The recent crisis in Yemen has been in the making for decades, not just years. It escalated into an armed conflict months ago and now regional intervention has meant an all-out war. The meltdown in Yemen is putting the entire region closer to conflagration with far reaching impact. There is not a lot of knowledge on what has led to this, who the main players are and why they are involved, so let’s take a look at the five things you need to know about Yemen at war.
Who are the Houthis?
Yemen’s majority population is Muslim with small Jewish, Christian, Hindu and Bahai minority presence. Zaidis (or Zaydis), a sub-sect of Shia Islam make up nearly one-third of Muslim population while the rest are predominantly Sunni Shaf’i Muslims.
Houthis, followers of Zaidi sect of Shia Islam are predominant in North and North West bordering Saudi Arabia. They are named after Zayd bin Ali, grandson of Imam Hussain – who Zaidi Shias consider their fifth Imam; unlike the mainstream Twelver Shia Muslims who do not consider him an Imam but follow the chain through his brother Imam Muhammad Baqir. The Zaidis, unlike Twelver Shias, do not believe in infallibility of the Imams, neither do they consider the institution of Imamat as a divinely appointed spiritual institution. They also reject the concept of occultation of the Imam and believe in a living Imam only. The Zaidis follow the Hanafi school of thought in matters of fiqh or jurisprudence which puts them in a starkly different position from Twelver Shias who follow the Jafri school of thought. On matters of leadership of community, like the Sunni Muslims they believe it should be decided by consultation so they do accept the first three Sunni caliphs. The Zaidis have some prominent differences with the Twelver Shias but they are generally considered in the fold of Shia Islam. However, they seem very close to Sunni Islam and have enjoyed good relations with local Sunni Muslims.
The origin of present day Houthi movement goes back three decades in the form of an ethno-religious organisation named Shabab-al-Momin. The agenda of this organisation was to create awareness among Zaidi youth in Yemen on the socio-cultural and political history of the Zaidi Shias as the state narrative and textbooks sought to completely wipe off the fact that Yemen was a Zaidi Imami ruled dynasty once. This group eventually turned political, staging non-violent protests in 2004 and it was state sanctioned violent crackdowns on them that resulted in the Houthi-initiated a militant wing. The Houthis, with other Yemenis especially of the Northern region, have been in an active rebellion since 2004 and it gained momentum after the Arab Spring. The Houthis have led rebellion against long-time President Saleh (himself Zaidi Shia) and when he was replaced with President Hadi (Sunni), they continued rebellion against him as well on failure of the government.
What has led to the situation in Yemen?
Yemen is the poorest and most under developed of all Arab nations. Most Yemenis are farmers, craftsmen and herders while the country’s economy mainly depends on foreign aid and remittances sent in by foreign workers of Yemeni descent.
It is home to the youngest (median age 19 years) and the fastest growing population in the region, is low on oil and water (both running out by 2017 in capital city Sanaa) and the government for decades has been a personal monarchy instead of a stable institution. The country has been on every failed-state list for years as a fragile state and ironically, the joint US-Saudi strategy to fix problems has been to keep droning AQAP (Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula) and hope for the economic and political issues to settle. Not surprisingly, it did not happen. Lack of legitimate leadership, poor socio economic conditions of masses, lack of resources, rising population, strong presence and recruitment drives by AQAP/ISIS have led to a popular rebellion. Yemen needed institutions to bridge regional and ethnic divisions to assure fairness in political and economic processes which could have provided employment and growth opportunities, but a personal-style government proved an obstacle for decades.
North Yemen, South Yemen and Yemen Arab Republic were unified in 1990 to form the present day Yemeni state but the country has been in turmoil since, largely because of a lack of settlement on various issues between Northerners and Southerners. The wave of Arab Spring engulfed Yemen as well where the Yemenis (both Sunnis and Zaidis alike) took to the streets; however, the main organised opposition bloc was the Islamist Islah Party (similar to the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt) so it had to be taken into account for any possible solution. Riyadh, for obvious reasons, wanted minimum share for Islah party so the final solution agreed was for President Saleh to step down (after more than three decades in power) but it was ensured that his party remains influential to counter influence of Islah Party. Ironically, some factions of Saudi state preferred Houthi rule as an alternative to Islah’s coming into power who Riyadh considers a direct threat to its power structure based on a Wahabi monarchy.
