On January 23, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died. A 90-year-old patriarch who had maintained his position even during the storms of the Arab Spring, he was widely admired for keeping his kingdom “the rock of the Middle East,” a bastion of stability, strength and wealth in a turbulent region going through a turbulent time. The throne passed smoothly to his brother, Salman, who calmed any anxiety about succession issues by clarifying who his successor would be as well as his successor’s successor. Since then, he’s been distinctively aggressive, swatting away any doubts that Saudi Arabia’s role in the region would wane as its monarchs age. (Salman is 79.)
The pressing problem for Salman is a crisis south of Saudi Arabia, in a smaller country at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, long festering but mostly ignored by the rest of the world. Salman is fretting about the Yemen.
Arabia has historically been a bit of a backwater in the Arab world. It’s mostly desert, and it’s a peninsula, so it leads nowhere but ocean…. and Ethiopia. In ancient times Ethiopia was strong and rich, so Yemen, at the peninsula’s southern tip, grew rich and plentiful in turn, helped along by fertile soil, spices, aromatics (stuff that smells good), and coffee. Back then it was known as “Arabia Felix” or “Happy Arabia.” It came under Ethiopian imperial domination for a time, but was mostly governed by independent princes. Meanwhile, what is now Saudi Arabia was mostly oasis towns serving caravans headed south, although Mecca became a pagan pilgrimage site.
After the spread of Islam in the 600s from Saudi Arabia (upon which Mecca became the Muslim pilgrimage site instead), the area stagnated. It became a poor backwater as the centers of Muslim power and most of the Arab population shifted elsewhere. Coffee still dribbled out of Yemen’s port, Mokha, and it became an important stop between Egypt and India, but it was geopolitically marginal. Yemen fell under the rule of a Shi’ite* imamate (imam being the term for an Islamic cleric) and resisted outside attempts at conquest doggedly. Egypt attempted a conquest in the 1500s; Britain colonized south Yemen in the 1800s and developed the port of Aden into a coaling depot; the Osmanli Empire ruling from Turkey brought the area under its nominal rule. But mostly, the Yemenite tribes remained isolated in their mountain towns.
In the 1900s, Yemen became swept up in regional geopolitics. The Osmanli Empire died in the fire of World War I, leaving North Yemen as an independent imamate. South Yemen continued as a British colony called the Protectorate of Aden. (They were called “North Yemen” and “South Yemen,” but confusingly, North Yemen is to the west and South Yemen is mostly to the east.) North Yemen had more people and more arable land, while South Yemen was mostly desert stretching along the Arabian coast — Britain chiefly focused on Aden. Modern Saudi Arabia also took form during this period (it’s named after the Sauds, the ruling dynasty).
In 1962, a military coup toppled the imam of North Yemen. With his religious legitimacy and long lineage, he didn’t go quietly, and instead mounted a rebellion with his Shi’ite supporters in the north. North Yemen’s harassed dictator turned for help to Egypt, and Gamal Abden Nasser, Egypt’s dictator, responded gladly. Nasser was big on military dictatorship, socialism, secularism, and Arab nationalism, and he was eager to promote Arab governments who shared his views. He was too proud to let pesky logistical issues get in his way. As a result, he committed Egypt to a pointless guerrilla war in Yemen’s mountains, while Saudi Arabia, irritated at the upstart across the Red Sea, propped up their fellow monarch. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs perished in an inconclusive and nasty insurgency.
The war burned off in 1970, when the republicans agreed to allow some of the royalists into their government. It coasted along under the relatively moderate governance of Ali Abdullah Salih starting in 1978.
Meanwhile South Yemen threw out the Brits in 1967 and went full-blown Communist, the only country in the Arab world to do this. It also fought among itself incessantly — all 5 of South Yemen’s leaders were thrown out of office, and 2 of them were killed. It also fought short wars with North Yemen in 1972, ’78, and ’79. Its economy was a dismal failure. But on the plus side, it modernized the country, promoted feminism and education, quenched Yemen’s chronic tribal warfare, and never really regarded the other Yemen as a full-blown enemy.
When the Soviet Union, South Yemen’s patron, collapsed, the Yemens reunified. Like other unifications of this type, it was more of an annexation: North Yemen, with its greater population and resources, swallowed the South. Sana’a, North Yemen’s capital, became the national capital. Salih continued as dictator. Many “south” Yemenites resent the annexation and point to ongoing discrimination, repression, and oil money getting taken by the “north” as reasons to secede. South Yemen’s ruling Socialist Party went into decline after reunification and was beaten up in another civil war in 1994, when the ruling party (the General People’s Congress) ganged up with al-Islah (an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood) to pound it into submission.
But reunified Yemen’s problems didn’t end there. North Yemen’s mountain tribes chafed under Salih’s continuing repression and clamored for more political rights and autonomy. Uniting as the Ansar Allah movement under the rule of the Huthi family, they have fought off the army since 2003. Al-Qaeda, the terrorist outfit behind the 9/11/2001 attacks, grew in Yemen’s eastern badlands like mold in a humid warehouse. By the late ’00s jihadist hoodlums were governing themselves and causing security problems. Members of the People’s Congress occasionally quarreled with Salih. No wonder he called governing Yemen “like dancing on the heads of snakes.”
Meanwhile, Yemen is poor, much more than any other Arab country. It has few exports other than oil and not nearly enough to make it a First World country like its counterparts in the rest of Arabia. Its people depend on wheat and rice imports. Agriculture depends on groundwater, and it’s running out. There are fuel shortages and long blackouts. Complaining about any of this will land you in jail.
