By Dr Haider Shah
April 04, 2015
Tribes essentially evolved from family units in order to fulfil the survival needs of prehistoric human groups who found that bigger well-knit packs ensured better food availability and security against predators. Intertribal warfare, however, resulted as an unintended consequence; human history is full of the horrors of long wars among tribal groups in almost all parts of the world.
Yemen is in the headlines these days resulting in multifarious concerns for Pakistan’s decision makers and analysts. At times, taking a step backwards and looking at an issue from a historical perspective helps in glimpsing a fuller picture. So, rather than reviewing the immediate past of Yemen it is better if we go back many centuries and reach the Arab peninsula as it existed in the sixth century AD. What is now called Yemen was then Himyar where Yusuf ruled. Interestingly, he was the last Jewish Arab king to rule while the world was divided between the Christian Byzantine and Zoroastrian Persian empires. The local population had converted to Judaism in the late fourth century and by about 425 AD a Jewish kingdom was in place. Yusuf took great pleasure in detailing the massacres he had inflicted on all Christians, who refused to convert to Judaism, to his Arab and Persian allies. Religious faith played the role of motivating, organising and aligning the tribal groups of one region against another region and hence was a change lever in the hands of emperors and other key players of international affairs.
Himyar, like Yemen of today, was sandwiched between competing forces of the Ethiopians of Axum in East Africa, the Byzantines in Constantinople, the Jews in Jerusalem, the Sasanian Persians in Mesopotamia and the pagan Arab tribes of the desert. The Himyarite kingdom was supported by the Persian Empire while the Ethiopians were supported by the Byzantine emperor to undermine the Persian Empire. Sailing from East Africa, the Ethiopian army was joined by reinforcements from the Christian emperor in Constantinople and, in 525, the militant kingdom in Himyar was finally overthrown while Yusuf perished in the red sea along with his horse.
This interesting event happened close to the time when the little known desert dwelling Arab pagans were destined to be unified by a common faith and then begin their era of conquering foreign lands. Just as the Pashtun tribes living along the Pak-Afghan border were as fierce in fighting enemies during Alexander the Great’s time as they remained after changing to the Muslim faith, tribal warfare in the Arabian Peninsula along various faith lines has not changed in its fundamental contours. In the seventh and eighth centuries the political scene was dominated by three groups of tribes along a sectarian divide. The ruling establishment supported the traditional tribal method of choosing a ruler while the opponents preferred the tradition of inheritance of spiritual legacy and thus supported the claim of the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali. There was a third group that wanted to remain independent of these rival camps and were known as Kharjies. If we look at the political scene today we can see the shadows of past history as various tribes are aligned against each other along the pro-ruling Sunni establishment or the pro-Iran Shia insurgents. Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are the mirror image of the Kharjies of the past. A lot of blood was shed in the seventh century: in the Battle of the Camel and the many skirmishes that followed between warring tribal groupings. The pictures of the bloodstained bodies of children in Yemen appearing these days on social media suggest that not much has changed in the Arab world since then.
The upshot of my historical analysis of the Arabian Peninsula in general and Yemen in particular is that complex tribal cum sectarian strife has always been the hallmark of this region. The alarming development is that we are being sucked into this conflict. Ideally, we should steer clear of any Shia-Sunni conflict in the region but, at times, neutrality is also translated as siding with one of the parties to the conflict. It is an extremely awkward situation for our policymakers. If they make available military support to Saudi Arabia as requested then Iran, our influential neighbour, will be annoyed. We are already experiencing a sectarian wave of militant extremism in the country. Our involvement in the Yemen crisis would further confound the sectarian problem at our end. In case, should we turn down the Saudi led Arab states’ request for help, we run the risk of compromising our economic health as we not only depend on foreign aid from Arab countries but a significant part of foreign remittances comes from these countries and our exports also depend on our good relations with them.
So, it is a case of being between the devil and the deep blue sea. While the government is pressurised by analysts and public opinion to stay neutral and play the role of negotiator, it may end up losing the goodwill of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. At a pragmatic level, we all can understand that if Pakistan willy-nilly supports Saudi Arabia, it will not be because of any preference on sectarian grounds but rather will be dictated purely by rational economic compulsions. While the Iran backed Houthis enter the presidential palace in Aden despite the relentless bombing of Saudi fighter planes, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the EU does not come at the right time for Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has to, therefore, be even more careful while it locks its horns with Iran in the Yemeni conflict.
Dr Haider Shah teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com