In the third week of July 2015, the port, airport and presidential palace in Aden, the historic city at the mouth of the Red Sea, fell into the hands of forces representing the ousted Yemeni president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, marking the first success in the counter-assault mounted by Saudi-led forces against the Houthis, which had begun at the end of March 2015. In this period, Yemen, described as the poorest country in the Arab world, has witnessed some extraordinary violence and wanton destruction in which 4,000 people have been killed, major cities have been severely damaged, over a million people have been displaced, and six million face famine conditions. Yemen, described by ancient historians as Arabia Felix [Happy Arabia] on account of its natural riches, fertile soil and verdant hills, is now in meltdown.
The roots of this parlous situation go back to the origins of the republic. Not enjoying the oil revenues that transformed its neighbours’ lives, Yemen generally led an obscure life for much of the last century. It did capture world attention for a while when it experienced the republican overthrow of its old ruling imamate in 1962 and the attendant six-year civil war in which the forces of revolution, backed by Egypt, fought the forces of status quo, supported by Saudi Arabia. The republicans won the war at great cost: at least 25,000 Egyptian soldiers lie buried in the soil of Yemen.
But the civil war gave leadership in North Yemen to a band of modern, educated, reformers who inculcated in their people a sense of shared nationhood that superseded traditional tribal, religious and sectarian affiliations. For a few decades at least, when the modernists led the nation, the republican ideal retained its appeal and obtained grudging acceptance from tribal chiefs, and religious and sectarian leaders. In South Yemen, on the other hand, at the end of colonial rule in 1968, leadership went into the hands of the local communist party, which remained in power till unification of the two Yemens in 1990.
The national ideal in North Yemen got corroded through the 1980s because of two main reasons. First, there was the natural attrition pertaining to the first generation of leaders and the accompanying reluctance of younger educated Yemenis to return to their country to replace them. The American authority on Yemen, Asher Orkaby, has noted that in 2014 at least 30,000 educated Yemenis were working abroad.1 This was mainly due to the second contributory factor: the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, first, from 1978 over North Yemen, and then from 1990 over united Yemen, after a short military campaign in which the communist forces were defeated.
Saleh sustained his long reign through a patronage network based on the appeasement of different power blocs – tribal, religious, sectarian and regional – what he himself described as “dancing on the heads of a thousand snakes.”2 The national wealth was freely distributed among these interest groups, while the bulk of the population remained mired in unemployment and poverty, and national institutions remained fragile and powerless. Hence, as Orkaby has noted, “tribal, religious and regional divisions (began) to overshadow the nationalism of previous decades.”3 The Houthis have emerged from this breakdown in national cohesion.
Breakdown of national unity
Before unification, North Yemen was dominated by the Zaydi community, a Shia community that accepts Zayd bin Ali as the fifth imam; hence, the Zaydis are also referred to as “Fivers”, to be distinguished from those who accept all twelve imams and are called “Twelvers” and who are predominant in Iran. The Zaydis are doctrinally believed to be closest to the Sunnis, it being said of them that they are ‘Shias among Sunnis and Sunnis among Shias’. North Yemen was ruled by a Zaydi imamate that traced its lineage to Prophet Mohammed for nearly a thousand years until it was overthrown in the civil war of the 1960s.
In the civil war, the royalists were supported by a Zaydi clan called Houthi. The Houthis shared in the royal defeat and retreated to their mountain fastness in the northern Saada province on the Saudi border. Over the next two decades, they felt victimised by two policies pursued by President Saleh: the systematic neglect of the northern provinces and the steady marginalisation of the Zaydi community in terms of the distribution of political power and economic benefits in an order that clearly privileged the Sunni community, particularly after unification when the Sunnis constituted about 60 per cent of the population.
In the mid-1990s, the clan leader, Hussain Badr al Deen al Houthi, who had been much-inspired by the Islamic Revolution in Iran as a youth, headed a student group to revive Zaydism. Called Al Shabaab al Monineen [“Believing Youth”], the group, at its peak, had about 20,000 members. This movement confronted the spread of Wahhabi influence both culturally and politically. However, at the turn of the century, Hussain came to believe that the serious challenges facing the community needed to be confronted through a more radical approach; he is quoted by a contemporary associate as saying: “You can’t change society through a cultural movement. You have to have an extremely radicalised group, built on revolutionary and military discipline.”4
Besides the Houthi movement, the breakdown of national unity has also given rise to two other movements, the separatist movement in the south, referred to as Al Hirak, and the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]. Al Hirak has its origins in the coming together of disgruntled government and army officers in south Yemen, who were retired from service after the defeat of the separatist forces in the civil war of 1994 and were demanding reinstatement in service. In response to Saleh’s harsh measures against them, they evolved into a secessionist movement.
