by Thomas W. Lippman
When Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, was spreading his dominion across the Arabia peninsula nearly a century ago, one of his early decisions was to impose jizyah, the Muslim religious tax on unbelievers, on the Shiite residents of his new lands. Abdul Aziz was declaring them not to be Muslims.
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon writes that the seventh-century Persian monarch Chosroes “received an epistle from an obscure citizen of Mecca inviting him to acknowledge Mahomet as the apostle of God. He rejected the invitation and tore the epistle.” This act prompted the Prophet Muhammad to exclaim, “It is thus that God will tear the Persian kingdom, and reject the supplications of Chosroes.”
Fast-forward to Riyadh in 2011, a prominent Saudi government official, with a PhD from a university in the United States, took me aside to share a confidence. “The Shia,” he said, “is incapable of telling the truth. It is genetic.”
Those anecdotes, separated by centuries, give small clues to the historic animosities underlying the violence now savaging Yemen. Sunni and Shia Muslims, divided by irreconcilable beliefs about the succession to the Prophet’s temporal power, fell into armed conflict within a century of Muhammad’s death. Arabs and Persians are also historic enemies, their rivalry compounded by the fact that modern-day Iran embodies a political system prescribed by the Shiite formula.
For centuries those rivalries were mostly kept in check, by the Ottoman Empire and then by the British and the French. Now there is no outside force to restrain them.
That is why the current conflict in Yemen is so dangerous. It is not just about restoring the government of ousted president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power in Sanaa. By assembling a coalition of at least 10 countries to wage war against the Iran-backed rebels known as Houthis who drove out Hadi, the Saudis and their partners have turned a civil war in a marginal country into a conflict that could spill onto other battlefields.
Because the Houthis, followers of the Zaydi school of Shiism, are supported by Iran, their recent battlefield successes in Yemen have exacerbated Saudi Arabia’s fear of being surrounded by Shiite enemies – in Yemen, in Iran, in Iraq (where Shiites control the government), and even in Lebanon (where the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia is the biggest political force). Bahrain, the tiny island principality just off the Saudi coast, is ruled by a Sunni dynasty and is participating in the anti-Houthi air campaign. But its restive population is mostly Shiite, and the Saudis saw Iran’s hand behind the Arab Spring uprising against the monarchy there.
Conversely, Iran has its own fear of encirclement. It now finds itself surrounded by Sunni members of the Saudi coalition who are committed to thwarting Iran’s Houthi allies and other Iran-backed groups in the region. The coalition includes Pakistan and Turkey, which have borders with Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, just across the Gulf. Some of the countries in that coalition, including Saudi Arabia, are also part of the international campaign to bring down Iran’s only Arab ally, the minority Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
By attacking the Houthis, the Saudis and their allies are taking on the only indigenous group in Yemen confronting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an ally of the Islamic State. Both extremist groups are Sunni Muslims but none the less committed to taking out the House of Saud.
Within Saudi Arabia, the Yemen intervention could create an uncomfortable test for its minority Shiites, perhaps 10 percent of the population. The jizyah tax on them was lifted decades ago, but they have long faced systematic and sometimes hateful discrimination. They have been largely excluded from government positions and are suspected by many of their fellow Saudis of being sympathetic to Iran. Many of their community leaders have long insisted that they are not agents of Iran and seek only to be accepted as full citizens of Saudi Arabia. The Yemen intervention does not seem likely to ease those sectarian tensions within the kingdom.
At an Arab summit conference over the weekend in Egypt—also a member of the Sunni coalition—King Salman of Saudi Arabia called on the Houthis to cease their “aggression,” return to a political process, and return all weapons they have captured from the arsenals of Hadi’s government. He said they should “listen to the voice of reason and stop depending on the power of foreign forces,” meaning Iran. The military operation, he said, “will continue until these objectives are achieved.” He offered no timetable.
Is Yemen worth all the anger, all the devastation, all the casualties, all the anger, all the risk? In material terms, probably not. It is a politically divided, unstable country with dismal economic prospects. But the conflict is no longer about Yemen. It is about contests of history and identity, and whichever side loses is bound to nurse resentments that will burst out again at some time in the future.
Photo: Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi welcomed in Washington, DC in 2013