taking punishing losses and the storage oil and gas people. They all have an interest in forcing the Saudis to act and the Houthi are certainly an opportunity for these people to use (perhaps not actively) and their support of Houthi rebels (in a propagandist sense perhaps) is as a means of putting pressure on the Saudis.
- They might want to punish the Saudis for their intransigence in not cutting production in the first place to balance production to keep prices high. So support of the Houthis could easily come from other sources (including Russia a supporter of Shia regime of al-Assad in Syria) not just Iran. The USA pushes in Ukraine and the Russians in the Middle East, while it smacks of the Cold War the potential for resolution seems remote, yet the people of both regions have few possibilities to stop either conflict. But the creation of ISIS, whether a part of a distinct plan by US authorities (as America’s Senator Rand Paul has recently claimed, Associated Press, 2015), has changed the focus of the jihadist war of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda to a religious/ethnic war of Sunni vs Shia vs Christian, Kurd, etc. (Ackerman, Malik & Khalili, 2015) that looks more like the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s. al-Qaeda in Yemen has been attempting to gain territory and support of local populace and the Houthi have been opposed to their presence (Ghobari. 2014).
Certainly the Houthis do not appear to be either well funded, armed or represented in the media. Some Middle Eastern experts come close to describing them as anti-state nihilists (Shakdam, 2014)
With the Saudi overlords gone the entire Middle East would be open to tremendous change, not just in terms of the Sunni-Shia conflict but in terms of the distribution of wealth and power. Borders would immediately come under crushing pressure and might evaporate, they are only barely holding today across Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Minor political entities ruled by rich families like Kuwait and Bahrain would likely disappear completely. Yemen seems, however, likely to continue to suffer the attentions of regional powers and international intrigues.
This is a really fascinating crisis.
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