Al Hirak is, however, not cohesive, and has different strands which turn to different patrons for support: one of its key leaders, Ali Salem al Beidh, a senior politician from the south, was once suspected of close links with Iran and even Hezbollah.5 Later, there were reports that al Beidh had had several meetings with the Houthis, inspiring speculation that they were discussing a possible division of the country into a Houthi-dominated north and an Al Hirak-controlled south.6 As the conflict in Yemen has escalated, other local and regional players have tried to co-opt Al Hirak to their side, including Saleh, Hadi, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).7
AQAP was established in Yemen in January 2009, representing the coming together of Al Qaeda’s branches in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. With several hundred members, it is said to be the most active and dangerous of Al Qaeda’s franchises, having been associated with:
- the attack on the then Saudi deputy interior minister [now crown prince], Prince Mohammed bin Naif, in August 2009;
- the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab in December 2009; the cargo plane bomb plot of October 2010;
- the suicide attack on Yemeni soldiers in May 2012 in which 120 people were killed;
- the December 2013 attack on the Yemeni defence ministry;
- and recently, in January 2015, the Charlie Hebdo killings in France.
In early 2011, AQAP is said to have re-named itself Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, and taken control of Yemeni territories in the Abyan province and other parts of the south.
Thus, as competitions and conflicts emerged in Yemen in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, disgruntled elements lurking beneath the surface took advantage of the widespread demands for reform and replacement of the Saleh regime and asserted their claims for: greater participation in the national political and economic order (the Houthis); freedom from northern oppression (Al Hirak), and greater doctrinal purity and destruction of ‘near’ and ‘far’ enemies (AQAP). In this boiling cauldron of domestic contention, two regional nations have been active role-players – Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi-Iran competition in Yemen
The British scholar Peter Salisbury has described Saudi policy in Yemen as “containment and maintenance” in terms of which the Kingdom has supported the ruling regime and the various power centres while at the same time ensuring a continued level of “state dysfunction”.8 Thus, though Riyadh had backed the imamate in the civil war, after the republican triumph it became, in Salisbury’s words, “a direct patron of both the Yemeni government and tribal and military leaders in the 1980s, paying them monthly stipends for much of the thirty years of the Saleh regime’s existence.”9
Saudi Arabia also supported the expansion of Salafi influence by placing Saudi clerics in Zaydi mosques in order to undermine the influence of Zaydi leaders. As a result, “a number of republican military officers and tribal leaders of Zaydi heritage convert[ed] to Sunni Islam” in order to benefit from Saudi largesse.10 Saudi funding also came to dominate the area of religious education. Under the leadership of the Sunni cleric, Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, a number of so-called “scientific institutes” were set up across North Yemen where Wahhabi-Salafi teachings were imparted. Several students of these schools later participated in the Afghan jihad.
Saudi Arabia became an influential role-player in Yemeni politics through its sponsorship of the Islah party. Set up in 1990, Islah remains a conglomerate of several interest groups, including tribal chiefs, Salafi sheikhs and doctrinaire Muslim Brotherhood elements. The party’s diverse membership has made it quite pragmatic in terms of its programme: while advocating reform of all aspects of national life on the basis of Islamic principles, it is at the same time content to support a “gradual approach”.11 Again, though its core tenets are Sunni, its leadership has included Zaydi tribal chiefs such as Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussain Al Ahmar who, until his death in 2007, was the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, the largest Zaydi tribal grouping in north Yemen.
Unlike the overt Saudi involvement with various aspects of Yemeni politics, the role of Iran has been quite low-key and frequently founded on speculation rather than hard information. But it is an article of faith for Saudi policy-makers and the Western media that Iran has been the principal force behind the Houthi phenomenon.12 The Arab writer Abdel Wahab Badrakhan reflects the Saudi view when he says that Tehran is seeking to tighten “its grip on Yemen through Ansar Allah (a reference to the Houthi militia)”.13 In this regard, he recalls longstanding religious and military ties between the Houthis and Hezbollah, and the massive shipments of arms to Saada from Iran. He also blames Iranian influence for the Houthis’ rejection of the Gulf Initiative of 2011.
