Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 22
Ultimately, in the words of a Zaydi intellectual who belongs to the ruling party, “the war has created numerous interests that have extended a culture of war. We must find ways of spreading a culture of peace”.114
D. Perceived Foreign Meddling
Both difficult to prove and hard to dispel, the perception of direct third party involvement is commonplace. Much speculation has revolved around a purported Saudi-Iranian proxy war waged on Yemeni soil. Since 1979, competition between Riyadh and Tehran has become a defining regional
113 Crisis Group interview, independent journalist, Sanaa, 8 January 2009. Others have reported that some tribes command stipends from both government and rebels. Crisis Group interview, civil engineer based in Saada until 2007, Sanaa, 4 January 2009. The militia issue gained particular prominence during the war’s fifth round in 2008, when Hashid tribal leaders – notably Husein al-Ahmar (a parliament member, seen as a key Saudi ally) promised to raise a 20,000-strong “popular army” to fight the rebels. Yemen Times, 10 July 2008. According to several analysts, the government had asked Riyadh to fund the militia, which also benefited from help from Islamists such as Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani. (He established the al-Iman religious university in 1993 after years in Saudi Arabia, is an important member of the al-Islah party, apparent leader of its radical Muslim Brother wing and rumoured to maintain links to international jihadi networks.) See Gregory Johnsen, “Profile of Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani”, Terrorism Monitor, vol. 4, no. 7 (2006). According to some reports, President Salih was fearful the government could lose control and changed his mind, deciding to end the war. This is said to have angered tribal elements and potential militiamen, who had been promised salaries. Crisis Group interview, Hasan Zayd, secretary general of al-Haqq party, Sanaa, 9 January 2009. Feelings of neglect were not limited to mercenaries ready to join the “popular army”. Aydarus al-Naqib, an opposition parliament member from the southern region of Yafea, claimed: “More than twenty soldiers from my own district have died since the beginning of the war. Neither army soldiers nor volunteers fighting alongside the army have received proper treatment. The families of those who were injured or killed did not receive any compensation and often were informed very late of what had happened. This inevitably created new tensions”. Crisis Group interview, Aydarus al-Naqib, Yemeni Socialist Party parliament member, Sanaa, 21 January 2009.
114 Crisis Group interview, intellectual and member of the General People’s Congress, Sanaa, 13 January 2009.
dynamic.115 Most manifest during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war (when Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states bankrolled Iraq), it has been aggravated of late by real or perceived Iranian ascendancy in Lebanon and the Palestinian arena as well as by alleged Shiite irredentism in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and throughout the Gulf.116 The Saada war, with its underlying albeit largely misleading Sunni/Shiite dimension, has become part of this narrative of geopolitical and sectarian rivalry. Other parties also have sought a role. In 2007, Qatar carried out mediation efforts that, according to many analysts, Saudi Arabia ultimately helped scuttle.117 Libya is alleged to have supported the rebels.118
As seen, officials point to purported Iranian financial, military and political aid to the rebels,119 while others suggest possible rebel training in Iran.120 Support from Jaafari and Zaydi communities outside Yemen, notably in Iran, also has been suggested, including by independent observers.121 Although an Iranian role cannot be excluded, it is not self-evident. With the 1979 Islamic revolution, a number of Zaydi intellectuals have been drawn to Iran’s revolutionary ideology; likewise, Lebanon’s Hizbollah and its leaders enjoy widespread support, even beyond Zaydi revivalist circles. From Tehran’s perspective, moreover, a Shiite rebellion along Saudi Arabia’s borders is strategically beneficial. Still, serious theological differences between Zaydism and Jaafarism and the persistent Arab-Persian divide have limited Iran’s influence.
Huthi leaders and others claim Saudi interference, underscoring in particular supposed funding of government and local tribes during the fourth round
115 See, eg, Faisal bin Salman al-Saud, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf: Power Politics in Transition (1968-1971) (London, 2004).
116 Laurence Louër, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (London, 2008).
117 Crisis Group interview, civil society activist, Sanaa, 8 January 2009; Western diplomat, Sanaa, January 2009; tribal sheikh from Saada governorate and member of mediation committees in 2004, 2005 and 2006, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.
118 The government claimed Libya helped the rebels during the fourth round but subsequently dropped the accusation. Yemeni officials did not mention Libya during a series of interviews conducted for this report in early 2009.
119 Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.
120 Al-Hayat (pan-Arab daily), 26 March 2009.
121 During the second round, supreme Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a declaration from Najaf accusing the Yemeni government of racial discrimination. News Yemen, 7 May 2005; and Crisis Group interview, tribal sheikh from Saada governorate, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.