Not a Sunni-Shia conflict
The nightmare that is Yemen has not only been brought about by regional rivalries. US and British arms sales and diplomatic support are vital, writes Yassamine Mather
During the last few days the port of Hudaydah in Yemen has been the scene of fierce battles between a Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces - the latest phase in a bitter civil war. Hudaydah, a city of 600,000 people, has been the only major port controlled by the Houthi rebels and its proximity to the capital, Sana’a, makes it a strategic asset. Seventy percent of the country’s imports pass through it. The attack on the port is said to be part of a cynical plot to stop discussions of a peace plan prepared by UN envoy Martin Griffiths. He had warned that an attack on Hudaydah would “take peace off the table in a single stroke”.1
Naturally, the Trump administration denies egging on the attempt to capture Hudaydah - despite being challenged by US senators, including those worrying over continuing arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Last week, in a show of concern, acting assistant secretary of state for near east affairs David Satterfield gave specific information about the location of targets that should be avoided, based on satellite data.
However, on June 15 the US and the UK opposed Sweden’s attempt to initiate a UN security council statement demanding a ceasefire. Over the last few months a number of UN agencies have declared the country a humanitarian disaster zone. There have been at least 10,000 deaths, and the spread of famine, as well as epidemics, are taking their toll. But who cares? After all, Saudi Arabia is guaranteeing thousands of jobs in the US and British arms industries, aren’t they?
Contrary to the ignorant claims made by the likes of Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, what we are seeing is not a ‘Sunni-Shia conflict’. First, there has been a history of unrest and civil war in Yemen, long predating the current Iran-Saudi rivalry. Secondly, the Houthis adhere to a form of Zaidism - “one of the Shia sects closest in terms of theology to Hanafi Sunni Islam”.2
The current conflict dates back to 2014, when the government’s decision to lift fuel subsidies angered many Yemenis. There were massive street protests - not just from Houthi supporters - with demands that the government stand down. The Houthis took over Sana’a in September 2014 and the official government was forced to flee.
Yemen has played a crucial geopolitical role for centuries, as it forms the southern part of the Arabian peninsula and is situated close to the Horn of Africa. The country also has a long history as a route for trade going from India to the Mediterranean.
In pre-Islamic times the area was called Arabia Felix (happy Arabia). But in the 7th century, following the collapse of the Persian Sassanid empire, the Persian governor of Yemen, as well as local tribal leaders, converted to Islam. Mohammed sent his cousin, Ali, to Sana’a around 630 AD and later the country became part of the Arab caliphates.
By the 9th century, imams from the Zaidi sect had installed theocratic rule in the northern part of Yemen. Their political influence lasted until the 20th century. But in the 19th century the Ottoman empire had seized control of Sana’a and nearby towns in the north, while soldiers of the British East India Company captured Aden (south Yemen) in 1832. By 1904, the two spheres of influence were officially recognised through a treaty signed between the Ottomans and the British: Yemen was divided into an Ottoman north and a British south. For the British, Aden remained a strategic port, providing a vital link with its Indian empire.
The British had controlled southern Yemen from 1839, but by 1965 most of the tribal states were part of the British-sponsored Federation of South Arabia. However, two rival factions - the pro-Moscow National Liberation Front (NLF) and the pro-Egyptian Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) fought a prolonged struggle against British occupation … and against each other. The NLF emerged victorious. In November 1967 British troops were forced to pull out and the People’s Republic of Yemen, comprising Aden and South Arabia, was proclaimed. Three years later an explicitly ‘official communist’ faction of the NLF won power and changed the name of the country to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the NLF itself morphing into the Socialist Party.
In May 1990, following the collapse of bureaucratic socialism in eastern Europe and with the demise of the Soviet Union imminent, the government of the PDRY agreed to an unequal merger with the more populous, pro-Saudi Yemen Arab Republic (north Yemen). Ali Abdullah Saleh of the north became head of state and the right to hold private property was constitutionally enshrined.
In December 1991 and early 1992, there was a good deal of unrest, including riots, as a result of deteriorating economic conditions. Tribal forces asserted themselves. The north-south unification agreement began to unravel. Yemen was consumed by a devastating civil war. What remained of the Socialist Party was crushed. However, following the civil war, there was no improvement in the economic situation, and street protests rumbled on. Poverty was widespread. Yemen is ranked as the poorest country in the Middle East.
The 2011 protests coincided with upsurges in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as elsewhere in the Arab world. In common with other countries affected by the Arab spring, the protests focussed not just on economic conditions, but on corruption. Pro-democracy protestors demanded the resignation of president Saleh, who had by now ruled for 33 years. Although he granted some economic concessions, he refused to step down.
But, once again, there were splits at the top, including within the armed forces, with sections of the military siding with the opposition, while regiments controlled by loyalists took to shooting down protestors in Sana’a. Eventually a post-Saleh ‘unity’ government was formed, which included representatives of the opposition.
However, that ‘unity’ was short-lived. By 2015 the current civil war had begun - the two rival factions both claiming to be the genuine Yemeni government. Houthi forces controlled Sana’a as well as Hudaydah in the north, while the faction loyal to the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi is based in Aden in the south. Local affiliates of both al Qa’eda and Islamic State have also carried out attacks, with the former said to control large areas along the coast.
In March 2015, after taking over Sana’a, the Houthi-led Supreme Revolutionary Committee declared a general mobilisation aimed at overthrowing Hadi. This provoked an expected reaction from the Saudis, who gave their full backing to the Hadi government. It was this that really gave the conflict its pronounced international dimension, with the Saudi-United Arab Emirates coalition on one side facing the Iran-backed Houthis on the other.
Over the last few years the Saudi intervention has been widely condemned, because of the horrendous destruction and loss of life. However, the US and the UK are continuing to support the Saudis through arms sales, providing satellite data, military advisors, etc.
It is, of course, totally correct to oppose the brutal actions of the coalition. But, at the same time, Iran’s opportunistic support for the Houthis, as part of its regional rivalry with Saudi Arabia, should also be condemned. However, the idea that the conflict has only flared up because of the regional ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran is a lie repeated all too often by Washington and its apologists.