However, research conducted by Peter Salisbury in Yemen in late 2014 revealed the general view among Yemeni and foreign observers that the Iranian role vis-à-vis the Houthis has largely been in the area of “capacity-building” rather than funding or military supplies and training. This is reflected in the fact that the Houthis have “cohesive internal management of security and administration” as compared to, say, Al Hirak.14 Salisbury also pointed out that the Houthis would have had little difficulty in obtaining arms locally given that Yemeni towns are awash with weaponry. Later, of course, as the conflict progressed, Saleh’s armouries and personnel would have been available to the Houthis.
On the same lines, though the Iranian commander of the Al Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, saw in the early Houthi successes the spread of the “Islamic Revolution”, Orkaby has noted the significant doctrinal differences between Iran and the Houthis, and emphasises “the very domestic nature of the Houthi movement” emerging from the steady debilitation of the national ethos and its replacement by tribal and sectarian identities. The Houthis, Orkaby concludes, have been a significant part of Yemeni history and culture for several centuries; they should not be viewed as “a conquering force commissioned by the Iranians”, but simply as “a local tribal alliance seeking to overturn a secular republic that had marginalised the northern regions for decades.”15
The Houthis in Sanaa and beyond
The events of 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 inspired Hussain al Houthi to pursue the path of radical politics, which included use of slogans such as: “Death to America! Death to Israel! Damn the Jews! Victory to Islam!” President Saleh saw such political activism as a challenge to his authority and commenced a military crackdown on the Houthis. In 2004, his forces tracked the Houthis to their mountain hideout of Marran in Saada province, where Hussain al Houthi was killed after a two-month siege. For his followers, this death echoed the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Kerbala.16
The leadership of the Houthis now passed on to Hussain’s younger brother, Abdelmalik al Houthi, who mobilised the community into a militia calling itself Ansarullah. Between 2004 and 2010, the new militia fought six “wars” against the Yemeni national army, consolidating its presence in the provinces of Saada and Al Jawf, and later Al Hajjah, on the route to the capital, Sanaa. By mid-2014, Houthi forces took Amran, the heart of the Hashid tribe and of the Al Ahmar clan, and also gained access to the sea.
On 21 September 2014, the Houthi militia launched an attack on Sanaa, which they captured with little resistance. It now became clear that former president Saleh, in a dramatic turn-around, had allied himself with the Houthis along with sections of the national army loyal to him. Saleh said that he did this to “reclaim stability”. He also rejected his overthrow in the context of the Arab Spring, describing the revolutions as a “tool for weakening armies, spreading chaos and destroying economies.”17
In January 2015, the Houthis took the presidential palace, placed Hadi under house arrest, dissolved parliament, and vested all political authority in a Supreme Revolutionary Committee. On 21 February, Hadi escaped to Aden and set up his “government” there with the support of the GCC countries. The Houthi militia then swept southwards, capturing Taiz and then Aden. In the face of the Houthi onslaught, Hadi fled to Riyadh on 25 March.
In power in Sanaa, the Houthis soon displayed their sectarian and authoritarian approach: demonstrations were suppressed, activists and journalists kidnapped, Brotherhood activists arrested and their party dissolved, and, in retaliation for Wahhabi actions several years earlier, Sunni mosques were converted into Zaydi mosques.18
In March, Houthi armed activity took place both in the south where it met with considerable success with the capture of Aden on the 25th of the month, and in the north where, at the Saudi border, Houthi militants conducted major military exercises. These were viewed as provocative by the Saudis, whose forces had been bested in skirmishes with the Houthis in late 2009 and in the process lost a few hundred soldiers. The Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis, named “Operation Decisive Storm”, commenced on March 26, with 185 aircraft attacking Yemen’s air defences, air bases at Al Dailami and Al Anad, weapons stores, and camps of armed personnel loyal to Saleh.19 By early July, the attacks had become what an Arab observer described as a “toxic routine” consisting of daily assaults even when no military targets were left and without any sign of surrender by the Houthis. At that time, the UN declared a “Level-3” humanitarian crisis in Yemen, noting that famine conditions were widespread in the country and hardly any assistance was getting in due to the air and sea blockade maintained by the GCC forces.
An attempt by the UN to bring Yemen’s rivals to a peace conference in Geneva on 14-18 June ended in failure, with the Hadi side insisting on his immediate restoration. The Houthis however saw no advantage in the revival of GCC domination over Yemen’s affairs; they demanded an end to the attacks and substantial compensation for the damage inflicted on their country in return for their withdrawal from some parts of the south, while retaining the right to return.20 While the talks at Geneva were still on, the Houthis launched cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia with militants and missiles, suggesting, in the words of an observer, that even if they did not occupy Saudi territory, they would make the border a “bleeding wound”.21
Taking advantage of the ongoing conflict, in early April AQAP forces took the southern town of Mukalla, the capital of the oil-rich Hadhramaut province. Mukalla is the fifth largest Yemeni city and the second largest port on the Indian Ocean after Aden. AQAP soon faced competition from the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS]. ISIS carried out its first attack on a Zaydi mosque in March in which 142 people were killed. It followed this up with two more attacks in May and June. ISIS thus joined Al Qaeda and Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s lethal sectarian binary.
