Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 14
family members were arbitrarily detained.51 The wife of a young Hashemite who was arrested in Sanaa in 2008 and remained in detention without trial in April 2009, said, “only non-Hashemites are allowed to criticise the war in Saada. If you are a Hashemite and a Zaydi and you are against it, you face immediate arrest”.52
51 Crisis Group interview, human rights activist, Sanaa, 5 January 2009.
52 Crisis Group interview, wife of detained person, Sanaa, 20 January 2009.
III. Competing narratives
Government and rebels have starkly different narratives about the war, the former highlighting the rebellion’s ideological dimensions and alleged ties to Iran, the latter stressing the state’s purported anti-Zaydi bias, the threat of Saudi-backed Wahhabism and the dangers of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.53 By contrast, more nuanced accounts that could improve understanding of why the conflict broke out and persists have not garnered much attention.
A. The State’s Narrative
From the conflict’s inception, the government has sought to discredit the rebels domestically and rally Western support. It has depicted the Believing Youth as a fundamentalist religious group and as having provoked the war to undermine the state and restore the Zaydi imamate;54 portrayed the Saada conflict as a subset of the Bush administration’s global war on terror; and accused the rebels of loyalty to Iran.
A government official charted the rebels’ transformation from defenders of Zaydi identity to anti-state insurgents as follows:
The Believing Youth came into the picture as an anti-Salafi group. Gradually, it deepened its political involvement and took advantage of the international situation to mobilise support. The government intervened to stop some demonstrations because they were illegal. The conflict escalated when the Believing Youth asked people in Saada to stop paying taxes and started interfering in government affairs.55
Under this view, the Huthis triggered the conflict. In the words of a former minister and ruling party Consultative Council member, “at one point, the Huthis felt they had enough power to rise up
53 While there are inconsistencies in both narratives, they do not reflect conflicting political agendas such as between “hawks” and “doves”. They appear to be a function of information scarcity and opacity as well as a plurality of voices. On the government’s side, the absence of accurate data could be explained by the fact the war was long managed exclusively by the military, with many senior officials excluded from decision making. Crisis Group interview, Nabil al-Sufi, journalist and editor-in-chief of the independent Abwab (monthly magazine), Sanaa, 4 January 2009.
54 See, eg, Yemen Times, 28 June 2004.
55 Crisis Group interview, senior government official, Sanaa, 7 January 2009.