The received wisdom concerning the war in Yemen is that it is the evil handiwork of a foreign agent motivated by sectarianism trying to frustrate popular demands for political reform and stability.
Insofar as this representation refers to Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states attempting to engineer an outcome favourable to their neo-colonial, politically regressive worldview, it is not too wide of the mark.
The crisis in Yemen cannot be viewed in isolation from the Arab Spring and the counter-revolution that followed. In 2011 millions of Yemenis rose up to throw off the shackles of the repression they had suffered since decolonisation. Fed up with the 33-year reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and inspired by the popular uprisings around them, they plucked up the courage to bring down the wily dictator and inaugurate a transition process that many believed would lead to a new, fairer and more representative, political landscape.
Those dreams, however, failed to materialise. Saleh was replaced by a transitional president in the shape of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a 66-year-old former general and long-serving vice-president in a move orchestrated by Yemen’s neighbours led by Saudi Arabia. In the time honoured way of Middle Eastern democracy, the western endorsed presidential election that followed featured Hadi as the sole candidate.
A National Dialogue Council (NDC) was created to smooth the way to an inclusive government but signally failed to solve some of Yemen’s intractable problems. The Houthis, a political cum religious revivalist movement with its roots in the Zaydi stream of Islam, opposed the NDC’s main recommendation that Yemen should be divided into six federal regions, fearing that it would diminish their territorial powerbase. They were also deeply suspicious of Saudi Arabia, which fears and reviles their presence on its southern border and casts the Houthis as an Iranian proxy.
Standing alongside them were the separatists in the south of Yemen who have long felt marginalised and neglected by central government and believed that the NDC had also failed to address their concerns.
And allied with both of them in a bizarre twist was the former president. Saleh fought no fewer than six wars against the Houthis during his tenure, aided and abetted by Riyadh, but ever the opportunist, he saw in the rise of the Houthis a powerful force through which to advance his personal agenda of manoeuvring his son Ahmed Ali into the presidency. Retaining the support of large sections of the military and the loyalty of some powerful tribes, Saleh is backing what he believes will be the winning horse.
That is not to detract from the fact that the disenchanted majority in Yemen harbour genuine grievances. Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Half the population is illiterate, infant mortality is high and poverty and unemployment rife in the nation of 26 million. Public services from schools to hospitals and utilities including the water supply are dysfunctional. Corruption is endemic. Under the ancien regime the patronage that underpinned the political longevity of strongman Saleh did not extend further than a few favoured tribes. Any group that was marginal to Saleh’s authority was neglected.
So contrary to popular perception the demands of Yemen’s malcontents are not unreasonable. In fact they are pretty much aligned with the aspirations of the rest of the Arab Spring: political and economic empowerment, good governance and an end to corruption and foreign interference.
Set in this context the Saudi-led military campaign launched by an alliance of Arab states including Egypt Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain under the pretext of restoring the “legitimate government” ring hollow. Having lost legitimacy and lacking national support, Hadi is at best a lame duck president and at worst a pawn in the hands of external actors. It is even more far-fetched to assume that the countries making up the alliance, largely repressive western-backed autocracies that have done everything in their power to oppose political reform at home and elsewhere in the region, are risking their own blood to uphold the fundamental rights of non-nationals (after all charity should begin at home).
The architects of ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ – a misnomer because foreign military campaigns in a country as fractious and tribal as Afghanistan have never resulted in a decisive victory – have also tried to present the aggression as necessary to stem Iranian influence in Yemen via their fellow Shia Zaydi brethren. However, Tehran’s role in the arming of the Houthis is by no means clear. According to the whistle-blowing Wikileaks website, a 2009 cable from the US Embassy in Riyadh notes that then President Saleh provided “false or exaggerated information on Iranian assistance to the Houthis in order to enlist direct Saudi involvement and regionalise the conflict.”
Another secret cable states: “Contrary to ROYG (Republic of Yemen Government) claims that Iran is arming the Houthis, most local political analysts report that the Houthis obtain their weapons from the Yemeni black market and even from the ROYG military itself.”
Desperately seeking legitimacy for their aggression, the Saudi-led coalition has also peddled the myth that the Houthis are bent on imposing Zaydi rule over the country in what would represent an expansion of Tehran’s arc of influence in the region. Again however the facts don’t support their claims. It would appear that the highly charged sectarian rhetoric coming from Riyadh in particular is designed to drive a wedge between confessional groups who have co-existed peacefully for centuries.
Zaydis and Yemeni Sunnis (mostly Shafi’i in jurisprudence) have traditionally gotten along just fine. According to the Yemeni blogger Abubakr Alshamahi it is not uncommon to find Sunnis and Shias praying side by side.
“…An example – my local mosque’s Friday sermon is delivered by an Egyptian sheikh from al-Azhar (a Sunni), the Zaydi call to prayer is given, the Imam leading the prayer is Zaydi, and the congregation is evenly split. My own family are split between Zaydis and Shafi’is, and those that prefer to call themselves just Muslim and leave the details to one side. And all was good…”
The UN says some 150,000 people have been displaced by the latest fighting, and another 12 million are short of food. Many hundreds have been killed and thousands injured – most of them civilians. There is no doubt that the military campaign is illegal, lacking as it does the approval of the UN Security Council. However, even that body is complicit in the bloodshed. Earlier this month the Security Council, amongst other things, imposed an arms embargo against the Houthis and their allies. It speaks volumes about the UN resolution that it failed to note, let alone condemn, the ongoing GCC military attacks in Yemen that have only complicated the task of finding a political solution.
It would be an insult to the people of Yemen to reduce the crisis there to an internecine sectarian conflict or regional power play. Their grievances are many and legitimate, and at their head is the right to determine their own affairs. However for the ruling western satraps in the neighbourhood, that is a demand too far because it imperils their own positions. These Gulf Arab autocracies have poured billions into reversing the achievements of the popular uprisings that swept Egypt, Libya and Bahrain. Their military intervention represents a continuation of their strategy to frustrate the legitimate aspirations of the region’s people and usurp their revolutions. Bombing Yemen is a defensive – but ultimately futile – ploy to prevent the winds of change from reaching their shores.