Trouble in the Sa’ada mountains

ANOTHER AFGHANISTAN? Saudi soldiers is seen in the southern province of Jizan, near the border with Yemen, Saudi Arabia. Saudi warplanes and artillery bombarded a Shiite rebel stronghold in northern Yemen on Nov. 7, 2009.  

As fighting in the rugged Sa’ada mountains draws rapid speed, a variety of conflicting forces, internal and external, are posing a serious threat to the very survival of the Yemeni state, and to the region as a whole. This is a region that is already struggling to cope with the challenges posed by Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Given the strategic location of Yemen, which borders energy-rich Saudi Arabia to the north, Oman to the east, and significantly to the south, the Gulf of Aden — one of the principal gateways of international trade and energy transit — it is inevitable that turbulence in this country would attract serious international attention and possible intervention on a matching scale. Also in close proximity is Somalia, from where Islamic radicalism is permeating into Yemen, though it is unclear as to what extent it is influencing the insurgency in the country’s south.

Yemen is part of an ancient land. It is located on the southern edge of the vast Arabian peninsula, most of which is desert, with copious reserves of oil and gas underneath. The country has regularly witnessed spasms of violence, whenever conflicting social forces have collided with one another, before settling into periods of relative calm when rivals have agreed to share political and religious space.

The genesis of the present conflict, which has pitted the Zaydis, a sect within the folds of Shia Islam, against the regime led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, can be easily traced to the Cold War when winds of change swept across West Asia and parts of the African continent. In 1962, a group of Egyptian-backed military officers dismantled a 1,000-year-old Imamate, but only after encountering stiff resistance in the Sa’ada region. That resistance lasted several years.

Over the years, the Zaydis continued to build their educational institutions in these mountains. In parallel fashion, Salafi institutions, linked to sections of the country’s Sunni majority, also came up — resulting in the emergence of a fine sectarian balance in the area.

However, in the light of their turbulent relationship, defined broadly by the forces of republicanism and tradition, tensions between the Zaydis and the presidency have always existed. . Though Mr. Saleh traced his ancestry to the Zaydis, the latter never accepted the President as one of its own. Its detachment has been elaborately rationalised in religious discourse. Unlike the Houthi family that currently leads the rebellion, President Saleh is not a Sayyid. This means he does not trace his ancestry to Prophet Muhammad through his grandsons Hussein and Hassan.

This absence of familial credentials has undermined the President’s legitimacy among his ilk. Consequently, when the Zaydis accused the President of being against the revivalist Believing Youth Movement in the area, it resonated powerfully within the rank and file of the community.

The war on terror was another factor that contributed significantly to the present revolt. The Zaydis were deeply offended when the President took sides with the Americans. In the aftermath of Yemen’s realignment with the Americans, the group reinforced its demand to worship in accordance with its rather unique religious traditions.

Fighting has continued since then, with several failed attempts by the government to forge a ceasefire. Abruptly, in 2008, on completion of 30 years of his rule, President Saleh declared an end to the war in Sa’ada.

But the hiatus in fighting proved short-lived and it was followed by an explosion of violence since August 11 when the Yemeni government launched a massive military operation in the area.

These attacks have coincided with a campaign in large parts of the Sunni Arab world that the Zaydis have been receiving support from Iran. Commenting on the fighting, a recent article in the Saudi- owned Al Hayat daily said: “Iran is attempting to sow discord and to destabilise the security of the countries in the region, especially in the Arab Gulf States, after having had their way in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine.” Fears of the re-emergence of the Imamate system, this time backed by revolutionary Iran, have never been far away from recent local political perceptions. However, the jury is still out on whether Iran has indeed been providing material backing to the present revolt. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Iranian political and religious institutions have been extending ample moral support to the Zaydis.

The Society of the Seminary Teachers of Qom has already appealed to the Muslim world and the international humanitarian organisation to prevent “ethnic cleansing” in Sa’ada. “The direct interference of certain Arab regimes in the ethnic cleansing of Shia and the silence adopted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and international human rights establishments about this atrocity leaves room for thought,” it said in a recent statement. Iran’s Parliament went on to accuse Saudi Arabia of interfering in the war. “How can the custodian of the two holy mosques of Islam bring himself to permit the killing of innocent Muslims in the forbidden months?” Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani asked, referring to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. Saudi Arabian involvement in the war has shown itself in a rather dramatic fashion. Early in November, Saudi F-15 and Tornado jets bombed rebel positions, following the killing of an officer and the wounding of 11 others on the Saudi Arabian side of the border. The Zaydis said on their website that the Saudis had bombed some of their strongholds with phosphorous bombs. Saudi officials maintained that their planes had targeted rebels who had seized Saudi parts of an area called Jabal al-Dukhan.

The Saudis say they aim to neutralise a 10-km zone inside Yemen. They justify their intent on the ground that their control along a cross-border segment is vital in order to deny the Al-Qaeda a sanctuary in close proximity to the Saudi frontier. It is well-known in international counter-terrorism circles that Abu-Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Arabian Peninsula branch of Al-Qaeda, operates from Yemen.

His presence is a reflection of the presence of Islamic extremism which has taken deep roots in the country in organisational and ideological terms. Believers in the cause of global jihad occupy a vast trans-national spread, cutting across the borders of Saudi Arabia, Yemen and permeating further south into Somalia and Sudan. It is widely suspected that jihadi operatives in Yemen are the beneficiaries of a criminal economy associated with well-entrenched gangs engaged in gun-running, drug-smuggling and human trafficking across the Sa’ada mountains.

Saudi Arabia has other reasons to worry about the Zaydi consolidation in Yemen. It fears that the group’s success in Yemen can radicalise sections of the Ismaili Shias living in the Asir province that borders Sa’ada. The Shia population is also concentrated in highly sensitive locations in Saudi Arabia, such as the oil-rich eastern provinces that border Bahrain. There is the apprehension that success in Sa’ada would have its echo right across the energy-rich countries in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain has a highly politicised majority-Shia community. Kuwait, the world’s fourth largest exporter of oil, also has a significant Shia population.

According to Al Quds Al Arabi, an Arab newspaper published from London, Saudi operations provide a glimpse of the emerging transition of political leadership that has become visible in Saudi Arabia. The daily points out that Prince Khalid bin Sultan is handling the operations along the border with Yemen. He is the son of the ailing Defence Minister and Crown Prince, Sultan bin Abdulaziz. Prince Khalid’s performance in the conflict is likely to play a role in determining his position in the royal pecking order that would emerge after King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz advances with great deliberation the process of handing over the reins of power to the generation-next.

Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, son of the aging Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdulaziz, is also in the spotlight. The Prince, who recently escaped an assassination attempt, is in charge of countering the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula operating out of Yemen.

The war in Yemen is drawing greater international attention as the fighting in the north and the insurgency in the south begins to threaten the survival of the Yemeni state. The escalation in international interest is, in turn, generating a dynamic that is energising regional players such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to deepen their entrenchment in Yemen.

In the midst of such high politics, the conflict in north Yemen is generating a humanitarian crisis on a growing scale. The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has said the world has largely ignored Yemen’s “humanitarian emergency.” It said that an appeal for $23 million to aid some 150,000 internally displaced people escaping the war in Sa’ada has resulted only in a tepid international response.

Unless fighting gives way to a serious and complex diplomatic initiative, it is likely that Yemen, like Afghanistan, will emerge as another flashpoint of a bloody and unresolved conflict. That will have far-reaching regional and global consequences.

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