Common Thread

The al-Houthi tribe is involved in local uprisings in Yemen, attempts by Al-Qaida and Iran to ignite the Middle East, and power struggles between Saudi princes. They may yet destroy Yemeni unification.

"The instructions we received from the king were not to act inside another state's territory, but we will not let anyone enter our territory." This is how the Saudi deputy defense minister, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, described the battle that has been going on since last week between Saudi forces and the Yemeni Shi'ite rebels of the al-Houthi tribe.

The Saudi's king's directive was accompanied by a religious legal ruling from the chief mufti of Saudi Arabia that said "The war against the Houthi derives from their radical adherence to fanatic ideas and corrupt views." He was careful not to say that the war being waged against them by the Sunni kingdom was due to their being Shi'ites.

At the end of last week, al-Houthi men from the Shi'ite minority crossed the border into Saudi Arabia, killed one soldier and wounded 13 others. They said they did this because Saudi Arabia allowed the Yemeni army to operate against them from its territory. In response, Saudi Arabia, which did not deny the claims, launched fighter planes, infantry and artillery that fought not only from within Saudi Arabia, but also from across the Yemeni border.

The roots of the conflict go back to the early 1990s, when the Zaidi sheikh Badr al-Din al-Houthi founded a new movement in the Saada province in northern Yemen. Though close in some ways to the Shi'ites of Iran, the relatively moderate Zaidis differ on several key principles. (They are opposed, for example, to religious clerics serving as rulers).

Within the al-Houthi tribe itself, there is a dispute between two of al-Houthi's sons as to what course of action to take against the government, and what demands to make of it. This dispute triggered a split between them, but in the recent actions they appear to have been working together again.

Over the years, the family has managed to recruit thousands of supporters in the Saada region, and not permitted the government to interfere in their affairs or quell the battles. Though their military equipment and capacity is limited, they are able to exploit the rough mountainous terrain that is impassable to regular military forces.

Their other advantage is the wide-open border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, which for generations has allowed the tribesmen to cross from one country to the other for trade and sheepherding. And some family ties have also been created with members of Saudi tribes.

Saudi Arabia, wishing to stop the infiltration, decided in 2003 to erect a fortified defensive wall along its 1,800-kilometer border with Yemen. But due to tribal revolts on both sides of the border, it was forced to seal off only a few dozen kilometers, and even to agree to a demilitarized zone between it and Yemen. The partial barrier allowed the tribes to continue their activity and, at the same time, Saudi Al-Qaida operatives began crossing into and out of Yemen.

Due to the lack of supervision by the Yemeni authorities, Al-Qaida people in the Arabian peninsula shifted their center of operations into that country's territory. Their leader, Abu Basir Nasir al-Wahishi, instructs his people via the Internet as to what actions to take against whom, with his main targets being American bases and Yemeni and Saudi government institutions.

But in the last article he wrote on his Web site, he called on his followers to also strike at journalists or civilian institutions "by the simplest and most inexpensive means at your disposal." Such "inexpensive means" are easy to come by in Yemen, which has become an unfettered arms market where all kinds of weapons, from grenades to machine guns to heavy artillery, can be bought.

Yemen asserts that the separatists in the country's north are collaborating with the Al-Qaida forces operating in the south, but the Shi'ite separatists deny any connection with the Sunni organization. The tribes in the eastern part of the country are demanding equal investment in their region and occasionally abduct tourists to force the government to pay them. The current battle with the separatists in the north threatens to turn the country into an ongoing regional center of combat.

Here, too, the name of Iran arises. The Yemeni and Saudi authorities are accusing its government of direct involvement in the fighting, with the aim of using the Shi'ite separatists as a way of exerting their influence on the country. In October, the Yemeni authorities seized an Iranian ship carrying weapons apparently destined for the separatists. The Yemeni government also announced that it had documents in its possession attesting to ties between Iran and the rebels.

The Saudi government also accuses Iran of supporting the separatists' struggle, and the local media has even started referring to the area of the fighting as "Houth-Iran." Following Saudi Arabia's lead, Egypt and Jordan have also condemned the Iranian involvement in the conflict and accused Iran of deliberately trying to turn Yemen into another Lebanon.

More than half of Yemen's 24 million people live below the poverty line, and per capita income barely exceeds $2,000 per year. The government does not invest money in developing the neglected south; residents of the south find it difficult to obtain government jobs (the government is the country's single biggest employer), and Yemeni young people from the south are either filtered out of the army or not drafted at all, which hurts their prospects for earning a living. All of this fuels the opposition's threats to formally separate the north from the south, arguing that the "unification" of 1990 is nothing but an empty slogan.

The Saudi forces are being commanded by Prince Khaled bin Sultan, son of the defense minister, who hasn't been able to function for about a year due to kidney disease. Khaled is the acting defense minister and could be permanently appointed to the post if his father does not recover.

The battle against Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni offshoots is being directed by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, son of the interior minister, who is responsible for internal security in Saudi Arabia. Prince Nayef is expected to be appointed crown prince in place of his brother Sultan, and then his son could be appointed to the post of interior minister. This may explain the ambition of the two "young" princes, Khaled, 60, and Mohammed, 50, to demonstrate success in these two military campaigns, which could be the key to the continuation of their political careers in the kingdom.

But the political power struggles in Saudi Arabia are, of course, the last concern of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has to be more afraid that his country is falling to pieces and slipping away from him.