To complicate the picture, ISIS militants have been attacking targets in Saudi Arabia as well, the latest being the 6 August attack on a mosque in an interior ministry compound in Abha, in the Assir province, bordering Yemen. The new ISIS branch, calling itself “Hijaz Province of the Islamic State”, referred to its target as “the monument of the apostate”,22 exposing the deep divide at the heart of the Sunni coalition.
As the Saudi air attacks significantly degraded the capabilities of the Houthis and their allies, the tide of war turned against them from mid-June when forces ranged against them, made up of pro-Hadi elements from the army and members of the Southern Resistance militia, gradually expanded their control over Aden and its environs. The vice president and prime minister in Hadi’s government, Khalid Bahah, paid a symbolic visit to Aden with some of his cabinet colleagues on 1 August, after which there have been reports of the capture of the Al Anad air base on the road to Taiz. Since then there are reports of hundreds of GCC troops with heavy armour having landed in Aden and moving northwards to consolidate the recent victories.
Factions in conflict in Yemen
Media reports on the ongoing Yemen conflict have adopted rather simple terms to describe the contending parties, such as “Iran-backed Houthis” versus “pro-Hadi forces” or “Hadi loyalists”, reflecting the view that the Yemen conflict is one more front in the sectarian proxy war raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran across several theatres in West Asia. However, these terms hardly do justice to the complex forces that are in contention in Yemen. On the Houthi side, while there are elements from the national army that have split from the main force and are Saleh loyalists, there is still little evidence of an active Iranian role on behalf of the Houthis.23 The support of the Saleh forces for the Houthis can also not be taken for granted: the loss of Aden was largely due to the surrender of Saleh’s 39th Armoured Brigade.24
The position in regard to the so-called “pro-Hadi forces” or “Hadi loyalists” is even more complex, particularly since these catchall phrases include several elements that are not pro-Hadi and are not fighting for his return to power.25 Thus, those fighting the Houthis include elements of:
- the Southern Resistance, the militia supportive of sections of the secessionist Al Hirak, and seeking to reverse the outcome of the 1994 civil war when they were defeated; most of them have no wish to be part of a national army to which they have been invited by Hadi as they struggle to revive “the South Yemen state”;26
- tribes from provinces in the east and centre of Yemen, centred at oil-rich Mareb, which have come together to fight the Houthis to preserve their “tribal ethos of self-rule”;27 and,
- elements of Al Qaeda: there are reports that Al Qaeda militants, already well-established in the south, fought for the liberation of Aden alongside Saudi-backed tribal militia and special forces sent from GCC countries.28
Obviously, the Yemen conflict, resulting from domestic developments, has now become the playground for a wide variety forces in contention at different fronts. The Lebanese writer Amin Qammouriyyeh has captured the complexity of the scenario thus:
Each battle [in Yemen] has its own peculiar character, reasons, forces, background and circumstances. In one location, the fighting is between pro-Houthi rebel military units and loyalist pro-Hadi defence committees… In certain locations, al Qaeda is fighting against Zaydi rebels, while Shafii [i.e., Sunni] tribes are fighting extremist salafis and mujahedeen… But, what we have mostly are tribes fighting it out with other tribes, sometimes in the name of Arab nationalism, sometimes in the name of Yemeni patriotism, and many times in the name of religion and sectarianism.29
After the fall of Aden, Houthi leaders and Saleh have vowed to continue the battle. Abdelmalik al Houthi felt that the Saudis and their allies had expended considerable resources on the effort but “gained a limited achievement”. He called for an internal Yemeni political solution. Saleh called Hadi a traitor and “an enemy of all Yemenis” who should be tried for war crimes. He also criticised the new Saudi leadership for abandoning the “wise policies” of late king Abdullah.30
Implications of the Yemen Conflict
Saudi Arabia’s perception of the regional scenario is entirely structured on a sectarian basis, and it is on this basis that it measures the threats posed to its interests and the basis on which it mobilises its counterattacks. Thus, from the Saudi perspective, the ascendancy of the Houthis in Yemen is merely one more manifestation of the assertion of Iranian influence in an Arab country and one more example of Iranian “interference” in the domestic politics of Arab countries. Earlier, the Kingdom had viewed the popular demand for reform in Bahrain, whose background was entirely anchored in domestic Bahraini politics going back several years, in exactly the same light and used its armed forces in March 2011 to quell popular aspirations in that neighbouring GCC member-country. The Saudi fear at that time was that reform in Bahrain would inevitably empower the majority Shia population and unleash similar demands for reform among the discriminated Shia community in the Kingdom itself.
