Wednesday, 15 April 2015 22:41

Yemen. In a millennia we are once again in the IX or the X century.

Written by
Rate this item
(4 votes)

In the middle of the 9th century caliph al-Mutawakkil ‘Ala ’LLah arrived at power in Baghdad. He “has ordered to stop the contemplation and discussion of the disputable issues and to follow the orthodoxy and the religious customs … to follow the rules of Sunna and the communalism” (al-Mas‘udi, “Murudj al-Dhahab…”). Al-Mutawakkil did not like the Shia (Christians and Jews as well) and the philosophic debates. However his orthodoxy did not help him to answer the questions so disquieting for the society, and did not promise anything better. Meanwhile he himself was not ready to share his power. So the numbers of the Shia began to grow all over the Islamic world. Anti-Sunni riots broke out here and there; the preachers declared themselves Mahdi’s (Messiah’s), and the new Shia states started emerging on the shards of the Caliphate until Baghdad itself was captured by the Buwayhids Shia in the middle of the 10th century.

And now the traditionalists-mutawakkils, unable to answer the questions of the society, are also opposed by the Shia and the Salaphites. They all often use the religious discourse to arrive at power, imposing a confessional paradigm of the Middle Eastern reality to the international community and to the generations of successors.

Eventually, it is much more interesting to debate about the Shia, the Sunni or the Salaphites, then to speak about the real problems of the region.

The situation developing in Yemen now is a perfect illustration for such doublespeak.

Yemen was always something between a fragile and a failed state – during the quarter of century the conflicts followed each other with small pauses, changing their configuration and participants  - the North vs the South in the 1990ies, the Houthis vs Ali Saleh in the 2000ies and the activity of Al-Qaeda and other Jihadist groups as well.

It is evident that the permanent instability has several fundamental reasons. First of all, it is a low level of social and political modernization, which in fact means the absence of the civil society, personification of the political processes and the weakness of the civic identity. The latter is replaced by the regional identity (North-South), confessional (Sunni-Shia, moderate Shafi‘i – Wahhabi, etc) and the tribal ones. Another cause is the traditional importance of violence culture in the political life of the country, which is combined with the high level of militarization of the society (according to some sources – about 65 million units of weapons per 25 million of population). Finally, the lack of the resources plays its own role, making any fighting for power the one for the access to the resources.

All this represents the system factors that are in general typical of the region, though in Yemen they are expressed in the most extreme form and are strengthened by each other.

The protests of 2011 have lead first of all to the overthrow of Ali Abdullah Saleh regime and secondly to the beginning of the National Dialogue, that took place under the aegis of the UN and which was unanimously supported by the international community.

It should be mentioned that only three formulas of National Dialogue were proposed within the process of Arab awakening – the Tunisian, the Bahraini and the Yemeni ones. The first one did not suppose an international intervention: the dialogue was controlled by the civic institutions (trade unions, League for the Defense of Human Rights, etc.) and was successful enough. The Bahraini National Dialogue was managed by the authorities and an international commission under the head of Egyptian lawyer al-Basyuni was created to put it into practice, and it has elaborated a number of recommendations for the government. Not all of them were implemented, and by the autumn 2014 the Dialogue died out, when the opposition and the authorities clinched making mutually unacceptable demands. It will probably be restarted, but it is evident that it will not happen now.

Finally, in the Yemeni case the National Dialogue is much more complex than in Tunisia and Bahrain as there was no strong civic institutions and powerful central authorities able to conduct it. So, it turned into the strengthening of the Houthi (Zaidiyyah) organization Ansar Allah that occupied in the marginal positions of the political space of the country in 2011. In 2014 the Houthis have gained several important military victories by striking Al-Qaeda and taking Sana in September.

Examining exclusively the intra political component of the current crisis, it should be analyzed as a struggle between the elite groups for the access to the resources. Confessional, tribal, regional and ideological identity of the actors is an important factor of mobilization (and sometimes of organization) of the population, but in the majority of cases it does not suppose the existential confrontation (yet). In this response it is distinctive that both Zaidiyyah and Shafi'i law is based on the doctrine of imam as-Shafi‘i, that Ali Abdullah Saleh (Zaidiyyah himself) who was fighting the Houthis during all the 2000ies, now turned out to be their Ally, and that the newest history of the country has examples of completely unexpected alliances of ideological adversaries. (For example, the Party of the Common Session in 2002 that united the Sunni Islamist Al-Islah, Yemeni Socialist Party (the South) and Al-Haqq.

The only divide line that does not allow compromise decisions is between the Sunni Salafi-Jihadistes and the Houthis. In case of prolongation of the conflict the struggle between them may spread over all the political field of the country repeating the Syrian scenario.

