While the fighting in Afghanistan continues to dominate news coverage, one Middle Eastern country has emerged as a leading flashpoint of Islamic terrorism. Yemen, most recently in the headlines as the home of Anwar al Awlaki, the exiled imam who fled to the country after inspiring Fort Hood murderer Nidal Malik Hasan, has become a haven for al-Qaeda even as its internal turmoil has drawn in regional rivals like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Yemen is the poorest and most unstable of all Middle Eastern countries. Located in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, it occupies a strategic position that makes the country difficult to ignore. At its south-western tip, Yemen straddles one side of the strategic, 20-mile wide Mandab Strait that connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, a vital international shipping lane leading to the Suez Canal. Equally important for world commerce, Saudi Arabia’s oil fields lie just across Yemen’s northern border.
It is Yemen’s northern area, particularly the Saada region, which is beginning to attract international attention. A bitter civil war there is threatening to turn into a regional conflict pitting Iran against Saudi Arabia. A rebellion among Saada’s Shiite tribes, called the Houthis (the name of the clan leading the revolt), against Yemen’s central government has seen the two rival Muslim states stake out sides in the conflict.
Iran, which champions the Shiite cause throughout the Islamic world, has reportedly sent combatants from its own Revolutionary Guards as well as from Hezbollah, its proxy Shiite fighting force in Lebanon, to help the Houthis. Last month, Yemen’s navy exposed the extent of Iran’s involvement in the conflict when it seized a ship off its coast carrying Iranian arms for the Shiite rebels.
Saudi Arabia, the leader of Islam’s majority Sunni branch and home of the intolerant and anti-Shiite Wahhabi doctrine, has been backing Yemen’s government with money and weapons of its own. But a Houthi incursion across the porous and mountainous Saudi-Yemeni border earlier this month, in which three Saudi villages were seized and a border guard killed changed that. The Saudi government reacted immediately to this escalation, sending warplanes to bomb Houthi positions in Yemen’s mountainous northern region and an army column across the border to confront the rebels directly.
Yemen’s Shiite rebellion, its sixth against the central government since 2004, has both religious and economic overtones. Yemen was ruled by a Shiite imamate for ten centuries until its overthrow in 1962 and the Houthis are suspected of wanting to be ruled by their own Shiite imams again.
But the Shiites are also angry at what one observer calls their “economic marginalization.” A lack of government services and investment in the northern part of the country has fuelled “bitter grievances.” On top of this, in an area of the world where religion is all-important, the Houthis perceive their government as supporting “Salafi groups aligned with Saudi-style Wahhabi Islam.”
The United States regards Yemen as a “frontline state” in the War on Terror because of its strategic location near the Saudi oil fields. Yemen also serves as a buffer between anarchic Somalia and Saudi Arabia. Since America and other countries in the region want to maintain this buffer and prevent the lawless area between Kenya and the Yemeni coastline from expanding to the Saudi border, the American military is reported to have provided Yemen’s army with both training and financing.
Some experts, however, do not think American and Saudi assistance will suffice, regarding Yemen’s government as too weak to defeat the insurgency. To add to their security problems, Yemeni authorities are also facing a secessionist movement in southern Yemen, which was once an independent state.
Simultaneously in Yemen’s Hadhramout province, the ancestral home of the bin Laden family, the government is dealing with resurgent jihadi groups, who had retreated to a safer Yemen after their defeat in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. There are now an estimated 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters in Hadhramout. They have attacked police stations and earlier this month killed three, high-ranking security officers.
While Yemen’s other conflicts are contributing to the country’s instability, it is the Shiite rebellion in northern Yemen that is causing the most concern. Asia Times columnist M.K. Bhadrakumar writes that there is “virtual paranoia” in the Saudi government as to how to deal with a possible “Yemense-style Hezbollah” on its border. Bhadrakumar states:
“The Saudis see in the Houthi militia a potential Hezbollah-like movement based on egalitarian ideals of political justice and equity, with a highly disciplined and trained cadre that may come to inhabit Saudi borders.”
Besides regarding the Houthis as a possible permanent threat and an Iranian launching pad for attacks on the Kingdom, there is also the fear the Shiite insurgency will have a galvanizing effect on the majority Shiite population in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province where most of the Saudi oil facilities are located. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there were Shiite fundamentalist riots against the Saudi government in this area. More ominously, one journalist stated after the government crackdown on these demonstrations, there were “attacks on key (oil) installations by an underground movement.”
Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population may be a powder keg ready to explode again, needing only a Houthi-Iranian match. Bhadrakumar describes the Saudi Shiites as “seething with resentment over Wahhabi intolerance.” A Human Rights Watch report last August stated Saudi authorities “routinely treats these people with scorn and suspicion” extending its discrimination against them beyond religion to education, employment and to the justice system.
According to Bhadrakumar, to defend their country from the perceived Iranian threat developing on their border the Saudis have developed “a three-pronged plan.” The first part involves creating a buffer zone by bombing all Houthi border communities to force them to move (Imagine the world media’s reaction if Israel did this.). The Saudis will then erect an anti-infiltration fence along the 1,500 kilometer Yemeni-Saudi border, while the Saudi navy carries out a naval blockade off Yemen’s northern coast.
But the Saudis should know that these measures are probably doomed to failure. In the 1960s, they observed how Egypt wound up gradually committing 70,000 troops to an eight-year civil war in northern Yemen that only ended in a stalemate. That long-forgotten history now appears ready to repeat itself in the increasingly unstable country.