The possibility of a Shia community enjoying power in Yemen is viewed in the Kingdom with the same degree of alarm. Badrakhan, quoted earlier, sees the Houthis as puppets of Iran and the instrument of Iranian power and influence at the Kingdom’s southern border. Even the liberal Saudi writer, Jamal Khashoggi, exalts “Operation Decisive Storm” as an example of Saudi policy “combining diplomacy and war to stop Iranian influence (and) then push it out of Syria and Iraq.”31 He then becomes quite bellicose:
The kingdom will not allow an Iranian foothold in Yemen… The Houthis can live however they want inside their country, but they will never be considered a prevailing authority as the government is bound to be pluralist and participatory… Iran should know that Saudi Arabia will not draw back from what it has started, and will continue till complete victory… Washington will get introduced the hard way to the Houthis, who learned well from the Iranians in terms of lying, procrastinating and dodging… Victory to the Yemeni Popular Resistance can only be achieved by war, or by the Saudi threat of a bigger war. … a just war is necessary sometimes to achieve peace.32 [Emphasis added]
Such intemperate sentiments reflect the strong existential threat the present Saudi leadership senses from Iran and the ruthlessness with which it is willing to fight Iran in the proxy wars in which it has engaged itself. Hardly has any Saudi commentator over the last two to three months referred to the thousands of bombing raids his country’s armed forces have carried out on the hapless Yemeni population, the death and destruction they have wreaked, the serious humanitarian disaster they have caused, and the succour they have denied their Arab brethren by the blockades enforced by them against aid and assistance.
Nor has there been a discussion in the Saudi media about the extraordinary compromises with their own principles that their leaders have made in recent times to buttress their firepower against what they see as the encroachment of Iran in their strategic space: the accommodation of Al Qaeda in their “Sunni” alliance and the outreach to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The AQAP has been in control of the city of Al Mukalla and much of its oil-rich province of Hadhramaut, Yemen’s largest province, since April 2015. After presenting a soft face in the early days of the occupation of this territory, AQAP now enforces harsh rules relating to personal conduct, along with the destruction of Sufi shrines. Surprisingly, while the United States continues to carry out its drone attacks on Al Qaeda targets, not once has the Saudi-led coalition forces attacked the AQAP, in sharp contrast to the bombings being inflicted on all other Yemeni provinces. In fact, as noted above, there are reports that AQAP cadres may have participated in the capture of Aden.33
Various explanations have been offered by commentators for the Saudi accommodation of its sworn enemy, the obvious one being that the Kingdom sees Al Qaeda as a sectarian ally in its war on the Shia. Another explains the burgeoning ties in geopolitical terms in that, the Kingdom wants a quasi-independent Hadhramaut province since, at some stage, it may seek to annex Hadhramaut to obtain direct access to the Indian Ocean and as an outlet for its oil pipelines.34
The distinguished Pakistani authority on jihad, Ahmed Rashid, has pointed out that, in the face of the challenges posed by ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Saudi-led Arab countries have opted in favour of the latter. This is primarily because the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra in Syria and AQAP in Yemen share Riyadh’s declared aims, i.e., the removal of the Assad regime in Syria and resistance to the Houthis and elimination of Iranian influence in Yemen. In both cases, in order to justify these opportunistic alliances, Al Qaeda has been portrayed by the Arabs (and echoed by Rashid) as evolving toward moderation.35
In Syria, Jabhat Nusra is being projected as a largely Syrian militia, promoting, in Rashid’s words, “nationalist jihadism” rather than global jihad, and pursuing moderate policies instead of the harshhudood doctrines generally associated with jihadi groups. Rashid has also noted the remarks of Nusra leader, Abu Mohammed al Jolani, that his group will not be attacking Western targets (though he took a tough position on the Shia). In support of AQAP’s supposed “moderation”, Rashid has referred to its “tame” occupation of Mukalla, its refusal to exercise power directly and its emphasis on governance and extension of services to the populace. Rashid also noted that for now, Nusra and AQAP “seem to be avoiding anti-Shia fanaticism, viewing it as impediment to gaining more territory”, and Nusra and AQAP were “gaining capacity for local governance and state-building” and overall are “less threatening than … the Islamic State”.36
