By Dr Mohammad Taqi
April 02, 2015
The Saudis have sided with all political players in Yemen at one point or another. They want a government of their choosing installed in Sanaa and are willing to go to any extreme for this
As the crisis in Yemen quite predictably lingers on, so does the chorus of what the veteran US diplomat and Yemen expert Barbara Bodine had once described as the “tired canards about Yemen”. In tandem with the cookie-cutter analysis of the Yemen situation is the tedious discourse on sectarianism in Pakistan, depicting any potential Pakistani involvement in Yemen as a surefire trigger for an all out Shia-Sunni war at home. Timely warnings, advising Pakistani civilian and military leadership to steer clear of the Yemeni quicksand, came in from many analysts after the government vowed to “defend the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia” and, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz, in a phone conversation with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, expressed full support for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, asserting that “all potentials of the Pakistani army are offered to the Kingdom”.
That Pakistan should not intervene in conflicts that are neither its business nor an existential threat to it is not moot but framing it in sectarian terms could, unfortunately, turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the consequences of which the country, particularly the Shias, can ill afford. Whether the request for troops comes from a Wahhabist monarchy or an Alawite regime, the answer should be a resounding no. Maintaining a non-aligned posture is prudent diplomacy and should not have to be justified on the basis of a flimsy Shia-Sunni binary. Neither are all conflicts in the Middle East purely sectarian nor are all sectarian conflicts are created equal. The overwhelming majority of Pakistani Shias belongs to the Twelver denomination, which has little in common with the Zaydis of Yemen, who self-identify as yet another sect of Islam distinct from the Shias. Zaydis, also called the ‘Fivers’, unlike the Twelver Shias, follow the theological framework laid down by Zayd-Ibne-Ali-Ibne-Hussain and also reject the Vilayat-e-Faqih (rule of the Islamic jurist) model of theocracy established by the late Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran. Insinuating that the Pakistani Shias, who are beleaguered but well-integrated in society and state, will be up in arms in support of the Zaydis of Yemen is fraught with identifying them as agent provocateurs doing the outside powers’ bidding. If the Pakistani Shias were to take to militancy they would have done so after being battered to pulp for years on end now. Identifying them with Iran, the Zaydis or the Syrian Alawite regime is patently lazy scholarship and could potentially be lethal for a community that is practically under siege from the radicalised Wahhabi-Salafi outfits in Pakistan.
The Houthi uprising in Yemen is not about doctrinal or sectarian issues; overwhelmingly Sunni troops loyal to the former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh are fighting alongside the Houthis. Incidentally, just like the Zaydis — of whom the Houthis are but one clan — diverge from the Twelver Shias, the Sunnis of Yemen are predominantly of the Shafi’i denomination, which is distinct from the Saudis and Pakistanis who follow the Wahhabi-Hanbali and Hanafi Sunnism, respectively. Saleh’s son, Ahmad Abdullah Saleh, controlled the republican guards whose alignment with the Houthis tilted the balance against President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who is now on the run. The Zaydis had ruled the northern and northwestern swathes of Yemen for a good 1,000 years when their kingdom, called the Imamate, ended in 1962 with the toppling of their leader, Muhammad al-Badr. Incidentally, the Saudi Arabian monarchy then backed and intervened militarily on behalf of the royalists against the republicans inspired and buttressed by the secular pan-Arabist Gamal Abdal-Nasser. When former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh took charge in 1978 the Saudis backed him and continued to do so throughout the Cold War — against the Marxist-Leninist state in South Yemen — up until his toppling after the 2011 popular uprisings. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which along with the Saudis is now bombing the Houthi-Saleh forces, had brokered a deal in 2011 that allowed Saleh to retain control of large sections of the military.
The Saudis fully supported Ali Abdullah Saleh while he made common cause with al Qaeda in the mid-1990s, when the southern secessionists tried to undo the 1990 reunification of North and South Yemen. Saleh had patronised terrorists like Tareq al-Fadhli, a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihadist war, and accommodated them in his regime. Al-Fadhli formally joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) last year. The Saudis are backing ousted president Hadi and the tribes — many of whom are in cahoots with the AQAP — supporting him. The point being that the Saudi war in Yemen is not about sects or protecting the holy sites in the Kingdom. The Saudis have sided with all political players in Yemen at one point or another. They want a government of their choosing installed in Sanaa and are willing to go to any extreme for this. Is there an Iranian involvement in the present Yemeni crisis? One would be surprised if that was not the case. The Iranian backing of the Houthis, however, has been played by both the Saudis and the Iranians themselves. The hype around Iran’s role gives the Saudis a battle cry as well as an opportunity to the Iranians to be perceived as stronger and more resourceful than they actually are.
The crisis in Yemen remains a tussle over territory, resources and political power between the Houthis, Ali Saleh and a section of the tribal confederacy on one side and Hadi’s ousted regime and other tribes, including the Hashids, on the other. Yemen is a country about two-thirds the size of Pakistan with an exponentially growing population and terribly scarce resources. It has no surface water, i.e. rivers or lakes, and negligible energy resources for a population of 25 million people, one in four of whom is clinically undernourished. The fractious tribes, decades’ old political fault lines and the extreme poverty make Yemen not exactly a cake walk for any army as invaders from the Romans to Nasser’s Arab republicans discovered at their peril. The Pakistani civil and military leadership is beholden to the Saudis for a slew of reasons and the country may end up waddling into the Yemeni quagmire after all. The hefty price of doing geopolitical business with the Saudis for decades has been the virulent radicalisation of Pakistani society, which has directly hurt the country’s majority Sunni population not just smaller sects, the tired canards about Yemen and sectarianism notwithstanding.