Shi'ites and Sunnis Are Tearing Yemen to Shreds

The U.S. fears that the new Yemeni regime will stop working with them in the fight against Al-Qaida, since the Houthis have taken over the military power centers.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Protesters demonstrate against the deployment of armed militia of the Shi'ite Houthi movement in Sanaa December 26, 2014.
Protesters demonstrate against the deployment of armed militia of the Shi'ite Houthi movement in Sanaa December 26, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In the southern Arabian Peninsula is a country called Yemen. Of the roughly 24 million people who live there, half are under the poverty line. About 60 percent of Yemen’s children suffer from malnutrition, and about 70 percent of its families require assistance from the government and from international organizations.

The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen is under the radar of the Western countries and of media interest. Yemen is at the bottom of the list of countries that began to fall apart after the Arab Spring, after Libya and Syria. Although it is situated on a strategic route to the opening of the Red Sea and has oil reserves estimated at roughly three billion barrels, it is heavily dependent upon aid from Saudi Arabia, which was estimated at about four billion dollars in 2012.

Now Saudi Arabia is considering cutting its assistance, most of which was used to subsidize fuel for the citizens, and the noose around Yemen’s neck is about to become much tighter. This is because a blood-drenched war between Yemen’s Shi’ite minority, which makes up about 45 percent of the population, and its Sunni majority, has been going on in Yemen since July — and in Yemen, the concept of a central government is only theoretical. The war is not religious, but political. It is a fight for rights, opportunities, and a share in government and in budgets.

The Shi’ites in Yemen are not the Shi’ites of Iran or the Alawites of Syria. Most of them belong to Shia’s Zaidi sect, which is a distant faction of Shia. Iranian Shia considers it a deviant movement. But the war is not being waged between the Zaidis (not to be confused with the Yazidis in Iraq, whose members were persecuted and massacred by Islamic State) and the major Sunni movement in Yemen or the radical Wahhabi movement. Most of the Zaidis are loyal to the heads of the Houthi tribe, which has its center in the Saada Governorate in northern Yemen, on the Saudi border.

While violent disputes broke out among the Houthi “family,” their leader, 35-year-old Abdul Malik al-Houthi, who led the recent battle against the Yemeni regime, seems to rule the group with an iron hand. Taking part in this war are the Houthis, who call themselves the Partisans of God; the Sunni Al-Qaida; the General People’s Congress, which is the ruling party in Yemen and is immersed in a bitter rivalry between the ousted president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the incumbent president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia is involved in this internal struggle, siding with the regime; Iran appears to be supporting and assisting the Houthis. Above them hover American war drones, which continue to attack Al-Qaida bases in Yemen. But although Yemen seems to be a prime example of the fragmented states that resulted from the Middle Eastern revolutions, it was actually fragmented long before. It depends on a shaky coalition of tribes, on agreements bought with a great deal of money, and on historical rivalries between the south and the north.

Yemen, where a shred of hope awoke after the Arab Spring revolutions brought about a change in its government, developed over the past year into an extended battleground after the Houthis rapidly overran the capital, Sana’a, and many other districts during their armed rebellion in September. The effort to placate the Houthis and hold a national dialogue with them was unsuccessful. Within a short time, the Houthis established a regime that paralleled the official Yemeni government and set up checkpoints in the capital. They also set up their own legal institutions and an independent police force, yet at the same time they have about six ministers in charge of ministries in the official government. They control the aerial defense systems, are keeping senior officers in the Yemeni army under house arrest, and have taken control of important military bases.

On Thursday, they kidnapped Yahya al-Marani, the head of Yemeni intelligence and the former commander of intelligence in the Saada Governorate, the Houthi stronghold. The Yemeni government that was sworn in early in November, which contains 36 ministers, must now act under the orders of the Houthis, who are demanding a reassessment of the national budget after having forced the prime minister to repeal the cut in fuel subsidies that went into effect last July. What began in 2004 as a rebellion against the deep-seated discrimination which the Houthis in northern Yemen had suffered has now become a broad popular uprising that could make demands of the government — but the government may not have enough resources at its disposal to fulfill them.

On the other hand, the Houthis are the sworn enemies of the Al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, and they cooperate with the Yemeni authorities to limit Al-Qaida’s influence. For this reason, U.S. officials see them as a positive force in the region, but they are also suspected of being Iran’s proxies in Yemen because of the similarity in their religious beliefs. This proximity has the Saudis and the Persian Gulf states concerned. They fear a Shi’ite rebellion in their own territory like the one that took place in Bahrain in 2011.

Fears of Iranian influence rose further after the Houthis took over the port city of Al Hudaydah, which is about 200 kilometers west of Sana’a, and through which Yemen imports about 70 percent of its goods. The takeover of this important city — which met with no resistance — gives the Houthis an outlet to the sea through which they can receive military aid from Iran. In the meantime, it appears that they do not intend to expand their control over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, mainly because a Sunni majority lives in the southern region of Yemen and the Wahhabist movements, alongside Al-Qaida operatives, are active there. American, Canadian, British and French destroyers also patrol the Bab-el-Mandel Strait, and could intervene militarily to prevent the area from being taken over.

Thus far it seems that the Houthis are trying to avoid portraying their struggle as an ethnic or religious one, and they are couching their demands as a manifesto of socioeconomic justice through which they seek to protect the poor and downtrodden and distribute the state’s resources without discrimination. They vehemently deny that they are supported by Iran. They demand the abolition of Yemen’s division into federal districts that was decided upon in 2014, claiming that this excludes them from the oil-rich areas and constitutes theft of their “natural right.” The Houthis also said that they were not opposed to the UN resolution calling upon them to withdraw from Sana’a, remove the checkpoints that they had set up and return the weapons that they had seized. Their leaders promised to fulfill those demands, but did not say specifically when they would do so.

So far the Western superpowers have avoided intervening in the situation in Yemen. The U.S., which has given Yemen about 900 million dollars since 2011, is waiting to see what will develop in a Yemenite government where Houthis play a major role. The Americans fear that the new Yemeni regime will stop working with them in the fight against Al-Qaida, since the Houthis have taken over the military power centers. On the other hand, it is likely that the Houthis could turn out to be effective allies precisely because of their power and their rivalry with Al-Qaida and the radical Islamist movements. Like in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the U.S. could find itself in collaboration with local militias and tribes, rather than with the government, in order to carry out its policy of the war on terror. As happened in those countries, the internal rivalries and mainly the terrible poverty there could become the main obstacle in the joint struggle against the terrorist groups. But it is doubtful whether any superpower or coalition of countries will take on the role of Yemen’s economic nurse. Iraq and Syria are much more interesting, and more of a threat. Yemen will have to get in line.

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