by James Spencer
The conflict in Yemen is frequently described as sectarian, with the Houthis usually described as “Shi’a.” In fact, the situation in Yemen, tragic as it is for Yemenis caught up in it, is far more political than sectarian and shows the multi-layered intricacies of Middle East politics, both nationally, and internationally.
The first thing to note is that the issue is not sectarianism: Fifty years ago, the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia supported its fellow monarch, the Zaydi Imam of Yemen, against the (mostly Sunni) Republicans backed by President Nasser of Egypt. After this North Yemen civil war ended, the Saudis gave refuge to many of the Imam’s family, and there are also many Zaydi Shi’a tribesmen in the (formerly Yemeni) Saudi provinces of ‘Asir and Najran. Nor did the Saudis have any qualms about working with Ali Abdallah Salih, a nominal Zaydi, or the many other Zaydi (and Shafa’i) Yemeni notables on their Special List, who received handsome stipends from the Saudi Ministry of Defense.
Nor does Yemen have a history of sectarianism. The Houthis fought sections of the (Zaydi) Hashid tribal confederation to get through Amran—but those sections were aligned with the al-Ahmar family, political rivals of the Houthis. Similarly, although the Houthis have pushed south of Dhamar into more Shafa’i (Sunni) areas and met resistance, much of this pushback is also for reasons of politics (these tribes come from the Madhhaj confederation). There are also more mundane reasons. For instance, a headline in the Yemen Times from November ran “Houthis Clash with Tribesmen in Dhamar,” but the body of the article notes that the “deputy director of the Dhamar Security Bureau [said] that the Bayt Hanash tribe has been collecting taxes from residents in the area for many years. ‘The Houthis are attempting to re-organize things, and bring everything under the supervision of the government.’”
The main people raising the sectarian cry are the Salafist al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: “Always virulently anti-Shia, AQAP was quick to proclaim itself as the defender of the Sunnis against the ‘rafidah,’ a derogatory term meaning ‘those who reject,’” according to a CNN report. That’s not to say that southerners aren’t afraid of the Zaydis, but not on sectarian lines: rape and pillage are an ever-present danger, as the Adenis experienced when troops and militia from northern Yemen “liberated” their city in 1994.
At the national level, the real issue is between those who want the maintenance of the status quo, which favors privileged elites and their patronage networks, and those who had hoped to gain from the Arab Spring (the Street, the Houthis, the southern “Hirakis”) but were outmaneuvered by the elites in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative. For instance, the issue that precipitated the Houthis seizing Hadi’s chief of staff, Ahmad Awadh, and then blockading the president, was Hadi’s plan to draw the boundaries of the federal regions to minimalize the Houthis’ position and potential, to which they had already objected strongly. There is also an aspect of re-balancing between the Hashid Confederation, which had mostly been on the Republican side during the Civil War, and the larger Bakil Confederation, which had been more Royalist, and thus lost influence after the war.
Then there’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, snake dancer extraordinaire, who left office unwillingly, and only partly, and is probably trying to maneuver his son Ahmad into the presidency. The elder Saleh has concluded a tactical pact with the Houthis to seize Sana’a, and then Aden. Both sides know that this will not last—there is even a rumor that Saleh has offered to betray the Houthis in return for lifting the UN sanctions on him—but they will co-operate as long as it is in their mutual interests.
At the regional level, the Houthis have often been described as Iranian-backed. Despite much skepticism (and finally outright denial by Ali Abdullah Saleh), there is some evidence that Iranian Special Forces have begun to provide limited training to the Houthis. But Iran is probably also backing Sayyid Ali Salim al-Baidh’s faction of (Shafa’i) Hirak, the southern separatists.
The Prospect of Iranian Influence
Here lies one of the key issues: Iranian influence-building in Yemen, which Saudi Arabia sees as its sphere of influence and its Achilles’ heel. There is a tale that on his deathbed, Abd al-Aziz al-Sa’ud warned his sons that “good or evil for us will come from Yemen,” and many Yemenis believe that Saudi Arabia wishes to keep its demographically larger, fractiously democratic neighbor in a state of creative instability that doesn’t quite tip into chaos. They cite the Special List as proof. The Saudis find the prospect of Iranian support in its backyard—and the destruction of the Saudi patronage system—horrific.
