Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen
An invasion force arrives in Yemen on a mission to control the strategic port of Yemen. With the aid of local allies, this invading force successfully overcomes a petty ruler and continues its march south, facing limited resistance from local armed groups.
This could be a scenario for ongoing events right now in 2015, but I am referring to 1173 CE when the Ayyubid Turanshah was sent from Egypt by his brother Saladin to conquer Yemen. The Ayyubids maintained nominal control of Yemen’s coast and southern highlands for over half a century, but never uprooted their Zaydi rivals in Yemen’s north. Their mercenary emirs, the Rasulids, in over two centuries almost managed to control most of southern Arabia, even Mecca at times. But the area now associated with the Republic of Yemen has never been totally unified under a central state, given its geographical diversity and tribal resistance. Ali Abdullah Salih presided over a unified Yemen after 1990, but he was never able to achieve absolute control over the state he eventually ran into the ground.
A year ago there was a glimmer of hope that Yemen might weather the storm of sectarian strife in the wake of the short season Arab Spring. The National Dialogue, sponsored by the United Nations, brought together most of the diverse viewpoints and provided a blueprint for a stable and enviable state structure. Yemen’s fragile government was headed by a seasoned politician, Abd Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi, seemingly an ideal transitional figure since he had served many years under Salih as Vice President and could claim southern roots. But the dialogue was outpaced by what might be called an omnilogue, a politicized cacophony of old and new fault lines competing for influence and power. Most prominent were the Houthis, a local rebellion of disgruntled anti-Salafi, anti-Brotherhood and anti-Salih northerners who managed to sweep down to the capital Sanaa in September and effectively dictate government policy. Behind the scenes, the explanation for this unforeseen partisan Blitzkrieg was the old dance-on-the-head-of-snake master Ali Abdullah Salih, who had strong support from major segments of the military and security. In alliance with the group he once tried to eliminate through a scorched earth policy, Salih quite literally rose from the politically dead. Given that the UN documented his personal fortune over three decades of pilfering at between 30 and 60 billion dollars, he became the critical benefactor of the Houthi advance.
I hesitate to ask the loaded question “What went wrong?” given the polemic intent of a book title by Bernard Lewis just as the U.S. was “liberating” Iraq. What went wrong is what usually goes wrong, no matter the context, when you have a history of colonialism, ongoing interference from outside forces, sectarian blindness and massive wealth at the service of mischief. Yemen, as even the Ayyubids knew almost nine centuries ago, has a strategic location in the Horn of Africa, one side of the narrow bottleneck that connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and Asia. Although the port of Aden has lost its political prominence, Yemen is also strategic, much to its detriment, by sharing a long and disputed border with its oil rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia. During the civil war that followed the toppling of the Zaydi imamate in 1962, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supported the royalists in their bid to regain control of the north, while Britain still retained its protectorate of Aden.
The royalists ultimately lost out, although a reconciliation avoided the kind of sectarian bloodshed that often follows such civil strife. But the Saudis never stopped trying to influence the governance of its dirt-poor southern neighbor. Starting in the 1970s it was Saudi Arabia who bankrolled Yemen’s Ministry of Education to import conservative Brotherhood and Salafi teachers, thus teaching a whole generation of Yemeni youth an intolerant faith unlike that of the Zaydi and Shafi’i views that had evolved in relative harmony over a millennium. Rumors continue to circulate that Yemeni President al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977 because he was attempting to unite the two Yemens, much to Saudi chagrin. The pattern was set early on: loyalty was purchased with Saudi riyals, especially in the north where there were tribal affinities across the national borders.
But the focus today is on the Houthis, a group that rose out of virtual oblivion and has polarized the diverse regions of Yemen beyond any other period of its history. News reports continue to describe the Houthis as a Zaydi group, initially responding in a quietist fashion to the Salafi incursion, especially the Saudi-inspired theological center of Dammaj in the north. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 appears to have galvanized the movement leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi against the United States and Ali Abdullah Salih. Salih responded by placing a bounty of al-Houthi’s head that reached 10 million Yemeni Riyals (over $75,000) and sending troops to slaughter his followers and murder Hussein in September, 2004. The stage was now set for a decade long and simmering clash of words and weapons, at one point drawing Saudi Arabia into a border conflict , but a scenario that has ended up with the alliance of two former arch-enemies in a struggle for power. The Houthis have upped the anti by setting a bounty of 20 million Yemeni riyals (almost $100,000) for al-Hadi’s capture.
