Thursday, September 3, 2009

Understanding Yemen

"With every day that passes, we come close to believe that the war in Sa’ada is a Saudi-Iranian war, not a Yemeni one.
Yemenis are dying for the sake of foreign agendas. Killing each other to please an outside party is what both Houthis and the government have been doing over the last six years. Is a Yemeni citizen so cheap in front of its leaders?"

I have been looking for a while for a lead to write on the ongoing conflicts in Yemen, and here it is, courtesy of the Yemen Post.I have lived for 2 years in Yemen, very intense years, before unity with South Yemen and after unity, between 1989 and 2001. These were some of the most formative years of my life, and I spent them traveling through the Yemeni countryside, from Saada to Hadramawt. I have been back several times since, and I still have many friends, some of whom are like family (especially I.S.).

Before we go any further, we must remember a few things:

1. Yemen is a country of deep social stratifications, but this is mostly the case in what used to be North Yemen. At the bottom of the ladder there are the Akhdam, who are the servants; the intouchable cast who are said to be "not Arabs". I have posted earlier on al akhdam here and here. The top of the ladder is disputed: until the 1962 Imam Ahmad ruled the country and kept it closed to external influence. He was a Zaydi, a Shi`a sect, which is said to be "Sevener" rather than "Twelver" like the Jaafarite Shi`a of Iran and Lebanon and Bahrain. I leave the reader to wiki the difference between the 2 Shi`a sects, but I can attest that Twelvers and Seveners almost thought about each others as heretics when I used to live there. More than half of today's Yemen are Sunnis, mostly from the Shafi`i sect. When the Imam was overthrown by the army in 1962, the Zaydis, especially the Sada among them (the high learned class) were oppressed and many had to leave the country. Many went to Saudi Arabia and some to Lebanon. They were later reintegrated into the state by Ali Abdallah Saleh, and they held (and still do) high offices. The Hawthi fighting government forces in Saadah in the North are Zaydi (Saadah is a strongly Zaydi region, and there were also previously many Jews there, before Ben Gurion and Imam Ahmad agreed on Operation Flying Carpet. But that is another story.)

Yemen is also a very tribal country, and this has to be kept in mind when understanding the country. The current president Ali Abdallah Saleh comes from the army and is not from a prominent tribal sheikh family. The head of the tribes was Abdallah Ibn Hussein al Ahmar, who founded the Islah party (Islamic, close to Saudi Arabia), who was head of parliament, and who passed away a few years ago.

South Yemen has a very different modern history: From Aden to the Bab el Mandeb straights, the region used to be under British rule until 1967 when it became the People's Republic of South Yemen, closely allied with the USSR and the rest of the Eastern block. The 2 Yemens united in 1989, then there was a civil war and then the countries united again, under the domination of what was previously North Yemen.

A few days ago, I met a friend who has worked in Yemen for over 25 years and who was recently there. I asked him about the situation and this is what he told me:

"A big part of the problem with the Hawthi in the North has to do with the struggle for power between Ali Abdallah Saleh (the current president) and his relative (no one seems to be sure how they are related) Ali Muhsin. Muhsin was one of the officers who carried out the coup against the Imam but the story is that he let Saleh rule as he was bound to fail, and then Muhsin would take over and pacify matters. But Saleh did not fail in establishing his rule and in consolidating it, and Muhsin remained an influential army general. He now commands the Northern army units, fighting the Hawthi in Saadah.

Saleh is getting old and is probably tired. He is grooming his son to replace him. Ali Muhsin considers himself to be the more deserving than Saleh's son, especially that the latter has zero popularity and charisma and no one would recognize him in the street without his motorcade. So whenever Muhsin wants to put pressure on Saleh, he commands the army to engage the Hawthi who are always ready for a fight. As long as the fighting goes on, Saleh is under popular pressure.

Why are the Hawthi angry? One is the perception of the Zaydi as having been stripped from whay they believe is their right (to rule) and are now living inn eed and poverty (like all the rest of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the World, in spite of oil). Another reason is their constant friction with the Salafi. Muhsin is close to Zandani, the head of the Salafi movement, himself close to Saudi Arabia, and who, it is alledged, has ties to al Qaida (which has a strong presence in Yemen). As someone once said: if there is anything Al Qaida hates more than the US, it is probably the Shi`a. Apparently the Salafi movement, protected by Muhsin's army, has been angering the Zaydi Shi`a by establishing check points in their areas, and by generally being annoying and insulting.

But what about Iran in all this? Why do we hear about Iranian support, which is surprising to many as the Iranians are Twelvers and the Zaydis Seveners? Regardless of the Iranian agenda in the region, I was told that the relationship between the Hawthi and Iran was encouraged by...Saleh himself. This is how the story goes: The Zaydis had formed a party called the Al Haq party (Justice party), which brought together many intellectuals and aimed at modernizing Zaydi thought. Saleh didn't look favorably at that and decided to foment a split in the party. He "adopted" the youth movement of the Al Haq party, the Shabab, who were seeking "a revolution" and requested Iranian aid for social development in the poor region of Saadah, through funding the Shabab, who later on became the Hawthi. The Iranians established contact with the blessings of the state, but it wasn't long before the Shabab were accused of treason and the Al Haq with them and there was an excuse for repressing everyone.

A further complication is added in Yemen (previous North Yemen) was the death of Sheikh Al Ahmar (see above). He tied together Islam (through al Islah), the parliament and the tribes. After his death, his 3 sons divided his legacy among themselves: one took charge of al Islah, another of parliament and a third of the tribal relations. It does not work too well.

As for the revolts in the South, my friend told me that the main reason behind it is class: the South was never truly integrated with the rest of the country, socially or economically, and the rebellion is about that."

I know this might sound utterly complicated, but to someone who follows Middle Eastern politics (or politics in general) this is a plausible scenario. At least, it is a departure from the vapid cliche the Lebanese have excelled at: "we are fighting other people's wars on our soil". In Lebanon as in Yemen, everybody is fighting their own battles. How these battles intersect with external interests is a different matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a real prudent analysis of the situation in Yemen.