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December 2, 2009

Yemen, Arabia Felix no more

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryThree years ago, I visited Yemen and was surprised to discover one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Since then, I have developed a closeness to the country, its people and its history.

The ancient Romans called Yemen “Arabia Felix” (Happy Arabia), because travelers, after passing though the harsh, lifeless Arabian desert on the north–south route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, found a paradise of plants, trees, water, mountains, greenery, and a civilization of happy, hospitable people.

Today, Yemen is Arabia Felix no more.

The mountainous northwest province of Saada is beset by war along its 800-kilometre common border with Saudi Arabia. Yemeni and Saudi forces are using air force and ground troops in a combined attack against the Jamat-Al-Houthi (The Houthi Group), which belongs to the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam.

Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi, the group’s leader, says they’re striving to reinstate better local government and protect the rights of northern Yemen’s many Zaidi adherents.

During the last four years, the group has taken over schools and police stations and set up military training camps. Al-Houthi has appealed to the Arab League to form a fact-finding mission to stop Saudi Arabia’s “unjustifiable aggression.”

On the other hand, the official Yemeni position is that the group consists of “traitors and agents” who want to overthrow the republic and reinstall an Islamic imamate system.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh said the rebellion was part of a war against the revolution of Sept. 26, 1962, which overthrew the “reactionary, backward, clerical, racial and tyrannical nature” of Zaidi-Shia clerical rule. “We will not backtrack, so let the battles continue for five or six years,” he said at a ceremony held to mark the revolution’s 47th anniversary.

The Saleh government has also accused Shia scholars in Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain of giving support, but the group has denied that it receives any. (Saleh was president of North Yemen from 1978, and has been president of united North and South Yemen since 1990.)

The civil war has so far left countless dead and wounded civilians, and 300,000 displaced Yemenis, who are living a miserable life. UN agencies, the Yemeni Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross representatives have all expressed concern at the inability of thousands of people to move from the conflict zones to a place of safety.

While the Yemeni and Saudi forces might win the battle against the lightly armed Jamat Al-Houthi, it would likely not end the political movement, which is strongly supported by a good number of Yemen’s influential tribes. About 40 per cent of Yemenis, including the president, are Zaidi.

The violence in Saada has also taken on a broader international aspect. Last September the foreign ministers of the U.S., the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq met with their Yemeni counterpart during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York and issued a joint statement supporting “the unity, security and stability of Yemen.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said his country was ready to be part of a diplomatic solution, but cautioned against “foreign (read: Saudi) intervention” and imposing a military solution that would only complicate the crisis.

Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, was even stronger in his criticism: “The intervention of the Saudi government in Yemen and repeated bombardment of unprotected Yemeni Muslims by Tornado and F-15 fighters is astounding. How has his Excellency [Saudi King Abdullah], the servant of the two honourable shrines, allowed Muslims' blood to be spilt in Yemen by means of [Saudi] military devices? The news proves that the U.S. government has been the accomplice and assistant in such suppressive measures.”

Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah called for rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to solve the conflict. “Every conflict in our region is being interpreted only from the perspective of the Sunni-Shia divide,” he said in a recent speech commemorating the Day of the Martyr. “It is being said that Turkey, the Sunni state, is engaging in the Middle East to take the role of Iran, the Shia state…There should be an initiative from any Arab or Muslim nation to bring those two big and important nations together to dialogue in order to put out the sectarian fire.”

In Saudi Arabia, the religious establishment issued a statement bestowing its blessing on the Saudi military operation.

“In their media and public debates, Saudis portray the war as one being initiated by Iran through its stooges; i.e. the Al-Houthis,” said London-based Saudi scholar Dr. Mai Yamani. “They say we are only fighting Iranian influence in Yemen.”

However, the tactic of fuelling sectarian discord has heightened discontent and anger among young Saudi Shia, who constitute 15–20 per cent of the population, and are a majority in the oil-rich eastern provinces.

For them, sectarianism is being used to divert attention from the more important issues of poverty, underdevelopment, and the economic and political marginalization in northern Yemen and southwest Saudi Arabia. “They express their frustration and solidarity on blogs,” said Yamani.

If the Al-Houthi movement should join forces with the separatist movement in the south, the country would split into three Yemens, none of which would be Arabia Felix.

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at  

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