Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 January - 3 February 2010
Issue No. 983
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

More than they can chew

Gamal Nkrumah examines the ramifications of the three-pronged rebellion bedevilling the Yemeni authorities

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Yemeni soldiers and tribesmen wave their weapons in the air after a battle against the Houthi Shia rebels in Daher Al-Himar in the province of Saada, northern Yemen (photo: AFP)

In an unprecedented and surprise development the militant Islamist Houthi movement declared that they were embarking on a unilateral truce along Saudi Arabia's 2,000km border with Yemen, an area that is ill-defined, disputed and war-ravaged. Much of the rugged mountainous area is unofficially regarded as no-man's land.

Saudi Arabia has intervened militarily to protect its territorial integrity and stop the Yemeni Houthi insurrection from spilling over into the kingdom, where an estimated 15 per cent of the population is Shia Muslim. In 2001, the Saudi authorities temporarily lost control over the strategic provincial capital of Najran near the Yemeni border.

Najran is a stronghold of Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia along with the oil-producing Eastern Province of the Kingdom. Tribal peoples roam the area and the border, especially between the southwestern-most Saudi province of Asir and the northern reaches of Yemen, the area divided among many tribes. The tribes in northern Yemen have long paid allegiance to the Yemeni central government in the capital Sanaa. However, even though Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh is himself a Zaydi Shia, he has long been seen associated with the secularist ruling clique of Yemen and more recently with the other ruling families of the Arabian Peninsula, many with substantial Shia majorities.

The Shia of Yemen and Saudi Arabia are Zaydi -- unlike the Twelver Shia predominant in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. Yemen also has a substantial Ismaili Shia population. The Zaydi Shia people of Yemen nonetheless have recently been politically affiliated with Iran, seeing it as an important counterweight to the Sunni rulers in the region, put in place during the colonial period.

The official Iranian daily Keyhan denounced the alliance of Saudi and Yemeni authorities in the face of Houthi insurrection as a "union of Arab reactionaries" and called for the upholding of the "national rights" of Yemeni Shia. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki have warned against "foreign intervention". They dismiss angrily accusations that Iran is arming the rebels.

Both the Saudi and Yemeni governments have played down the reconciliatory announcement of the Houthi movement, taking it to be a sign of weakness, clearly hoping to bury the rebels under the rubble of US-supplied, Saudi-funded bombs. The Yemeni government has been fighting the Houthi insurrection and is being backed financially and militarily by the Saudis. In the past two months the Saudis have even taken matters into their own hands, launching independent attacks on Houthi militias.

The Houthis claim that US planes, certainly US- trained pilots, have participated in these attacks. The Yemeni authorities have launched a military full- scale war against the Houthi militias in northern Yemen around the city of Saada code-named Operation Scorched Earth, in which hundreds if not thousands have been killed and massive damage sustained by the locals, who live in extreme poverty, disenfranchised by the central government.

The humanitarian catastrophe that ensued threatens to destabilise Yemen further. The number of internally displaced people has reached 250,000 and the deplorable humanitarian conditions in Yemen have worsened in recent months. Yemen is, after all, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula and is home to refugees from the neighbouring Horn of Africa nations and especially Somalia.

Yemen is unhappy, divided and foundering both at home and in the regional context. Apart from the Houthi insurrection, Sunni extremists of the Salafi factions, ostensibly with ties to Al-Qaeda, are complicating the Yemen government's attempt to foster closer ties with the West. That is an indulgence most Yemeni political establishment believe the country cannot afford.

The third anti-government force are the southern secessionists who are continuing their struggle for independence in the south.

Not so long ago, it was argued that Yemen was one of the worst-run countries in the Muslim world, and one of the hardest to mend. Yemeni republicans backed by Gamal Abdel-Nasser's revolutionary Egypt ousted the royalists supported by the Saudis in the 1960s. The royalist failure was self-inflicted.

Political instability persisted until the current president came to power as a 36-year-old promising army officer when he usurped power after his predecessor mysterious died in 1978. He has successfully navigated the reunification of north and south Yemen.

Saleh consolidated his position as Yemen's strongman. He is a quick learner. He has never wavered from his goal of strengthening Yemen's regional role, playing off his opponents against each other.

His opponents have made little effort to catch up, until now. The stakes are all higher because at issue is the resilience of the regime itself. With the escalation of F-15 and Tornado ground attack aircraft against the Houthi rebels and with the promised closer cooperation of the United States, Yemen has become the centre of regional political entanglements. Washington is especially concerned about Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) which seems to have made Yemen its stronghold in the region. The Yemeni authorities' attitude towards AQAP, however, is ambiguous.

There is a divergence of opinion and differences in priorities between Yemen and its Western allies. The Houthi rebellion is the main concern of the regime, while Washington is more worried about AQAP. The Saudis are also more concerned with the immediate danger the Houthi rebels pose to the stability of both Yemen and the kingdom.

Saleh is a competent tactician who has cleverly managed to hold the reins of power in his troubled homeland, carefully balancing forces of the right and the left. Such labels are still used in Western diplomatic parlance, but have vague meanings in Yemen itself. Pro-Western Saudi Arabia backed the Marxists of the now defunct South Yemen against him prior to the reunification of the two Yemens. Antiquated labels have their uses in impoverished nations such as Yemen where they take on additional connotations.

There are many Western observers who believe that Yemen's National Security Agency (NSA) has become embroiled in a war by proxy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthi movement is regarded with as much suspicion among both Western powers and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) headed by Saudi Arabia, as Lebanon's Hizbullah and Gaza's Hamas.

The picture in Yemen is complicated further by AQAP. Their leader in the Arab peninsula, Nasser Al-Wahishi, is implicated in several plots to overthrow conservative leaders in the region. Yemen has emerged as the frontline in the battle against fundamentalists, both Shia and Sunni.

The Nigerian national Umar Abdel-Muttaleb was recruited by AQAP to execute the foiled attempt to blow up a US airline en route from Amsterdam to Detroit. And, the Houthi website proclaims: "Allah is Great. Death to America. Death to Israel. The Jews are accursed. Victory for Islam." Such statements, though old hat in this part of the world, sent shock waves in Western capitals and among their allies in the region.

The Yemeni president and Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qorbi, just back from a trip to the United States, stressed the priority of quelling the Houthi rebellion. The chorus is joined by Egypt. "There is conclusive evidence of Iranian interference in the domestic affairs of Yemen. The Iranians are financing and arming Shia groups, and it is in Egypt's national interest to support the Yemeni government," head of the Egyptian Parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee Mustafa El-Feki told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Egypt cannot stand idly by and watch the security situation in Yemen deteriorate any further."

It is against this backdrop that President Hosni Mubarak dispatched both the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Abul-Gheit and General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman to Yemen to convey messages of support from President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is concerned about reports of infiltration of Iranian arms and ammunition to Houthi militias through Yemen's Red Sea ports. Egypt has long regarded the Red Sea as an integral part of its strategic national security priority.

Mubarak reassured Saleh that Yemeni unity, security and territorial integrity are a priority of Egypt's foreign policy agenda because of Yemen's strategic control of Bab Al-Mandab Straits at the southern end of the Red Sea -- a location long seen as a key to Arab and Egyptian national security.

Qat, the national soporific, is an apt symbol of Saleh's dilemma: by playing off his neighbours and courting the US, has he now bitten off more than he can chew?

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