By Dr Walaa Ramadan
31 October 2014
As seen in all the countries that partook in the Arab Spring and succeeded in toppling their dictator leader, the revolution did not end by the removal of their despotic ruler. Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen know this particularly well. The dominating matter which emerged from the Arab Spring is Saudi Arabia and UAE's position regarding the emerging popularity for Political Islam when the populace of the respective countries was allowed to democratically choose who leads them.
Following the toppling of their despotic leaders, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya saw the rise of Political Islam. While Tunisia attained relative stability and the Islamist party, Ennahda, has been partaking in the democratic electoral process since the fall of Ben Ali, Egypt and Libya have not seen a similar calm.
Egypt and Libya have both seen dissimilar instability since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qadhafi respectively, especially Egypt, which has seen the killing of thousands of Egyptians and the incarceration of tens of thousands of others following a bloody military coup which came after only one year of the ruling of the country's first democratically-elected civilian President, bringing back the old regime to rule the nation once again.
Saudi Arabia and UAE's position on the rise of Political Islam became unequivocally evident in Egypt when the two Gulf States, as well as Kuwait, funded the military coup against President Mohamed Morsi, led by then defence minister, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi. A war against the Muslim Brotherhood, of which President Morsi belonged to, became the predominant objective of the aforementioned Gulf States, where the reformist transnational movement was designated a terrorist organisation in the Kingdom on March 7 earlier this year, a major escalation for the country, which, unlike the UAE which has been very outspoken about its opposition to the Brotherhood since 2011, has avoided any kind of comments on the Brotherhood.
During the Egyptian uprising in January 2011, the Yemeni's also erupted in mass protests, initially against unemployment, corruption and economic conditions, but went on to call for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign. In early June of the same year, following the refusal of Saleh to sign a transition agreement brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council, heavy street fighting ensued which included artillery and mortar shelling in which Saleh was injured.
The day following the incident, Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur Al-Hadi took over as President while Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia. The transfer of power was celebrated by the crowds although Yemeni officials insisted that Saleh's absence was temporary. February 2012 saw Presidential elections which saw Al-Hadi officially ending Saleh's 33-year rule and what was considered as the end of the Yemeni revolution.
The situation in Yemen has been relatively nascent since the new president took oath, until recently, when Yemen's Houthis, a Zaydi-Shiite group from Northern Yemen, took over the country's capital, Sanaa. In 2011, the Houthis had participated in the revolution against President Saleh, along with the students, the alliance of Yemeni tribes, Yemeni Congregation for Reform (frequently called Al-Islah), and others.
The Houthis, and their prime partners Iran, are known to be staunch enemies of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but the target of this sudden advance was against the reformist Islamist party, Al-Islah, the main opposition party in Yemen who currently head the government, also considered as Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood.
Rejecting the transitional government formed after the revolution in which the Houthis were left out despite being part of the revolutionary alliance, and feeling that none of their grievances had been addressed, the Houthis continued to expand militarily and were ready to retaliate against the main opposition. Like Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Houthis became powerful and influential after developing themselves militarily. This they were able to do with the help and support of Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been rumoured to have supplied the Houthis with weapons and money.
The Houthis who were never in a position to openly challenge Al-Islah despite being stronger, now had the support of Saleh and his party, the General People's Congress, brokering an alliance against what was perceived to be a common threat. Indeed, Saleh, from retirement, has made statements hinting at support for the Houthis. In this, Saleh is hoping to restore popularity and pave the way for his son General Ahmed Ali, Yemen's current ambassador to the UAE, to take power.
With the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after the forced removal and kidnapping of President Morsi, and the war against the movement and its affiliates in the region, this averted the Houthis attention to the fact that groups such as Al-Islah were finding themselves to be in quicksand, and went in for the kill. Essentially, the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, which became associated with Islamic terrorism and radicalism, allowed the Houthis to rise above their former station and firmly define themselves as a new power in Yemen. This they were able to do, not only with the support and backing of former President Saleh, but with the backing of Saudi Arabia and its ally UAE too.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in decades of strategic rivalry for power and influence in the Middle East, based on sectarian and ideological principles, with Saudi Arabia deeming itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim world, and Iran as the leader of the Shia Muslim world. But it appears that Saudi Arabia's war on political Islam, and more specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood, bears so much importance for the Kingdom that they were willing to compromise on their ideologies and reached a de facto understanding with their biggest rival, Iran, in supporting the Yemeni Shia group against the Islamist party.
Yemen straddles Saudi Arabia's southern border, located on the southern tip of the Gulf peninsula, and with a population of 35 per cent Shia, it would serve as a strategic base for Iran, particularly in its rivalry against Saudi Arabia being "easy prey for Tehran to penetrate and manipulate" the Kingdom. But while this may indeed be another Saudi-Iranian proxy war for the Iranians like that in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, the Kingdom doesn't seem to be playing the same game, or its hatred for the Brotherhood has blinded it of its vision, and in its support for the Houthis, who they had previously gone to war with, it most certainly getting itself in a deep hole.
The Arab world is currently seeing the coming of Shi'ism spread across its lands. Iranian politician and loyalist of Ali Khamenei, Alireza Zakani, boasted that Iran now controls four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and now Sanaa. Zakani added that Iran considered the Yemeni revolution to be an extension of the Iranian revolution and that 14 out of 20 provinces would soon come under the control of the Houthis.
The Iranians don't intend to stop there as Zakani stated: "Definitely, the Yemeni revolution will not be confined to Yemen alone. It will extend following its success into Saudi territories. The Yemeni-Saudi vast borders will help expedite its reach into the depth of Saudi land."
The extent that Saudi has gone in its war against political Islam will surely come to bite it with the Kingdom now surrounded by Iranian-led systems. The most likely culprit of the Shia uprising of the Muslim world is likely the Kingdom itself, and with its Eastern Province already heavily populated by Shias, Iran already has a friendly base on the land from which to infiltrate and spread.
Saudi Arabia may have gone too far in its war to rid the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, an objective which was instigated in order that the Saudi monarch may hold on to its authoritarian rule and keep democracy at bay. Its opposition to the Arab Spring and the mere act of the Kingdom opening its doors and hosting dictators, including Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, not to mention its support of the military coup in Egypt and the recent attacks on Libya, and now its support for the Houthis, are clear indications of how openly it leads the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring, opposing any democratic movements and standing by fellow authoritarian allies, old and new.
However, this latest move by the Kingdom may be its final for the game they thought they were playing seems to have reached check-mate.