Proponents of the “Iranian-backed Houthis” school of thought find evidence in the release of Iranian military-linked personnel, the memorandum of understanding re-establishing daily flights to Tehran, and the visit by a high-level Houthi delegation to Iran. But the delegation returned with rather less than they had hoped for, which shows the depth of Persian, Twelver Shi’a backing for these Arab, Fiver Shi’a people. And these proponents seem to miss the precipitating factor, namely the suspension of Saudi aid to Yemen after the Houthi takeover, and overlook the fact that the Houthis’ first effort was to send a delegation to Russia with a similar mission. Like their pact with Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis have shown themselves pragmatic, not ideological, in their external dealings.
Iran’s shadow on Yemen is certainly the proximate reason for Saudi action, but not necessarily the whole of it. Like the Israelis, the Saudis and other Gulf states are rightly concerned that an Iran re-integrated within the international community and with sanctions removed will push its hegemonic ambitions even more aggressively than now. The Saudi-led attack on the perceived Iranian proxies in Yemen is therefore something of a pre-emptive strike as well as a marker.
The Saudi attacks were possibly intended to provoke the Iranians into military response and thus spoil the nuclear talks with the P5+1 in the last few days before the deadline. However, they were more likely both a military demonstration to Iran and a means of venting Sunni Arab frustration at the talks. US actions—in particular the replacement of GCC-led air attacks on ISIS in Tikrit and Mosul—may be a message of continuing US military support in the region, even as the US appears ready to ramp down its direct confrontation with Iran.
The Saudi “Coalition of the Willing”
At first glance, the Saudi “coalition of the willing” seems to be the GCC plus the enlarged-GCC candidates Jordan and Morocco, with Egypt and possibly Pakistan ranged alongside. The latter two countries have low GDPs per capita, have received extensive financial support from the Gulf, and have periodically supplied troops to Saudi Arabia (as well as the UN). Turkey has also voiced its support for the operation. Strangely, so has Sudan, which until late last summer was friendly to Iran, to Saudi displeasure.
As interesting perhaps are the countries that are missing. Oman, for instance, has some major differences from its fellow GCC monarchies. In particular it is Ibadi (the third sect of Islam) and has no wish to be a minority in a federal union. Indeed, Oman has made it very clear that it is happy with a loose GCC community but has no intention of being subordinate to the Saudis.
Oman has long and consistently cultivated a Switzerland-like attitude of armed neutrality. This allows it to play an intermediary role, much like Qatar (albeit with less funds to ply), in such initiatives as the initial US-Iranian nuclear talks or the US hikers captured in the area bordering Iraq and Iran. Oman also looks across the Straits of Hormuz to Iran and is very aware of the risks of provoking Iran. Oman also has experience of both Shafa’i Yemeni and Ja’afari Shi’a Iranian forces: the former tried to divide the country while the latter—albeit under a former regime—helped successfully defend it. Pakistan also appears somewhat wary of irritating its neighbor by joining a coalition against it.
The surprise—and rapidity of action—of the attacks on the Houthis might suggest that the coalition is ad hoc and temporary. Yet in early March 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Saudi King Salman only a day after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was in Riyadh and only a few days before Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the monarch. Those meetings suggest that the coalition is far more deliberate. Indeed, the Saudis might be trying to make an opportunity out of a crisis and tighten the ad hoc coalition into a more enduring political and military alliance under their leadership. The location of the headquarters of the Arab League military force will likely show if the Saudis have succeeded.
This joint military force may turn out to be as insubstantial as various European forces, and for the same reasons. “The Arabs” face various religious and sectarian divisions: all three Islamic sects, with their myriad sub-sects, as well as sizeable Christian, and other religious, minorities). They are also riven with politics: among the coalition assembled by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques are countries ruled by the Commander of the Faithful (Morocco) and the Sharif of the Hijaz (Jordan), as well as Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman Turkey and al-Sisi’s neo-Nasserite Egypt. Also missing from the Arab League force, but part of the coalition, are two large and martial non-Arab countries: Pakistan and Turkey. Although it is more likely that the Arab League Force will come to nothing, there is a small risk that it will be “captured” by another pretender to the title of regional hegemon.
What’s afoot in Yemen may look like a bit of “brushfire fighting”, or possibly a sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’a. In reality, it is another theater in the struggle between the Arabs and the Persians, and among the Arabs for leadership. Yemen merely provides the beautiful backdrop to such geopolitical drama.
Photo: Ali Abdullah Saleh
James Spencer is a retired British infantry commander who specialized in low-intensity conflict. He is an independent strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen.