How to Decipher Yemen, Where the Enemy of Your Enemy Is Also Your Enemy
Graham E. Fuller
Yemen, like Afghanistan, has a long reputation as a quagmire for foreign invaders. Saudi Arabia could break its teeth there if the US does not constrain it. Astonishingly, Yemeni events have now conspired to bring about the supposed intervention of some ten regional powers in one of the most hyped events in the Arabian Peninsula of recent times.
Most of this proxy war makes little sense: the threats emanating from Yemen are distorted and exaggerated, the stakes are actually relatively low (except for Yemenis), any imposed settlement is highly elusive, and the costs to those engaged may be high. For the US it can be once again something of a lose-lose situation and where the enemy of my enemy is often also my enemy.
The first myth is that this war represents yet “a new front on a massive regional Sunni-Shi’ite struggle.” The reality is that a great deal of this struggle is heavily among Yemeni Shi’ites themselves. Yes, the Houthis, who are now well on the way to seizing leadership of the entire country, are indeed Shi’ite. They are Zaydi Shi’ites to be specific (also known as Fivers, believing in five imams)— who differ significantly from Iranian (Twelver) Shi’ism. Indeed, among the various schools of Shi’ism, Zaydism is theologically closest to Sunni Islam. Sunni and Shi’a have coexisted quite well in Yemen over long centuries.
Zaydi imams have ruled most of Yemen for many hundreds of years in an Imamate, or kind of Caliphate, until some sixty years ago when an Arab nationalist revolution displaced them. But the Zaydi Shi’a remain a major force in the country (some 40%) and are dominant in the north. Furthermore the two most important tribal confederations in the country are also both Zaydi. So was the former president of Yemen for 32 years, Ali Abdallah Saleh (overthrown in the Arab Spring and who now may be secretly supporting the Houthis.) The Houthis are simply one regional Zaydi clan who happen to be rebelling for an end to what they saw as discrimination and the corruption of Saleh, a Saudi-supported Shi’ite. Typically the Houthi movement takes the form of a revivalist movement seeking cleaner government and a “purer Zaydism.”
The second myth is that the Houthis represent the cutting edge of Iranian imperialism in Arabia – as trumpeted by the Saudis. The Zaydi Shi’a, including the Houthis, over history have never had a lot to do with Iran. But as internal struggles within Yemen have gone on some of the Houthis have more recently been happy to take Iranian coin and perhaps some weapons—just as so many others, both Sunni and Shi’a, are on the Saudi payroll. The Houthis furthermore hate al-Qa’ida and hate the Islamic State (ISIS). And more recently they have denounced the US as well for its past support to the government in San’a that was suppressing the Houthis.
The third myth is that Saudi Arabia is fighting to “preserve stability in the Arabian Peninsula.” What the Saudis are doing is fighting to maintain overlordship in the Arabian peninsula (an Arabian Monroe Doctrine). A century ago the Saudis seized traditionally Yemeni areas in the south-west corner of Saudi Arabia and forcibly imposed radical Wahhabi views there. Riyadh has always loathed Yemeni feistiness, independence, its revolutionary politics, and even its experiments with democracy. The Saudis have traditionally sought to buy off as many tribal and political forces as they can in Yemen—Sunni or Shi’ite—to try to maintain their shaky and shifting form of dominance.
But now it’s about more than just Yemen. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has sought to forge a broad counter-revolutionary force to block any further regime change in the Arab world; it brands its new campaign as some kind of pan-Arab Sunni movement designed to face an ostensible “Persian/Shi’ite threat.” With a lot of money and the support of insecure Gulf rulers the Saudis now seem to have orchestrated some grand Sunni front to invade Yemen to “meet the looming Iranian threat.” From Riyadh’s perspective Tehran has supposedly pocketed Iraq, is successfully maintaining Asad in power in Syria, threatens Bahrain, stirs oppressed and restive Shi’a within the Saudi Kingdom, and now bids to control Yemen, thereby “encircling the Peninsula.” Ironically the promising US-Iranian nuclear talks raise further fears in Riyadh that Washington will no longer be a predictable member of the demonize-Iran camp.
Much of this paranoia reflects fevered authoritarian Saudi thinking. Never mind that Persians have never in centuries invaded the Arabian Peninsula. Shi’ite majorities, as in Iraq and Bahrain, have indeed demanded democratic processes that hugely empower them politically. But since the Saudis in recent years have all but declared war against Iran and created a massive anti-Shi’ite front –mostly to preserve Arabian and Egyptian autocrats—Tehran has reciprocated; it is happy to try to keep the Saudis off balance in Yemen at quite limited cost. But it is absurd to believe that Tehran is in a position ever to call the political shots in obstreperous Yemen. And the fear that the Houthis in power want, or are even capable of shutting down the Bab al-Mandab entrance to the Red Sea is a fantasy.
The US has extremely limited support in Yemen; its interests and policies in this dirt-poor country over the last decades have focused almost exclusively on counter-terrorism. In the process the US backed the three-decade dictatorship of Ali Abdallah Salih (a Zaydi) and has been conducting dozens of drone strikes in the country that have caused many civilian deaths and stirred much anger. Under the present turmoil the US has felt compelled to close its Embassy and has largely decamped to Riyadh. Washington now helps advise the ten-nation anti-Yemen campaign from Riyadh in what looks increasingly like some grand Arabian armada run amok.
The choices for the US are poor. But Houthi dominance in Yemen need not be a disaster in itself. They are blood enemies of the militantly anti-Shi’ite forces of al-Qa’ida and ISIS. Still, the Houthis will be deeply suspicious of US intentions, especially now that the US is working with Yemen’s arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia. For that matter, the Houthis are not fanatics and will not be able by themselves to control Yemen unless they work with the broad array of political and religious forces and ideologies that make up the Yemeni mosaic.
But we now face a major new factor. The new, ailing Saudi King Salman—or more precisely his activist, powerful and ambitious son—now are bidding for a historical transformation of the Kingdom’s long-standing cautious and defensive foreign policies. We should remember that the history of Saudi Arabia shows its Wahhabi forces sweeping twice across the Peninsula to the Persian Gulf in some kind of Arabian Manifest Destiny. The Saudis small Gulf neighbors may not find it so comfortable to support a new, more geopolitically ambitious Riyadh—with its radical Islamic ideology and its virulently sectarian regional vision. Nor should the US. A massive, unnecessary—and likely failing Saudi effort—to take over Yemen in this counter-revolutionary spirit may augur dangerously for the stability of the Peninsula in the future.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official; his latest book is a novel: “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” grahamefuller.com