Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 11
acquiescence and arguably even support,30 as it sought to counter the proliferation in the Saada region of Salafi groups tied to Saudi Arabia.31
B. A Broken Equilibrium
One of the most remarkable features of Yemen’s post-unification political system32 has been its capacity to integrate a broad spectrum of various and often competing actors. The feature is a legacy of the 1960s civil war and the realisation that the republic’s survival depends on power-sharing and compromise. Accordingly, successive governments used co-optation as a primary guarantor of regime stability. While neither dissidence nor repression has ever been wholly absent, Yemen on the whole has been spared massive bloodshed or open warfare. Skirmishes between the national army and tribal groups might be frequent, often deadly and sometimes prolonged. Yet, such conflicts typically tend to be resolved through co-optation, including in the army, in which many once rebellious tribal sheikhs become officers.
Peripheral governorates such as Marib, al-Jawf, Shabwa and Saada, where tribes continue to play a central role and the state is virtually absent, unable to provide
30 Zaydi revivalist groups, including al-Huthi’s organization, the Believing Youth, reportedly received state funding. Crisis Group interview, Islamist opposition figure, Sanaa, 10 January 2009; see also Abdallah al-Sanaani, Al-harb fi Saada min awwal siha ila akhir talqa (Cairo, 2005), pp. 34-35. According to a senior ruling party official, funding was designed to thwart the influence of other Islamist groups in the Saada region, notably the Salafis/Wahhabis, who had connections with Saudi Arabia and called for a strict reform of Islam that many felt was alien to Yemeni history and culture: “The government felt the danger of Wahhabism spreading, so in the 1980s and 90s it supported Zaydi groups, including the Huthis. However, it failed to control these groups’ platform”. Crisis Group interview, GPC official and Consultative Council member, Sanaa, 12 January 2009. If true, the claim would be consistent with the government’s strategy and record of coopting religious and tribal groups. The Huthi leadership responded: “They are lies, accusations uttered by Wahhabis. We have never received any weapons or money from the government”. Crisis Group telephone interview, Yahya al-Huthi, Berlin, 3 February 2009.
31 For a discussion of the Yemeni Salafis’ links to Saudi Arabia, see Laurent Bonnefoy “Salafism in Yemen; A Saudisation?”, in Madawi al-Rasheed (ed.), Kingdom Without Borders: Saudi Expansion in the World (London, 2008), pp. 245-262.
32 During the socialist era in South Yemen (1970-1990), state-society relations differed markedly from those in the North,as they were shaped by an ideology that sought to transform society and break traditional influences, whether tribal or religious.
security, infrastructure or public services, have long been loci of grievance and dissent. Local tribes routinely kidnap citizens and foreigners to press the government to release detained family members or build roads and hospitals. Protection granted by unruly tribes to persons accused of crimes or links to terrorist organisations often trigger police or military operations, as do conflicts connected to compensation over land or blood feuds.33 However, all these appear to be integral and accepted parts of Yemen’s political equation rather than threats to it.
Even during the 1994 war between the Northern army and Southern secessionists, civilian casualties were kept low, and many secessionist leaders were later integrated into the state apparatus. Some even became close presidential advisors. Likewise, in combating al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, the government has often privileged dialogue over suppression and co-opted many, offering money and jobs in exchange for their promise to abandon violence against the state.34
C. A Crisis Within Zaydism
The 1962 revolution that brought republicans to power also triggered a profound religious, social and political restructuring, upending an order with which Zaydism long had been associated.
Although the vast majority of its citizens are Arab Muslims, Yemeni society is pluralistic. The two principal religious sects are Zaydi Shiism and Shafei Sunnism. Although differing on a number of theological and political issues,35 both are deemed relatively close within the wider Sunni and Shiite
33 See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°8, Yemen: Coping with Terrorism and Violence in a Fragile State, 8 January 2003, pp. 19-20; The New York Times, 20 December 2001; and Yemen Times, 24 December 2001.
34 This equilibrium was under intense pressure and criticised by some of Yemen’s allies after the 11 September 2001 attacks. In February 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly wrote to President Salih to express disappointment over the government’s lack of investment in the global “war on terror” and questioned its sincerity. Andrew McGregor, “Stand-off in Yemen: the al-Zindani Case”, Terrorism Focus, vol. 3, no. 9 (March 2006).
35 For example, interpretations on the importance of the hadith (collection of the Prophet’s words and deeds) diverge. Most Zaydis argue that hadith that appear inconsistent with the Quran and are not supported by revealed verses should be discarded, even though they might be considered authentic (sahih) by Sunni jurisprudence. Furthermore, Zaydism puts particular emphasis on Hashemites’ political, social and religious roles and on the importance of the Imam as ruler of the polity – interpretations most Shafeis contest.