Yemen’s problem is not sectarian

This post relates to coverage in the Dawn regarding our recent event on the crisis in Yemen … “Pakistan has no business in the Arab world”

Ever since King Salman ascended to power, there’s been a gung-ho feeling in Riyadh. Yemen’s is not a sectarian issue rather the Saudis are trying to make the country into Saudi Yemenia, said Raza Naeem, assistant professor at the School of Governance and Society in the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, during his talk at The Pakistan Institute of International Relations (PIIA) on Thursday 23 April 2015. The round-table conference held in PIIA was entitled The Crisis in Yemen and Pakistan’s Response. Before giving an historical account of Yemen, Prof Naeem said it was not a country talked about much in our part of the world and he was disappointed with the mainstream commentary dominated by security analysts and ex-ambassadors. He explained Yemen was a water-scarce country that imported 90 per cent of its foodstuffs. Ever since Saudi Arabia started bombing the country, a humanitarian crisis with electricity and food shortages had enveloped Yemen, he said. In the future, he added, there was a chance of water wars in the Middle East.

He termed ironic the name ‘Restore Hope’ that the Saudis had given to their operation because it was the same name that the American gave to their operation when they attacked Somalia and destroyed it. Shattering the myth that Yemen was the birthplace of Al Qaeda, he said it was an attempt to whitewash the region’s past. Yemen was the only republican country in the peninsula and the Saudis had never liked that, he explained. Prof Naeem said Yemen used to be two countries, divided into north and south parts.

Towards the end of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the northern part was controlled by the Empire after which the Zaidi Imam dynasty took control of the area. (The Houthis were their descendants.) It was ruled with an iron hand. The south of Yemen was a British colony, he said.

Traditionally, he said, the Yemenis had been great seafaring people, and a lot of them migrated to different parts of the world, so when they returned to their homeland they brought with them ideas such as that of socialism. In the 1930s, the opposition to the Imam grew into a movement, but in the 1940s the old order was re-established, Prof Naeem said. There was no republican movement in Yemen until 1962, he added.

At the time, he said, Gamal Abdel Nasser was a dominant figure in the Arab world. There had already been some nationalistic military coups. Inspired by Nasser, Abdullah as-Sallal overthrew the Imam in north Yemen in 1962 and the dethroned Imam  Muhammad al-Badr fled into the mountains, he said. It’s at that point in time that the Saudi began to intervene in the region, he said. Yemen was called ‘Vietnam of Nasser’ (see here): arguing Yemen was not a country fond of foreign occupation,  he commented:

… it could now be Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam …

In South Yemen, a big trade union movement had evolved. Yemen was the second Arab country, after Tunisia, to have such a movement. In the south, the trade unions started to fight the British. They were aided by guerilla wars, a Maoist movement, Palestinian Fidayeen and Nasserists; as a result the British were thrown out, he said.

In 1980, both countries showed a desire for some kind of unification, and the Saudis weren’t happy with that, also because the communist had seized power in South Yemen.

Prof Naeem remarked:

Yemen is a republic, not a country floating on oil. It has deep nationalistic roots. They (people) say they’re descendents of Queen Sheba.

When both countries came together in 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power because he was part of the package deal, according to the scholar. He said the Saudis gave the impression as if they were pleased with the unification. In reality, they were not. Saleh, who was part of the problem, tried to change things in the country by controlling the economy and by importing Saudi clerics. Iran had no sectarian interest in the Houthis who were an offshoot of Shias. It was Saleh who first requested the Americans help him crush the Houthis, because he said they were being supported by Iran. The US sought proof of it, and he had none.

Prof Naeem argued the Houthis demanded a social contract. Iran had recently signed a nuclear deal and Asad was still in charge in Syria, which meant the Saudis real politics had failed.

“The Houthis pose no threat to Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan has no business in the Arab world,” he stressed, adding that the Arab world had not yet forgiven Pakistan for being part of the Baghdad pact. They had not forgotten Black September (see aftermath) when Brig Ziaul Haq destroyed the Palestinian resistance. Unfortunately, the stance of the Pakistani government was not known and the Foreign Office had no understanding of Yemen; all they knew about was the UAE and Saudi Arabia, he said.

Prof Naeem mentioned the Romans used to call Yemen ‘Arabia Felix’, meaning happy Yemen since it was a fertile part of Arabia. If the Saudi ground troops entered the region, they would be bogged down for Yemen is a mountainous zone. Ever since King Salman has taken the reins of the country there’s a gung-ho feeling in Saudi Arabia. If the Saudis do not stop, the issue could go on for a long time, he said.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2015.

Author: Peerzada Salman. Links by Editor


Filed under Discussion, Karachi, Pakistan, PIIA, Politics, The Middle East

3 responses to “Yemen’s problem is not sectarian

  1. Fayyaz

    Nice historic background. I think the Saudi is mainly concerned with its Shia community in Saudi Arabia, especially in the East which is the site of oil installations. There has been unrest in these areas which does not get much attention in the press. Iran would love to create unrest in Saudi Shias by bringing a Shia dominance in Yemen. Saudi Kings get easily panicked and harshly react to any unrest which they consider threat to their oil and throne. Saudi Arabia thought Pakistan would do their dirty job and send the ground forces which, despite their bluster and rhetoric, none of the Gulf states have the courage or resources to send. Despite spending billions on fancy weapons, now they have learned that it cannot do much without ground forces.

  2. Pingback: CPEC: Ambassador Masood Khan Addresses PIIA Members | Pakistan Horizon

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