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Middle East Report N°8627 May 2009

Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb

I. Introduction

Over the past two decades, diplomats and analysts regularly have described Yemen as on the verge of explosion. To their surprise, the country for the most part has remained stable, avoiding large-scale violence and managing multiple crises at once, including unification of North and South in 1990, reabsorption of around one quarter of the workforce when Yemeni migrant workers faced eviction from Gulf states in 1991, the former South Yemen’s secession attempt in 1994 and, since 2000, the battle against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

That era appears to be drawing to a close. Yemen currently confronts simultaneous political and social crises made all the more serious by the global financial meltdown. Increasing domestic repression under cover of an anti-terrorism campaign reflects growing state insecurity; meanwhile, massive protests are occurring in what once was South Yemen, where secessionist sentiment is on the rise.1 Finally, there is the Saada conflict, which the government has been singularly unable to end. Each of these developments is a reason for worry in a country that, a mere decade ago, was engaged in a promising and remarkable democratisation process. Of all, the Saada war between the army and a rebel group calling itself the Believing Youth (al-Shabab al-Mumin) is the most dangerous and deadly.

A mountainous governorate in north-western Yemen that borders Saudi Arabia, Saada has been the scene of a brutal armed conflict since June 2004 that has resulted in thousands of casualties and enormous destruction. The war has the potential to spread to surrounding regions, particularly Amran, al-Jawf, Marib and Hajja.

1 As protests grew more intense, security forces responded with greater repression. In April 2009, protests in Radfan led to the deaths of eight people. Rising tensions led the government to temporarily close seven newspapers, including the popular al-Ayyam daily. See The New York Times, 4 May 2009, and Stephen Day, “Updating Yemeni national unity: Could lingering regional divisions bring down the regime?”, Middle East Journal, vol. 62, no. 3 (2008).

The rebel movement, first headed by Husein al-Huthi, a former parliament member, and, after his death, by his kin, is part of a larger, highly diverse Zaydi revivalist group.2 Members of the Huthi family claim direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad and thus consider themselves sayyids or Hashemites.3 Until the 1962 revolution in North Yemen that ended the Zaydi imamate and led to the establishment of a republic, Hashemites had dominated both political and religious spheres; during that period, North Yemen’s rulers (imams) were exclusively Hashemite.4 Today, the demoted Huthi family purports to defend Zaydi identity from dilution in a wider Sunni Islamic identity; it also mobilises support through an anti-U.S, anti-Israel and, at times, anti-Jewish platform. The government accuses it of receiving Iranian support and seeking to restore the

2 Zaydism is a branch of Shiism distinct from Jaafarism (Twelver Shiism, which dominates in contemporary Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and is present in, inter alia, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia). Zaydism first took root in Mesopotamia and Central Asia in 740 but gradually moved south, where it reached Yemen. The sect’s religious elites claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad and ruled North Yemeni territory under the imamate until the 1962 revolution. Since then, Zaydism has been in crisis. Zaydis reportedly represent approximately one third of Yemen’s estimated 25 million citizens, the majority of whom are Shafeis, ie, members of one of the four traditional schools of Sunni jurisprudence (madhhab), which is also dominant in, for example, Egypt. Zaydis are based in the north-western highlands, with their main strongholds in Saada, Hajja and Dhamar, as well as Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

3 Hashemites are descendants of the Prophet’s clan; members of the Huthi family hail from a different branch than the contemporary Jordanian royal family. Not all Yemeni Hashe­mites are Zaydis; indeed, some are Sunni. That said, throughout this report and unless otherwise specified, the term Hashemite will refer only to its Zaydi members.

4 North and South Yemen united on 22 May 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen. Until then, the two entities’ trajectories had remained separate. The North, which comprises roughly three quarters of the population, achieved formal independence in 1918 following the Ottoman Empire’s demise. It was ruled by Zaydi imams until the 1962 revolution, which gave rise to the Yemen Arab Republic. The South, colonised by Great Britain since 1838, gained independence in 1967. In 1970 it became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a socialist state and Soviet ally. See Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen (Cambridge, 2000).

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