Sadly, this valiant effort to project Nusra and AQAP in new, more acceptable, incarnations has been thoroughly discredited by ground realities. In Syria, the new Saudi-sponsored and Nusra-dominated jihadi group, Jaish al Fatah, has killed 20 Druze villagers and affirmed its ties to Al Qaeda, while in Hadhramaut, AQAP has introduced harsh rules relating to personal conduct.37Again, the inclusion of Al Qaeda in the Saudi strategic calculus does not seem to have had any moderating effect on AQAP itself: it has released two messages calling on its members to carry out “lone-wolf” attacks on Western targets, on the lines of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with US targets being a priority.38
In a subsequent article, Rashid has been more candid in explaining Saudi motivations in seeking the alliance with AQAP. Simply stated, the Arab states concerned “consider Iran as a larger national security threat than AQAP,”39 leading to the ironical scenario in which, in Yemen, the US is conducting a robust drone war on AQAP while its leading regional ally is working closely with AQAP against Iran, and, in Syria, the same ally is funding and arming an Al Qaeda affiliate whose leader carries a USD 25 million reward from the US government for information leading to his capture! Whatever gloss may be put on the situation, the clear conclusion is that Saudi Arabia’s visceral animosity for Iran has encouraged it to seek the help of its sectarian allies for short term advantage, without taking into account the fact that newly empowered Al Qaeda will only attract more Saudi nationals toward jihad, encourage more and increasingly lethal attacks on Shia across the region, and assaults on state targets following crack downs by security forces.40
The Saudi outreach to the Brotherhood is equally opportunistic and reverses the robust hostility to this Islamist group, which the Kingdom’s leaders have seen as a political rival and subversive influence for at least 25 years and which they declared a terrorist organisation in March 2014, along with Egypt and several other GCC states. Here again, the Kingdom is motivated by both sectarian and pragmatic considerations, i.e., the need to oppose the Houthis by reaching out to forces that are hostile to them: in the political arena, the Islah party meets this requirement. As noted above, though Islah has been affiliated with the Brotherhood, its membership has been sufficiently eclectic as to include the Zaydi tribal chief of the Hashid confederation, now represented by General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar – a founder-member of Islah, who has been close to Saudi Arabia, is presently living in exile in the Kingdom, and is a longstanding rival of former president Saleh.41 He is now seen as a key role-player in a political settlement in Yemen that diminishes if not eliminates the Houthis as participants in the post-war political scenario. In line with its outreach to the Brotherhood in Yemen, Saudi Arabia hosted the visit of the Islah leader, Abdul Majid al Zindani, a long-time protégé of the Kingdom and beneficiary of its largesse over several decades.
This Saudi initiative has occurred at the expense of its ties with General Abdel Fattah al Sisi of Egypt who sees these overtures to the Brotherhood as a threat to the political order headed by him, leading to a divide between the Saudi and Egyptian positions on Yemen. The Egyptian government’s mouthpiece, Al Ahram, has referred to Yemen as a “bone of contention” between the two countries. The Saudi commentator, Khalid al Dakheel, rejected any attempt to exclude the Brotherhood in any country’s political process as it was a domestic matter for the country concerned.42
Saudi Arabia initiated military action in Yemen to push back the Houthis and assert its primacy in that neighbouring state in the face of perceived challenges from Houthi power and the expanding arc of Iranian influence. Now, four months after the commencement of the Saudi air assault, the endgame in Yemen remains unclear. On 21 April, Saudi leaders had announced that their military aims had been achieved and changed the name of their operation to “Restoration of Hope”. But neither was there any let-up in the bombings, nor any extension of humanitarian assistance to the beleaguered people caught in the contentions and conflicts generated by the breakdown of their state order and the resurrection of sectarian feuds that create cohorts among most unlikely participants.
