Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 23
in an effort to undermine Qatari mediation.122 Many further assert that, during the fifth round, Riyadh bankrolled tribal groups, mainly those connected with the Hashid confederation.123 The Kingdom denies any participation in the conflict,124 and its critics have not offered convincing proof.125 That said, a Saudi role would hardly be surprising, given shared borders and Riyadh’s long tradition of intervention in Yemeni politics through tribal, religious and economic channels as well as through direct and official funding of the state budget. Referring to this age-old pattern, a foreign analyst coined the phrase “riyalpolitik”.126
In reality, this role is more complex and nuanced than the rebels typically assert. For instance, it has not been driven by anti-Zaydi or Hashemite animus. Indeed, there is reason to believe that early on certain elements in Riyadh indirectly supported the Huthis, as the Kingdom hosted members of the Zaydi elite who
122 According to a Consultative Council member from the ruling party, “while the Saudis had been very cautious until then, not wanting to get involved in the Saada issue, Qatar’s intervention infuriated them. This is when they became more massively involved and started satisfying our financial needs”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 12 January 2009.
123 An opposition leader accused Saudi Arabia of seeking to “destabilise the country”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.
124 Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen explicitly denied his country’s involvement: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia views the Saada conflict as an internal one and therefore does not intervene”. Crisis Group interview, Ambassador Ali Hamdan, Sanaa, 13 January 2009.
125 At best, accusations are backed by hearsay. Referring to an alleged Saudi role during the fifth round, for example, a Zaydi scholar asserted: “Some people inside the ministry of defence told me that Saudi Arabia was paying as much as $10 million each week. The money went to tribal leaders, the army and people inside the ministry”. Crisis Group interview, Zaydi scholar, Sanaa, January 2009.
126 The riyal is the Saudi currency. Gregory Gause, Saudi-Yemeni Relations. Domestic Structures and Foreign Influence (New York, 1990), p. 112.
fled after the 1962 republican revolution.127 Instead, as historically has been the case, a variety of Saudi actors (the government, religious institutions, security apparatus, tribes, opposition groups and businessmen) pursue divergent, at times competing agendas in neighbouring Yemen, funding tribal, religious or military segments of society. Some see an interest in undermining government control, preventing Yemen from becoming a regional rival or following the lead of tribal allies who resent domination from the centre. Others believe in the need to bolster the government, fearful that Yemen’s instability ultimately will spill over into the Kingdom.
E. Western Silence
If regional meddling is a possibility, Western silence has been a certainty, with much the same result: allowing the war to fester, intensify and spread. An internal conflict that, with adequate outside pressure, could have been resolved is now threatening to destabilise an already fragile and vulnerable state that the U.S. and others have identified as an important battleground in their fight against jihadi Islamism.
Such passivity has several explanations. First is the paucity of information and inadequate, at times contradictory, communications from the rebels that have obscured the war’s scale and impact. Diplomats, journalists, researchers and NGOs, whether Yemeni or foreign, have had little to no access to Saada and surrounding areas as a result of official restrictions; they have thus been unable to assess the level of destruction or interview victims.128 By the same token, the rebels’ poor communications and lack of
127 Hasan Zayd of the al-Haqq party said, “there has been no external support for the Huthis. The movement has been locally financed, except during the second and third rounds, when Zaydis in Saudi Arabia sent money with the Saudi government’s agreement. The latter’s position is ambiguous. It has successively supported both sides, not for strictly ideological reasons but because it wants war and instability in Yemen”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 9 January 2009. A Saada sheikh claimed that Saudi Arabia had supported the rebels during the first round with food: “This was linked to the fact that the tribe of Abdallah al-Ruzami, one of the main Huthi leaders, straddles the border and therefore is half Yemeni and half Saudi”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.
128 Crisis Group’s January 2009 request to the interior ministry for permission to travel to Saada has remained unanswered. More troubling, in April 2009, Crisis Group’s consultant who did field work for this report and has worked in Yemen since 2001 was barred from re-entry at Sanaa airport. Security officials took a draft of the report. Yemeni authorities have not responded to multiple requests for an explanation.