Source: Press TV, Tahereh Ghanaati, 12/12/2010
Yemen was known in ancient times as Sheba, Arabia Felix, and the Land of Spices… Its very name evokes images as elusive and mysterious as the desert from which it sprung, images of exotic bazaars crowded with shops displaying intricate silver-work jostling shoulders with stalls heaped with sharply fragrant mountains of turmeric, saffron, cardamom and pepper.
We see cities, veiled in the shimmering desert dust, redolent with the sacred smoke of frankincense and myrrh.
Though this land, which is traditionally believed to have been the home of the Queen of Sheba, is one of the oldest hubs of civilization, westerners today know very little about it. Located in the southern half of the Arabian Peninsula, its isolation from the western world has greatly attributed to its mystique.
Yet Yemen today is the scene of an internal war, in which its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is sometimes overtly -- and more often, covertly -- involved. But why would a country as important as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) bother with an internal struggle between the government of its Third World southern neighbor and that country's Houthi fighters? And for that matter, who are the Houthis?
Firstly, the Houthis are Zaidi Shias. This branch of Shiism, which traces its origins back to Imam Zayd ibn Ali (the grandson of Imam Hossein), is prominent in Yemen with anywhere from 40 to 45 percent of the population following it. In fact, the Zaidi Shias ruled the northern sector of the country for a thousand years.
The Houthis, however, are a separatist group of Zaidi Shias, who took their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, their original commander, who was killed by the Yemeni army in 2004, in the initial year of the conflict. The fallen leader's father, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi is the spiritual leader of the group.
The Houthis first took up arms against the Yemeni government (in 2004), on grounds that it was discriminating against the Shia community in a number of ways, which included violating their civil rights and marginalizing them politically, economically and religiously.
Though in 2005, the Houthis were a relatively small group -- only 1,000 to 3,000 fighters -- their numbers have since grown. According to an article appearing last year in The Economist, by November of 2009, the group's membership was estimated to consist of anywhere from 2,000 and 10,000 fighters.
One of the reasons for their growing ranks may lie in the way the government has responded to the group's demands. Though the Houthis maintain that they only want equal rights, Sana'a has, from the onset, treated them like insurgents, accusing them of attempting to overthrow the government and replace it with a Shia caliphate.
The Yemeni government is, moreover, being backed by Saudi Arabia in the struggle, which has come to be known as the 'Sadaa Insurgency.'
The conflict can be divided into 6 stages or outbreaks. The first lasted from June to August 2004, the second from March to April 2005, the third from January to June 2007, the fourth from April to July 2008, the fifth from June 2009 to January 2010 and the sixth, which is ongoing, began in July of this year.
The worst spate of fighting began in August 2009, when Yemeni government forces, including tanks and fighter aircrafts, launched a major offensive, known as 'Operation Scorched Earth,' against the Houthis in the North.
According to a BBC article, one of the airstrikes, which took place on September 17, targeted a camp for displaced persons. The article related that over 80 people, including numbers of women, children and the elderly, were killed in that raid.
Sana'a officials denied the incident, saying that there was no refugee camp in the area and that the military had only attacked the fighters and their supply lines.
Then, early in November, Saudi Arabia, which the Houthis had long accused of having covertly helped the Sana'a government, became actively involved in the conflict after the Houthis, on November 4, fatally shot a Saudi security officer in a cross-border attack and took control of a border section known as 'Jabal al-Dukhan.'
Saudi news agencies went into full gear, churning out headlines announcing that the Houthis had invaded Saudi Arabia and attacked patrols. The next day Riyadh retaliated by launching heavy airstrikes on the Houthis in North Yemen and deploying troops near the border.
Within the next few days, the skirmish escalated into a full-scale war, with Saudi forces employing -- according to the Houthis -- toxic materials, such as white phosphorous. The fighters also claimed that the Saudis were attacking Yemeni villages and indiscriminately targeting civilians, which bring us to a major question. Why did the Houthis venture over the border and risk war with the Saudis in the first place?
Well, according to the fighters, Riyadh had long been covertly helping Sana'a. A December 2009 article, published by the US Council on Foreign Relations, states that the Houthis (along with a number of other groups) believe the KSA has been covertly involved in Yemeni politics - particularly, the Sadaa war -- for years. In fact, the article maintains that the Saudis most likely funded the Yemeni government and its tribal allies since the 2004 beginning of the insurgency.
Then, in June 2008, the Saudis allegedly began bankrolling pro-government tribal militias in Yemen. But the final straw must have occurred when Saudi Arabia began allegedly permitting the Yemeni army to use its base in Jabal al-Dukhan to launch attacks across the border into northern Yemen. And despite Sana'a's denial, the allegations were most likely true. Otherwise, why would the Houthis cross the border and risk increasing Saudi involvement in the conflict?
But in answer to the question as to why the Kingdom would become involved in the insurgency in the first place, we have to go back to Yemen's 1994 civil war. During that conflict, which was fought between northern and southern Yemen, and ended in the defeat of the South, Saudi Wahhabis helped the North.
The Wahhabis, an extremist Sunni sect, are promoted by and inextricably linked with the Saud dynasty in a relationship that goes back two hundred years. According to the US-based Global Security website, the association between Mohammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, who founded the sect in the late 18th century and Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of the House of Saud, “effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation.” Wahhabism taught that a Muslim must swear a 'bayah' or oath of allegiance to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime in order to ensure redemption after death. This leader is, moreover, owed unquestioned allegiance as long as he leads his people according to (the Wahhabis' interpretation of) God's laws.
It is thus understandable why such teachings would be attractive to a monarch. Muhammad ibn Saud quickly became Wahhab's disciple and the group helped the chieftain and his descendants obtain a base of power in the Arabian Peninsula. Eventually, in 1932, the group helped the Saud family gain the throne of the country, which came to be known as 'Saudi Arabia.'
In gratitude - and possibly as a means of expanding the dynasty's interests and better controlling his people -- the Saudi monarch established an organization, known as the as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, an act, which gave the Wahhabis practically limitless power in the country. This organization, which is made up of Wahhabi state religious police (mutaween), was allowed to control practically every aspect of Saudi society.
Since the discovery of oil on the peninsula, the Saudi government has also poured billions of dollars into Wahhabi missionary work, thereby expanding its own base of power along with that of the Wahhabis. It has been estimated that in the past 20 years, Riyadh has spent at least $87 billion in Wahhabi propagation. And we should keep in mind when discussing the Saud-Wahhabi relationship that the interests of the two are inextricably intertwined. Gain for one means gain for the other and vice versa.
In light of these facts, we can better understand why the Houthis claim the Saudis strongly influence the Yemeni government. It is because the Wahhabis (Saudis) backed the present government and helped it gain power during the 1994 civil war. Thus the government “owes” Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, has a vested interest in Sana'a.
Moreover, Riyadh views the Houthis, who are Shias, as a threat to further Saudi expansion and control of the Middle East, as well as a possible means of stirring up discontent among the Shia minority of Saudi Arabia, itself.
It should be remembered that Wahhabism is an extremist sect with little -- if any -- tolerance of other beliefs. According to a 2005 report by the US-based Freedom House, Wahhabi literature (published by the Saudi government,) 'viciously condemns' Shia Muslims, calling them 'infidels.'
According to the report, compiled by Freedom House Director Nina Shea, the literature exhorts believers to “Be dissociated from the infidels, hate them for their religion…,” as well as “oppose them in every way according to Islamic law.”
The report warns that Wahhabi extremism is more than hate speech; it is a totalitarian ideology of hatred that can incite to violence. The results of such teachings can be seen in the Saudi war on northern Yemen.