Yemen’s ongoing tensions exploded in 2011 in the Arab Spring. Most of the country was tired of Salih after 33 years of rule. After he was almost killed in a mosque bomb, he left the country to heal and handed power over to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Even though Hadi convened a National Dialogue Conference to promote more inclusive governance, it has mostly failed. Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemenite political analyst, cites reasons ranging from a lack of fair representation of the country’s different constituencies to a simple failure to follow up on its decisions. Meanwhile corruption, censorship, and violence continued unabated. Yemen’s festering problems go on festering.
The Huthis thus had fertile ground when they restarted their rebellion last year. Seasoned and tough fighters, they have made impressive gains, seizing Sana’a in January and driving Hadi into exile. Hadi continued ruling from Aden for a while, but his army crumbled before the Huthi onslaught. In March he left the country entirely, fleeing into the arms of his dear patron… Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is vastly different from Yemen. It has coasted along with only minor disturbances since its founding. Its ruling dynasty is propped up by massive oil wealth and its population has a great standard of living. This makes it the most powerful and important Arab country and a key power broker in the region. As the center of Islam, it also benefits from immense prestige across the Muslim world, and its society is deeply conservative.
Even though Yemen, as we’ve seen, has been unstable for a while, the new war is more unsettling than usual for the Saudis. The Huthis are in the north of the country, near the Saudi border, and they’ve occasionally crossed the border to harass the Saudi army. The inevitable flow of refugees are an annoyance. Al-Qaeda goes unchecked except for the occasional American drone strike, and Saudi Arabia is worried about the spread of jihadist ideology (even the Sauds aren’t immune to the charge of not being Muslim enough).
Most of all, though, it’s worried about Iran. You see, the Huthis happen to be Shi’ite. For the most part this hasn’t played a major role in Yemenite politics, which break up across sectarian lines as often as along them. (Salih, for example, is Shi’ite.) But the Muslim world has been fighting sectarian battles more and more lately, mostly thanks to the war in Iraq, and sectarian hatred has been ratcheted up. Iran, the great Shi’ite power, has stepped in everywhere to prop up Shi’ite militias — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — and the opportunity to harass its great enemy, Saudi Arabia, on its southern flank was too much to resist. Analysts aren’t entirely sure, but it seems likely that the Huthi successes in the past half-year are partly due to Iranian aid.
Iran is another stabilizing force in West Asia — a strong, relatively well-off society with a well-educated and comparatively quiescent populace. It’s taken advantage of the chaos elsewhere to advance its interests — making Iraq a client state, propping up the Gaza Strip as an independent country, supporting the government in the brutal Syrian Civil War. Shi’ites may be a minority in the area, but Iranian backing has made them more powerful than their numbers indicate. Saudi Arabia is worried about this, especially with the approaching prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Another factor is that Saudi Arabia is not entirely Sunni. It has a minority population of about 10% Shi’ites. These are mostly concentrated in the east… and the south. It’s worried about them getting ideas if a Shi’ite uprising in Yemen is overly successful.
So in March King Salman responded to the threat of a total Huthi takeover by bombing Yemen. Taking cues from the war raging up north against the Islamic State, he’s assembled an Arab coalition: Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar (which has a somewhat renegade foreign policy), and Egypt (which is apparently still concerned about safeguarding the Red Sea but probably not interested in getting into another quagmire). Saudi Arabia even tried to call in a favor with Pakistan (that favor being lots and lots of money), but Pakistan, feeling pressure from Iran and probably just not interested in quixotic foreign adventures, has demurred. Oman, Yemen’s other neighbor, is also trying to keep out of trouble.
So far the operation has backfired in that sectarian tensions have only been inflamed. Saudi Shi’ites, enraged at the ongoing repression against them in a fiercely Sunni country, have started fighting police and demonstrating in support of the Huthis. The Huthis remain in control of the key western parts of the country.
Old political alignments are getting twisted around. Salih is back in the country and apparently orchestrating the rebellion from behind the scenes. He thinks a Huthi takeover is now in his interests, since they aren’t organized enough for national leadership and the People’s Congress is more loyal to him than Hadi. Saudi Arabia is crushing the Shi’ites even though it had sponsored them in the civil war in the ’60s. The Socialists are even making a resurgence and allying with al-Islah, their old enemies, as a result of common People’s Congress persecution.
The fate of Yemen is still unclear. Without a force on the ground there’s not much Saudi Arabia & co. will be able to achieve other than kill Shi’ites and civilians. The Huthis seem more interested in making a point than a full-blown takeover. Thus a clear victor is nowhere in sight. There is a clear loser, though — the Yemenite people. After enduring years of water shortages, food shortages, fuel shortages, dictatorship, violence, and poverty, they now have to deal with a collapse of government and death from the air. Unsurprisingly, the war is generating lots of refugees — even to Somalia, a similarly messed-up country that usually sends refugees to Yemen.
Islam is divided into two main sects, the Sunni and the Shi’a. Detailing their differences is outside the realm of this blog post, but suffice it to say that they’ve been split since the 600s, almost since the birth of Islam itself. Sunni is far and away the majority sect (far more than Catholicism is in Christianity, for instance), but Yemen has a minority of around 40% Shi’ites.
There has been some anxiety over this war because it’s an obvious proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Sunni and Shi’ite titans, and because it’s one more Arab country falling apart thanks to mismanagement, which is an ideal breeding ground for terrorists. It’s definitely cause for concern, but I’m not convinced that it will escalate into the Great War of the Middle East, as some pundits predict, because Yemen is too marginal and it’s had its fair share of fighting before. It is one more sign, though, of a serious and growing problem in the Muslim World: the Sunni-Shi’a split widening violently. It is also another sign of the general Arab failure to have well-organized, functional societies, which is ultimately what’s dooming the Arab Awakening.