The confusion relating to the endgame is largely due to the fact that Saudi Arabia has never defined its war aims beyond the simplistic demand for the restoration of the “legitimate” Hadi government. Though the Yemen war is being conducted on this basis, the demand itself has such inherent defects that it is difficult to see under what circumstances it could be realised. Hadi has so little personal credibility in the country that hardly any group is fighting to get him back, certainly not the local forces which have temporarily coalesced to retake Aden.43
One possible Saudi aim could be to consolidate the anti-Houthi forces in the south and restore a Hadi- or Khalid Bahah-led interim administration in Aden. This would secure the cherished Saudi desire to break up Yemen into its north-south territories, with a Sunni-led government in position in the south. This plan is fraught with considerable uncertainty: the Southern Resistance and Al Hirak are unlikely to be Saudi puppets. More importantly, AQAP will not be denied its own aspirations to expand its own space in the south as a prelude to a later spread northwards. Finally, there is the mysterious but lethal presence of the ISIS in Yemen and even in Saudi Arabia itself; even without much territory under its control, the group has been able to inflict considerable damage to the self-esteem, morale and national integrity of both Yemen and the Kingdom itself.
It is possible that Saudi Arabia may now moderate its position and seek a political order in united Yemen in which both the Houthis and Islah can participate: al Dakheel, quoted earlier, mentions the Saudi acceptance of (unarmed) Houthis being part of Yemen’s politics if the people so wish. But, any suggestion of moderation on the Saudi side brings up the larger question of its perception of Iran’s role in the region and its own ties with the Islamic Republic, a matter that has got more complicated with Iran ending its political isolation through the nuclear agreement. In short, the resolution of the Yemen imbroglio is directly linked to how the Islamic giants shape their bilateral ties. Here, as of now, there is not much cause for optimism.
The Kingdom’s sense of an existential threat from Iran has been aggravated by the concern that the US has also reviewed its role in West Asia and might not provide the Kingdom with the ballast it needs to balance Iran’s already substantial strategic advantages in the region. Linked with this are the Kingdom’s domestic factors in terms of which the leadership of King Salman and his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has come to be associated with the aggressive, sect-based posture against Iran, on the basis of which the two royals have neutralised all demand for domestic reform and gained considerable personal popularity. The price they have paid has been quite high, for they have unleashed their country’s war machine on their hapless fellow Arabs, have reached out to their rivals in the Islamist fold, the Brotherhood, and have set up alliances with their most barbarous of enemies, Al Qaeda. These actions and affiliations demand not diplomatic accommodation but total victory.
As Yemen breaks apart and Saudi Arabia’s southern border does become a “bleeding wound”, even as jihadis unleash their toxic malevolence, the ageing king and the ambitious prince may find that they no longer have the ability, the tools or the friends to stem the haemorrhage that afflicts their kingdom.
2 Ibid, p. 5.
4 Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “Diary: In Sanaa”, London Review of Books, 21 May, 2015, p. 6, available at www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n10/ghaith-abdul-ahad/diary (accessed 15 June 2015).
5 Peter Salisbury, “Yemen and the Saudi-Iran ‘Cold War’,” Research Paper, (Chatham House, February 2015), pp. 7-8 (accessed 2 August 2015).
6 Asher Orkaby, “Houthi Who? A History of Unlikely Alliances in Yemen,” Foreign Affairs, 25 March, 2015 (accessed 2 August 2015).
8 Peter Salisbury, “Yemen and the Saudi-Iran ‘Cold War’,” Research Paper, (Chatham House, February 2015), p. 3 (accessed 2 August 2015).
9 Ibid, p. 4.
11 Leslie Campbell, “Yemen: The Tribal Islamists,” p. 2 (accessed 2 August 2015).
12 Salisbury, “Yemen and the Saudi-Iran ‘Cold War’,” p. 7.
13 Abdel Wahab Badrakhan, “Decisive Storm: An Assessment,” The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research [ECSSR], Abu Dhabi, 16 April 2015 (accessed 2 August 2015).
14 Salisbury, “Yemen and the Saudi-Iran ‘Cold War’,” p. 7.
15 Orkaby, “Houthi Who?” pp. 3, 5.
16 Abdul-Ahad, “Diary: In Sanaa”, p. 7.
17 Campbell, “Yemen: The Tribal Islamists,” p. 6.
18 Abdul-Ahad, “Diary: In Sanaa”, p. 8. On 5 August, Houthi militants arrested in Taiz the human rights activist Dr. Abdel Qadir al Junaid.
19 Farea Al Muslimi, “Saudi Airstrikes Against Yemen a First,” Carnegie Middle East Center, 2 April, 2015 (accessed 2 August 2015).
20 Rai al Youm and www.alaraby.co.uk, translation in Mideast Mirror, 12 June 2015.
21 Bruce Riedel, “A bleeding wound on the Saudi border: Why Yemen peace talks are unlikely to make progress,” Brookings, 15 June 2015 (accessed 17 June 2015).
22 “Saudi Arabia suffers deadliest terrorism attack in years,” Associated Press, 6 August 2015, (accessed 8 August 2015).