The Houthis are Zaydi in name, but their name choice of Ansar Allah betrays the extraordinary influence of Iran. Hussein al-Huthi was trained in Qum and greatly admired Ayatollah Khomeini. His new branding of Houthi Zaydism, introducing a mantra that calls for death to America, death to Israel, cursing the Jews and victory to Allah, is straight out of the Iranian Shi’a playbook. Media pundits have underestimated the theological influence of Iranian Shi’a political views on the Houthi movement, one that has transformed the traditional Zaydi tolerance exemplified by the renowned 18th century scholar al-Shawkani, a Zaydi greatly admired in Sunni schools. Neither Iranian Shi’a interpretation nor Saudi-inspired Wahhabi/Salafi views are indigenous to Yemen and both have launched a morass of vitriolic hate speech and intolerance that has brought nothing but misery to Yemen’s people.
The Houthis are only part of the story, the pawns in a chess game that includes Salih as the Queen, capable of moving in any direction, the tribes as castles that tend to move in one direction at a time, the meddling bishops of Islah (the Muslim Brotherhood party in Yemen) and the Salafis, and the knights that skip over convention as al-Qaida or Ansar Sharia. And poor defenceless al-Hadi is the King who must be protected because he has no offense of his own. On the sidelines money and ideological support are coming in from the United States (which built up Salih’s military and launched a thousand – it seems like a thousand- drones against al-Qaida), Saudi Arabia and the GCC (who have been keeping the government budget afloat) and Iran (which has come to the rhetorical aid of the Houthis). A few days ago it looked like checkmate, as al-Hadi fled his palace in Aden ahead of Houthi militia and Salih’s loyal Republican Guard.
The game is not over by any means. The snakes this time are not only nipping at the heels of Salih and his Houthi allies, but are poised to strike a death blow. Saudi Arabia has assembled a coalition of just about every state in the region, including Egypt, Sudan and Jordan along with the GCC; only Oman is sitting on the sidelines. The specter of an Iranian proxy to rival Hizbullah in Lebanon has made strange bedfellows, so that both Israel and Saudi Arabia are so afraid of Iran that they are on the same page for this involvement in Yemen. In the first air strikes it would appear that Yemen’s military capability has been wiped out completely in the air and the major bases have been damaged. The rhetoric and the taunting is at a fever pitch, but the handwriting, as even old Belshazzar knew along the Tigris, is on the wall.
I do not know if the Saudis and their allies will send in ground troops or if they will follow the example from Libya and simply bomb the Houthis into submission. It may all be a show of force and limited destruction to drive the Houthis and Salih to the bargaining table. But what kind of bargain can be made at this point? The Houthis are hated in the south and Hadramawt; the southern movement wants a separate state; al-Qaida is able to take advantage of the insecurity to suicide bomb whoever is their enemy of the moment. And the youth who inspired the street revolution through student protests are nowhere to be seen, except perhaps in morgues and prisons.
What will happen now, you ask? No crystal ball can foretell the future of this massive civil mix-up. One thing is certain. Yemen will not only remain the poorest country by far on the Arabian Peninsula and the region, but it will be even more dependent on foreign assistance. So the interference will not disappear. The dream of a Yemen chosen by the Yemeni people free of outside influence has faded, perhaps an illusion from the start. Historically, Yemen’s people have weathered civil wars, incursions and famines, but this was largely due to the relative stability of tribal custom and local governance. Has the killing and hatred gone so far that Yemen is in danger of becoming another Iraq or Syria? I do not think so; at least I hope not. Over a millennium of tolerance between Zaydi and Shafi’i must mean something. Only the coming months will tell if the proxy morons win the day or if Yemen is given back to its own people.