Interview by Kirthi Jayakumar with Professor Mark N Katz
The winds of the Arab Spring blew over Yemen, the Middle Eastern country, as peaceful protests against the regime began a few years ago. Recently, one of the rebellious factions in Yemen, the Houthis, gained control of Sanaa and made inroads into other parts of the country. In November 2014, President Hadi of Yemen fled to Saudi Arabia. But it was only a month ago that Saudi Arabia led a military campaign called Operation Desert Storm, in response to President Hadi’s request for a military intervention against the Houthi Rebels, who, if allegations are to be believed, are supported by Iran.
Professor Mark N Katz of George Mason University, USA, talks to Kirthi Jayakumar in this interview, on The Conflict in Yemen.
What is the Yemen conflict about?
Katz: The thing about Yemen is that it is so very complicated that there are really a number of conflicts going on. This goes back to the 1960s, or even before, that there are so many different elements. There is this one President Ali Abdul Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 until the unification in 1990, and was in power until the Arab Spring. He had a lot of enemies, whom he was able to deal quite successfully with, sort of playing them off against each other. These included the Southerners who he united with, who weren’t so happy afterwards, it included the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, it included these so-called Houthis in the north, also various Sunni tribes and of course – they were all kinds of different things. I think that while he was successful for a long time, what happened in the Arab Spring is that all of these things came together and he was injured. He ended up stepping down, and turned over authority to his vice president – though he didn’t want to do that. That’s what a lot of it is. The people who he allied with – these people in the North, the Houthis, he was once at war with. Now, they’ve combined forces against the successor, President Hadi, and of course, their conflict has allowed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to have more control over Yemen. But there is also an independence movement in southern Yemen. People who oppose independence call these people Al Qaeda, but they’re really not. So it’s, it’s a war against all unfortunately. This is where we are!
Who are the Houthis?
Katz: Up until 1962, there had been a kingdom in Northern Yemen, which had its origins in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans used to rule in conjunction with the locals, and the locals. The locals were strong. The religious leaders of the Zaidi Shia community dominated Northern Yemen. Even under President Saleh, in the North, the Yemeni revolution of the 1960s dispossessed those who claimed to be descendants of the Prophet. These people dominated under the Imams. The Imams and the group of Saids were being overthrown. These groups were sent to the far North of Yemen and wanted to come back. It is not clear – they have denied that they wanted to restore the Imamate, and that their Shiaism differs from the Iranian Shiaism, and that the distinctions are many. But, they have been a dominant group for a long time, and they were dispossessed. We’ve seen this in many other countries, obviously. The removed minority wants to comeback on occasion. I think this is a large part of their motivation.
What are the sectarian elements in the Yemeni conflict?
Katz: There certainly is a Shia versus Sunni element to it. I think that the former President Saleh and the Houthis managed to make common cause, and the successor President Hadi is from the South and is a Sunni. In the past, Sunni and Shia differences were not so strong in Yemen. Southern Yemen was Sunni, and in the North, there were tribal identities that were most important. What has happened though, is that the Sunni and Shia distinction is becoming more important in Yemen. This could be partly because of the external supporters. The Saudi support is for the Sunnis, and they are taking action against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Iran is sympathetic towards the Houthis and fellow Shias. It is becoming a Sunni – Shia conflict. Whether it will stay that way is not clear. But that seems to be the direction it is going in.
Are there any precedents where a leader asked a third country to intervene?
Katz: I think this happens pretty frequently – a lot of American counter insurgency efforts were taken in conjunction with the local governments who sought American assistance because they could not deal with their rebels on their own. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union claimed the same thing – that they were invited to intervene in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. But they always claim this sort of thing. The problem of course is that it delegitimises the government that brings in the foreign support. It happened in Yemen in 1962 – when the new Yemeni government invited Egyptian forces under President Nasser. There were more Egyptian troops than Yemeni troops. It tended to delegitimise them. It is interesting – once Nasser withdrew forces after defeat in the 1967 war, the Yemeni Republic actually survived! They did fine without them. The objection was to the presence of the Egyptians.
