If any one area is a microcosm of the chaos in the Middle East, it is Yemen. Here, as across the region, Islam has been at war with itself, as the deadly rivalry between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family, and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic revolution, played itself out. Nowhere was the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam more obvious – and nowhere was it more blurred, as self-seeking interests cut across it.
Who is fighting whom in Yemen? There are four main principals: the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; the lawful president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); and IS (Islamic State). To these might be added Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs. Joining the fray one year ago was Saudi Arabia, which intervened both militarily and diplomatically to beat back the Houthis.
The Houthis, a fundamentalist Shia group, take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year. The organization’s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red. They read:
“God is Great,
Death to America,
Death to Israel,
Curse on the Jews,
Victory to Islam”.
The Houthis have long been supported by the élite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards which has kept them supplied with weapons and other military hardware. As a result they overran large areas of the country, including the capital city, Sana’a. In addition the Houthis were in alliance with the Yemeni security forces that remained loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh, although a Sunni Muslim, seemed intent on maneuvering a return to power in collaboration with the Shia-affiliated Houthis. With Saleh’s help, the Houthis eventually controlled most of the Yemeni military, including its air force.
A second main player is President Hadi and the government he led from February 2012. Hadi had been deputy to President Saleh who, facing widespread protests and life-threatening attacks, finally – and very reluctantly – left office and transferred the powers of the presidency to him. Hadi took over a country in a state of chaos, and when the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, in September 2014, Hadi failed to broker a deal with them and resigned.
With the Houthis installed as the interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there to Saudi Arabia. He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis. The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the Houthi rebels, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthi take-over in Yemen and restoring President Hadi to office.
A third major force in Yemen is the spin-off al-Qaeda group known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). Led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, it was formed in January 2009. Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsula. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.
Finally among the principals in war-torn Yemen is the recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State (IS). Although IS is just as Sunni-adherent and just as fundamentalist as AQAP, it marches to a different drum-beat, and seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence. It therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the Sunni AQAP, the legitimate Sunni President Hadi, and the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia.
Despite the Saudi bombing campaign, the Houthis at first continued their advance into government territory, and as a result, the United States increased logistical support, intelligence and weapons to the Saudi campaign.
Now, thanks to the unremitting efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a ceasefire was agreed in Yemen to take effect on April 10, a year or so after the Saudi-led military intervention. Arab countries, convinced that the Saudi’s positive action in Yemen has borne fruit, have welcomed the UN mediator’s success in achieving a ceasefire, and his proposals for following it through.
Ould Cheikh’s plan is based on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative of 2011 which led to ex-President Saleh’s resignation, and to giving the Houthis the chance to participate in the government. Ould Cheikh’s plan, which is supported by the United States and Russia, among others, involves a new round of peace talks between the rival sides to take place in Kuwait beginning on April 18,
“Yemen for long has been a battleground for non-state actors,” asserted a recent editorial in Khaleej Times, a Dubai-based newspaper covering the United Arab Emirates, “especially Al Qaeda. And now Daesh is also in it. The talks should primarily focus on converting the ceasefire into permanent peace, and rebuilding the country.” The paper believes that a real détente is in the offing between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Houthi, who have reportedly been swapping prisoners ahead of their scheduled formal talks “The warring parties must give peace a chance,” it pronounces, hoping that extra-territorial forces will take a back seat and allow the people of Yemen themselves to overcome the crisis.
“We in the Arabian Gulf,” writes Saad bin Teflah Al Ajmi in The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English daily, “must realize that Yemen had become our problem, and that we must not leave it prey to civil wars, conflicts, poverty and Iran. A Gulf “Marshall Plan” is much needed for Yemen – for the sake of the people of Yemen and, equally important, for the well-being and security of the Gulf countries.”
Wise words. It is pretty clear that the right long-term solution for Yemen is political reform, followed by a sizeable financial investment funded by the Gulf states. If the peace talks scheduled for April 18 yield this result, Yemen’s long agony could soon become just an unpleasant episode in the history of one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Middle East – a peaceful, fertile country described by the ancient Greek geographer, Ptolemy, as “Happy Arabia”.