By Jawed Naqvi
April 7th, 2015
The war in Yemen has been portrayed by the media as an offshoot of a Shia-Sunni rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is rivalry but not sectarian in its essence. Let’s consider another possibility with no room for parochial emotions. See it instead as the story of vendetta as portrayed in a great Agatha Christie serial murder plot. Christie’s And Then There Were None spawned several versions of Hollywood and Bollywood movies.
Compare the ongoing Saudi assault on Yemen’s Houthi rebels with the final sequence from one of the Christie movies. The last quarry is about to be taken out by a mysterious avenger who has already packed off the previous five or six conspirators to their graves. Those murdered one by one were complicit in a capital crime and were in turn getting hunted down in revenge.
The not so mysterious avenger in the Middle East plot is, of course, Saudi Arabia. Those who had incurred Riyadh’s wrath included the PLO, Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Syria and what was then South Yemen. North Yemen, formerly led by a quasi-Shia Zaydi fell foul of Riyadh, not because of the ruler’s religious beliefs but for siding with Saddam Hussein in the occupation of Kuwait. That Yemeni leader was Ali Abdullah Saleh recently deposed in a Saudi-backed power struggle. Saleh’s usurper was deposed by the Houthis and is being sheltered in Saudi Arabia.
Where was the Shia-Sunni issue when a purportedly Shia Saleh, now guiding the Houthi rebels, had sided with a Sunni Saddam Hussein against a Shia Iran? Saleh’s Yemen was Saddam’s only supporter in the UN Security Council. We are told that the Saudis feared a secret pact with Saddam perhaps to restore Yemeni rule over provinces lost to the kingdom in a 1934 war. President George H.W. Bush and King Fahd worked together to punish Saleh for his pro-Iraqi sentiments. It’s a mystery; why would he become Iran’s conduit?
Following the PLO’s rout in Beirut, the house of Saud fixed its gaze on Algeria before turning to Iraq, Libya and Syria, in that order.
Ms Christie’s plots revelled in suspenseful climaxes and unexpected endings. At least I would hold my breath for any possible surprises in Yemen. But let’s return to the rest of the Saudi quarries picked off for a different capital crime.
Hasn’t every Sunni country and the PLO — a limiting way to describe essentially secular Arab states, a description often spurred by lazy journalese — all those that crossed swords with the Saudis, have they not been decimated? The ‘crime’ for which the Arab countries plus the PLO paid with thousands of lives was committed in Morocco in 1981. As a reporter, I had a good ringside view of the fateful Arab League summit in Fez in Morocco.
The meeting was supposed to endorse a Saudi plan to end the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and Hafez al-Assad boycotted the meet. Worse, they insultingly sent their deputies to denounce the eight-point Fahd Plan.
The PLO’s main Fatah group, though largely on board with the Saudis — since they controlled Yasser Arafat’s purse strings — still refused to accept the seventh point of the Fahd proposal, an implicit recognition of the state of Israel.
The first thing the Israelis did after the Fez failure was to mow down the PLO bases in Beirut in 1982.
Whether they carried out the Sabra-Shattila massacre of Palestinian refugees in excess of the Saudi assent can only be surmised. But who can deny that the Saudi-Israeli bonhomie goes back to at least 1981? The story about some new secret deal between them is old hat.
Of course, post-1979 Iran remains a thorn in the flesh of both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Yet Iranian clerics were not averse to cutting deals with them. One such surfaced as the Iran-Contra affair, involving Israeli arms to Tehran. Saudis and Israel both wanted Sunni Saddam’s military prowess to be degraded by Khomeini. They also supported Saddam in militarily mutilating Iran.
The nuclear threat from Iran is a recent innovation after the Shia charge wouldn’t stick. Iran’s successful if short-lived alliances with Hamas in Gaza and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt were a setback to the Shia-Sunni theorists. In Afghanistan, on its eastern flank, Tehran became close to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a devoutly Sunni Pakhtun leader. Hekmatyar sought exile in Iran after the Taliban took over Afghanistan.
Following the PLO’s rout in Beirut, the house of Saud fixed its gaze on Algeria before turning to Iraq, Libya and Syria, in that order. Algeria opposed the Fahd plan, worse, its foreign minister was coming close to Iran to broker peace with Iraq. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia favoured that. Mohammed bin Yahyia was killed when his Algerian plane was shot down over the Iraq-Iran-Turkey border. The supposedly Sunni Arab was returning from his first meeting with Khomeini.
By 1985, the Saudis were doing what they were seen to do with Russia recently; they created an oil glut.
The secular, socialist government of oil-producing Algeria plunged into a crisis. Saudi money helped marginalise the less extremist Muslim group that won the ensuing elections and shored up the throat-slitting forebears of the Islamic State. That battle rages on.
Iraq was target number three in the Christie-like saga. Such was the missionary zeal with which Riyadh focused its energies on him that the Baathist Saddam Hussein died reciting the kalima. It was not so much a retribution for the occupation of Kuwait as a punishment for the Fez insult.
The Saudi-approved lynching by Sunnis of Muammar Qadhafi was seen on TV. Ironically, Qadhafi was a bitter foe of Iran, which further belies the Shia-Sunni narrative. That murder too had its roots in Fez.
And of course Syria though not completely vanquished has been nicely taught a lesson for the indiscretion its current president’s father committed at the fateful Arab summit.
And South Yemen? How would Christie explain that disappearance? Wait for the last page.
Jawed Naqvi is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.