23 In response to the suggestion that Iran may be supporting the Houthi and Saleh forces, West Asia specialist James Spencer says: “I have seen no evidence of improved weapons or tactics that would support such a claim… [After the capture of Sanaa by the Houthis] Iran may have supplied spare parts and training to the Houthis for their newly captured SCUD missiles … [Iran may also have tried] to smuggle SAMs to the Houthis … MANPADS (Man-portable air-defence-systems) are also available in Yemeni arms suqs.” [Private email, 2 August 2015]
24 James Spencer has speculated that Saleh may have been subjected to pressure from some GCC sources with the threat that his funds in GCC institutions might be confiscated! Or, he might wish to weaken the Houthi forces so that he is better placed when eventually there is a confrontation between them. [Private email dated 21 July 2015.]
25 Perhaps, due to this, some writers now use the more neutral term “Popular Resistance” to include all anti-Houthi and anti-Saleh fighters.
26 “Yemen resistance divided over joining Hadi’s army,” Gulf News, Dubai, 6 August 2015, p. 9.
27 Suzanne Dahlgren and Anne-Linda Amira Augustin, “The Multiple Wars in Yemen,” 18 June 2015 (accessed 22 June 2015).
28 David B. Ottaway, “Saudi Arabia’s “Terrorist” Allies in Yemen,” Viewpoints, No. 81, Wilson Center, August 2015, (accessed 8 August 2015).
29 Amin Qammouriyyeh, Al Nahar, translation in Mideast Mirror, 16 June 2015.
30 Bruce Riedel, “Yemen: the rebels defy the king,” Brookings, 4 August 2015 (accessed 6 August 2015).
31 Jamal Khashoggi, “Saudi Arabia and Iran heading to war?” 8 June 2015, (accessed 6 August 2015).
33 Ottaway has noted that the first indication of Saudi link with AQAP came when the Hadi delegation at the Geneva peace talks included Abdel Wahab Humayqani, who is a “specially designated global terrorist” since 2013 as an AQAP recruiter and financier. Since March 26, US drones in 10 strikes have killed 41 AQAP militants, including its leader, Nasir al Wuhayshi. Ottoway “Saudi Arabia’s “Terrorist” Allies in Yemen.”
34 Bruce Riedel, “Al Qaida’s Hadhramawt emirate,” Brookings, 12 July 2015. This Saudi accommodation of AQAP in Yemen is echoed in Syria with the Kingdom’s sponsorship of a new jihadi group, Jaish al Fatah, which includes the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Nusra as its principal constituent. See, Talmiz Ahmad, “Turmoil in West Asia: Shaping an Indian Role to Address Regional Security issues,” CASS Journal, Vol 2, No. 3, July-September 2015, pp. 63-64.
35 Ahmed Rashid, “Why We Need al-Qaeda,” NYR Blog, 15 June 2015, (accessed 7 August 2015).
37 Said K., “A report from an al Qaeda-controlled city in Yemen,” 21 July 2015 (7 August 2015).
38 Louisa Loveluck, “Al Qaeda in Yemen urges followers to carry out lone wolf attacks in West,” The Telegraph, 6 August 2015 (accessed 6 August 2015).
39 Ahmed Rashid, “The enemy’s enemy: how Arab states have turned to al-Qaeda,” The Spectator, 18 July 2015 (accessed 7 August 2015).
40 Lori Plotkin Boghardt has recently noted that all the GCC states see ISIS and Al Qaeda as “serious domestic security threats”, with pervasive concerns relating to the increasing involvement of their citizens in these bodies abroad, which could lead to anti-state activities at home. She concludes: “Although some Gulf officials recognise the perils of these policies, anxiety about Iran’s destabilising activities in the Arab world is trumping other security concerns.” See, “Battling ISIS and Beyond in the Gulf,” The Washington Institute, 6 August 2015 (accessed 8 August 2015).
41 Ottaway, “Saudi Arabia’s “Terrorist” Allies in Yemen.”
42 Khalid al Dakheel, “Real Differences”, Al Hayat, translation in Mideast Mirror, 8 June 2015.
43 Kareem Shaheen says: “It is increasingly apparent that Hadi, sheltered by the Saudis, is unlikely to ever return as Yemen’s president, and a political solution to the war is unlikely to be reached unless Riyadh alters its goals of reinstating him, largely given that all the Houthis need to “win” the conflict is to survive.” See his “Jihadis likely winners of Saudi Arabia’s futile war on Yemen’s Houthi rebels,” The Guardian, 8 July 2015.
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