While some are comparing Houthi rebels with ISIS in Iraq and Syria for the mere fact that they are rebelling against the state; they are failing to understand that Houthis are not ideologically driven but by socio political reasons – they do not attempt to implement Sharia or form an Islamic state (in fact they have hesitated to govern Yemen even after President Hadi stepped down recently); and they are not killing or attempting to kill Yemen’s Sunnis or non-Muslim minorities. The war in Yemen may look like a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran but the actual fault lines in the internal struggle are shaped primarily by local factors. The transitional government under President Hadi has failed to deliver, just like the long-time incumbent President Saleh, himself a Houthi, who the Houthis forced to resign. The interest of the poor and dispossessed who overthrew Saleh had been largely ignored in this transitional process and Houthis have been able to capitalise on this instability, especially considering the fact that they have not let their Zaidi Shia faith or affiliation with Iran drive their movement.
Why is Saudi Arabia bombing Yemen?
Saudis take the Houthi rebels as an Iranian proxy, and them enjoying any form of power, a sign of rising Iranian influence in a neighbouring country.
Saudi calculation of the situation in Middle East including Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen has been flawed. It is clear that Iran did not create Shia militias in Iraq, it did not start the Bahraini revolution, it did not create the Houthi rebellion – yes, Iran has capitalised on every opportunity in the Middle East but it has not been the source of these rebellions; be it Iraq, Bahrain or Yemen. Shia militias in Iraq were an organic local Shia response to ISIS, Bahrain’s revolution was a local rebellion by long oppressed, persecuted and sidelined Shia community and so is the Houthi rebellion in Yemen. For obvious reasons, Iran did capitalise on all these opportunities. Some reports do suggest that Iran may have provided weapons to the Houthi rebels but their ways are primitive, they have not demonstrated financial resources or modern weaponry as Iran has bestowed on its allies in Syria; and importantly, they have not entered Saudi soil. It should also be noted that to supply weapons to Houthis or to send any human resources, Iran would have to circumnavigate the Arabian Peninsula or through some of the most heavily patrolled waters on earth. While it remains unclear if Iran has actually been able to supply weapons to Houthis in Yemen, it is clear that they enjoy strong support from some factions of the Yemeni army including weaponry and ammunition. It is also clear there is no on ground presence of Iran in Yemen, or any other form of support. The success of Houthi rebels in Yemen is because of (i) some military units having joined them in rebellion against the government and (ii) poor performance of present Hadi government and Houthi’s ability to tap into it.
However, the crushing resistance movements and bombing rebellions will not do much for Riyadh. This is not to suggest that Iran has a genuine interest in wellbeing and welfare of Yemenis, Iraqis or Bahrainis but that considering the socioeconomic condition of these people, they will take any sort of help; so Iranian influence cannot be stopped by coercion and bombing but by changing socio economic conditions of these people.
Who benefits from chaos in Yemen?
Iran definitely does not benefit from chaos in Yemen but it doesn’t have much to lose either considering it does not share borders with Yemen – it does not have any significance presence in the country or strong economic ties. Saudi Arabia will not prefer to have a neighbour which shares a thousand-mile border with it to be in further chaos especially considering it is home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as emerging pockets of ISIS. Yemen has been used as a base by the US forces to launch drone attacks against Al-Qaeda, therefore it is not in the interest of the US for the chaos to prevail long term in Yemen. AQAP has long enjoyed lack of political stability in Yemen to thrive in the region and further chaos will only help them strengthen themselves and expand with impunity. Al-Qaeda and ISIS will be set to become the biggest winners in the growing chaos in Yemen
What is Pakistan’s stake in Yemen?
Recent reports by CNN suggest Pakistan has provided 15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia for the Yemeni war. But why would Pakistan, a country tattered by terrorism and poor economy, jump into someone else’s war? Does Pakistan have any stake in Yemen?
Pakistan shares no borders with Yemen – the situation in Yemen has no direct impact on Pakistan’s territory. Pakistan has no significant military, economic or cultural relations with Yemen and therefore Pakistan is not bound in any way to jump into this war. Pakistan’s civil and military leadership are throwing overtures to Saudi Arabia by providing support in this war not realising Pakistan cannot afford another adventure at this time. Considering the economic aid which Islamabad receives from Riyadh and remittances sent home from Pakistanis working in KSA, perhaps Pakistan does not want to offend Saudi Arabia – but what are the consequences of not being party in this war? Probably nothing, because Saudi Arabia being strongest of the armies in Muslim world does not need any support, especially with 9 nations already supporting them on ground. However, being party to this war means Pakistan is alienating its immediate neighbour Iran not considering the fact Pakistan will need Iran with its alarming levels of electricity, fuel and gas shortages. Pakistan, learning a lesson from history should remain neutral in this war and should not side with any party.