What implications does the conflict have for the Middle East and for the world at large?
Katz: Yemen is a place that is not well known in the West, and it is not really that well-known for the Middle East either! It is like the back of beyond. I’ve been there about six times, and it is very old in the sense that even Islam feels like it is something new because there is something older, and it is the tribes. The tribes dominate in Yemen. If you went outside of the major cities, you would have found that there was no government – there were only tribes. You had to know someone to travel into Yemen, like a human visa – otherwise, your vehicle will be liberated and sold in a huge car lot somewhere! It is a very heavily armed populace. I think that for many Arabs, they say that Yemen is something backward, not something to set an example for them. What is interesting about Yemen is that we always think that what happens in Yemen is really important because it is right next to Saudi Arabia, but what is fascinating is that for all the conflict that has been there, despite all the external involvement, what happens in Yemen seems to stay in Yemen. It is a self-contained place that the implications of it seem to be quite contained. It doesn’t mean that it has to remain that way – at a given time, something might have significance in terms of geopolitics. The Yemenis themselves are not so interested in international relations and geopolitics. They have their own conflict within for power. Anyone who gets involved gets bogged down by all of these disputes. They are like Afghanistan, that way, built for uncertainty and rebellion. Anyone who gets in there finds himself in a mess.
Where do we see Yemen going from now on? Is there an end in sight to the conflict? If there isn’t, how long do you see the conflict drawing out?
Katz: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I have an answer. The thing with Yemen is that despite the fact that it always seems like there is war there, they do have a capacity for internal conflict resolution. In the 1960s, the civil war ended and the 1970s saw a series of meetings that led to some stability for a while. The unification that followed was the result of a long process of negotiation between north and south. Had procedure been followed, it would have worked out. But the Yemenis have this propensity for internal conflict resolution – but often times, because of foreign involvement, one party or the other thinks that they don’t have to go through with it. I think that is part of the problem that is happening now. With the Saudi intervention, it is not helping the internal process. I’m not sure what the Saudi intervention has accomplished. In the Ottoman era, they were the most powerful, in North Yemen. The British were in the South for a while. Except for Aden, they ruled all over and were in force. In the end, it didn’t work. Then the Egyptians came in and it was a fiasco. The British left Yemen – they are actually good in counterinsurgency but this was their notable failure. Then came the Soviets, and they couldn’t do much. In 1986, two branches of the Yemeni Socialist Party fought each other and killed each other off. Moscow was able to do very little. Then the Americans were involved – we didn’t send troops there, just drones, I guess. That doesn’t pacify things. Now, the Saudis have sent their troops – and they did this in the 1930s. I think that Saleh was wise because he insisted on withdrawing. What is now South Western Saudi Arabia, is ethnically Yemeni. The Yemeni Imamate fought with Saudi Arabia for them, but Saudi won. It is their neighbourhood and the Yemeni people belong there. Right now, though, it’s not going very well – they have a bombing campaign that hasn’t stopped the Houthis. It is a difficult place to use force successfully.
But, what struck me when I studied Yemen 30 years ago was that it has enormous potential, good population, some oil wealth, and a population that is productive. Yemen could achieve its potential and become an important country – or so it seemed. I’m still waiting for that. Some countries like some people never seem to achieve their potential. It is possible, but it just doesn’t happen. That is the difficulty. There is just so much – it is a young and poor population. They are impatient for change and it doesn’t seem to come. External powers can be interested to some extent. No one wants to invest much there. That is the problem. What we can see is that there could be long periods of instability like in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. It is likely to be inconclusive. The first thing that is going to happen is that the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis is going to come to an end. They fought in the past, and it was but inevitable that they would again. It is also possible that the Houthis and Al Qaeda and Sunnis might come up against each other in Yemen. We’re in for a long period of conflict! The US is in no hurry to intervene anywhere else. The Saudis cannot conclude the fight, either – which is a bit of a problem, because they can’t necessarily pacify the people. However, it might just happen that the conflict might end because everyone is losing because of the prolongation of the conflict.