By Ali Khan
03 Apr 2015
Late last night I received two Facebook messages from an old friend in Yemen. Initially I thought they were voice recordings but they were actually two videos shot at night in Sana’a. In the pitch black of night my friend said the date out loud while the dark screen of my phone was occasionally flecked by pinpricks of light accompanied by the crackling of gunfire. In the second video the same flecks of light briefly appeared on screen and then the darkness gave way to an orange glow and the dull thud of a bomb dropping somewhere in the distance. He then wrote ‘pray for us.’
A new war has started in the Middle East and there are no UN resolutions condemning the aggression. No one is protesting the legitimacy of the military intervention by a group of Arab countries that have acted completely unilaterally. In fact it seems war had become such a norm that it would not be surprising that people didn’t even notice that Yemen is now the 4th war-zone in the Middle East after Libya, Syria and Iraq not to mention smaller conflicts in other surrounding countries. Of course, the fact that a new war means more arms contracts and sales, more work for UN and other aid agencies, a more fertile ground for extremism, more displaced populations, more anger and hate and more suffering seems entirely irrelevant.
The first most deplorable aspect of this new theatre of war is that the world has blindly accepted that the fight is loosely about Iranian backed Houthis and Sunni Yemenis. In other words that it is about Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism and the regional power-struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is no doubt that both countries are involved in different capacities in Yemen’s internal politics but what is unfortunate is that they have managed to create the perception that this war is just another version of what is happening in Iraq and Syria. The fact is that this narrative has unfairly subsumed what the internal upheavals were actually about: political rights and representation.
Most Houthis follow Zaidism, a sect that traces its roots to 8th century Arabia and the campaign of a great-great grandson of the Prophet (PBUH) who rebelled against the Umayyad caliphs of the time. As Najam Iftikhar Haider has compellingly argued in an article on the Al Jazeera website, both ideas that Houthis are Shi’a Muslims who follow certain Sunni practices and that they are also pro-Iranian militants are ‘deeply flawed.’ He asserts that rather than being lumped into the category of yet another Shi’a heterodox sect that is an extension of Iran, “the Houthis articulate a more activist view, hoping to restore Zaidism to its position as both a religious tradition and a political force.” After the formation of the independent republic of Yemen in 1962 the Zaidis were politically disenfranchised and continued to be sidelined even after their help in ousting President Saleh, himself a Zaidi, in 2011.
The current Saudi intervention in Yemen is not a new development but is the logical culmination of a long history of interference through which the Saudis not only controlled domestic politics but also sought to convert the country into a bastion of Wahabism. This was done by using millions of petro-dollars for building schools, mosques and setting up ‘development projects’ across the country over the past four decades as well as using the migrant Yemeni work-force that came into Saudi Arabia as conduits of both money and ideology. I remember when a Hadhrami friend of mine got into a huge argument, in a place called Shibam-Kowkabam, with a group of young men who had recently returned from their fully ‘sponsored’ studies in Medina. He eventually got so frustrated with their unwillingness to even engage with what he was saying that he dismissed them as puppets of the Najdis, referring to the area of central Arabia from where the al-Saud tribe originally is.
As much as the recent military intervention in Yemen is about staking out territory and also securing Saudi Arabia’s southern borders, in actual fact this campaign is also about stamping out the seeds of any political project that is based on popular participation and could lead to a democratic government. It is about keeping Yemen, a country with the same population as Saudi Arabia, weak. The biggest fear that most of the rulers of the various kingdoms, sultanates, republics and dictatorships in the Middle East have is that popular movements could challenge their political hegemony.
This was evident in the way in which various Arab governments literally paid off their populations when the winds of the ‘Arab-Spring’ seemed to become too threatening. When people couldn’t be bought, dissent was brutally stamped out and in this America and Europe are complicit whereby they demanded adherence to liberal values from everyone except their allies. This war is not about sectarianism but it is about making sure that no country in the Middle East is able to challenge the writ of rulers who often inherited their authority from departing colonial powers. This is supported by the fact that the Saudis did not always see the Zaidis as enemies and indeed supported Zaidi royalists in the 1960s against the possible rise of an Egypt supported Marxist republic in Yemen.
The friend who sent me the Facebook message told me, on the first afternoon that we met, that he was looking forward to the day when he could stand at the gates of hell and welcome all the presidents and kings who had not only made his country but the region their personal fiefdoms. I had travelled around Yemen in his father’s land cruiser some years ago and saw one of the most arrestingly beautiful countries with some of the most interesting, warm and open people I had encountered in the region: a Zaidi scholar in Manakha who bemoaned Saudi influence in the country, a cheerful Wahabi in Mukallah who heartily defended his beliefs but condemned Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism in the region (an exception perhaps), a taxi-driver in Sana’a who had studied French literature at university and was reading Gulliver’s Travels he picked me up at the airport and asked if I knew the Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan, a Sufi in Tarim who took me to see centuries old manuscripts and a factory line-worker for Kraft in Shibam who not only stopped to give me a ride but also then insisted on taking me home for lunch. Wars ruin societies and reduce them to a collection of individuals who become desperate to survive. They destroy centuries of culture and civilisation. In a region that is already beset with conflict, how can the world remain silent about Yemen?