 The regional context makes its adjustments as well. Of course the confrontation between the Houthis and the government is not equal to the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East and the Saudi-Iranian struggle that is behind it.

However, recently both Saudi Arabia and Iran have been trying to grow loyal forces within the country. In this response the approach between the religious practices of the Zaidiyyah with the Imamite rituals typical of Iran should be mentioned. The spread of the Wahhabi teaching among the partisans of Al-Islah party should be also considered.

Despite all that it is evident that for the both forces their own political interests are more important than the interests of their external patrons. Indeed, treating the Houthis exclusively as Iranian agents seems unreasonable. In case of arrival at power the Houthis would have to consider Yemen’s dependence on Saudi Arabia and respect the traditions of neighbor relations. However, they would most likely attempt to diversify the external contacts of the country and probably use their connections with Iran to impose pressure on Riyadh and strengthen at least their own sovereignty if not the national one.

On the other hand the fears of Saudi Arabia that Iran attempts to create a Shia circle around the Kingdom (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen) and to use the Shia factor to destabilize the situation inside it, are also understandable and should be respected. The Houthis would play an essential role as the majority of Saudi Shia tribes are related to them.

The harsh and seemingly rather ill conceived reaction of the Kingdom to the military success of the Houthis is explained just by these fears.

The military operation in Yemen proclaimed by the Saudi has questionable legitimacy (the UN Security Council is continuously advocating the peaceful settlement) and its aims are not completely clear. Probably, the main goal is to physically eliminate the Houthi leaders, weaken the Zaidiyyah movement and then to relaunch the National Dialogue in some form. However, all the experience of the last years shows that the transition to the peaceful political transformation is extremely difficult after a military intervention that leads to the severe weakening of the government institutions (they are already fragile in Yemen), and all the more so when there is no clear project of such transformation.

In theory, if the pragmatic approaches to the situation prevail it will be possible to speak about the federalization of Yemen, let alone that federalization has become a common recipe proposed by the Western experts to the countries of the region (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen). However, taking into consideration the failed institutions of the central power, the fragmentation of the society and other factors, the federalization in fact becomes a way to divide the power between the elites (as in Iraq), and that can for sure easily lead to the destruction of the nationhood as such, and once again to the fragmentation of Yemen.

If the Houthi will see their destruction as the main goal of Saudi Arabia, it will no longer be about the struggle for power but about their survival. That can lead, firstly, to long guerilla warfare that will make the National Dialogue useless, secondly, to open involvement of Iran in the conflict, which will be forced to protect the Zaidiyyah, and, thirdly, to the Huouthi’s attempts to launch a counter attack against the Kingdom using the tribes relative to them that live on Saudi territory.

In case of the most dramatic scenario the events may provoke a direct Saudi–Iranian military conflict that can only lead to the victory of the forces close to the Islamic State.

The increase of the integration trends in the Arab world may become another consequence of the operation declared by Saudi Arabia – first of all within Gulf Cooperation Council which demonstrates its ability to resist common threats already for the second time (the first one was in Bahrain in 2011), and within the League of Arab States, which has proclaimed the creation of the common military units, as well.

The integration of such kind is frankly speaking a bit uncommon for the international community and could create a basis for the gradual stabilization of the Middle Eastern region, placing the issue of the regional system of security on the agenda – a critical issue, taking into consideration the Jihadist threat.

However, it is still too far from realization of such projects, moreover they have a number of obvious limitations. Firstly, it is the anti-Iranian vector of the cooperation. Remember, when a quarter of a century ago the regional system of security was discussed for the last time, Israel was a stumbling block and any regional interaction was senseless without it. Now Iran will become such block. Meanwhile, there is an evident threat for all the regional players – the Jihadist structures. Secondly, it is a traditional mistrust, rivalry between the Arab states and sometimes the different vectors of their interests. For example, it is difficult to imagine the exchange of intelligence data between Algeria and Morocco. Finally, it is the inequality of the players. The formula that is proposed today is based on the Saudi-Egyptian tandem – happy union of human and military potential of Egypt and the financial (and partially the ideological) one of Saudi Arabia. However, no one can guarantee that it will last long.

If to consider the current situation on the global level, the declared operation has not just become yet another evidence of weakening of the international relations institutes and of independence of local actors, that are ready to take fateful decisions without any evident support from global players. It is much more important that it has shown the unpreparedness of those so-called players to effectively influence the situation. That could pass, but there is no guarantee that the regional powers are able to resolve their problems by themselves – they have got used to relying on the world hegemons too much, and it is very unlikely that they completely realize the responsibility of the leadership.

Read 17828 times Last modified on Sunday, 19 April 2015 02:09
Vasiliy Kuznetsov

Head of the Center fro Arabic and Islamic Studies of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.