An Outsiders View Of Most Anicient Arab Country?

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Conflict in Yemen

For a while the Yemen conflict was the talk of the town, but now the attention of world media has moved on, and the fighting in Yemen is no longer a top headline. But despite all the airtime and columns dedicated to this crisis, there is still little understanding of its true nature and the goals and roles of the players.  Komal Qureishi speaks to Brett Scott, a journalist who lived in Yemen until April this year, for his insights

Q) How do you rate the way the conflict has being covered? Some paint it as a sectarian war while others paint it as a proxy war.

Brett: Yemen has been covered by international press in a way that is consistently poor. Before the conflict, and before the Houthis took over, I remember when Houthi supporters were protesting in Sana’a and many were shot dead. BBC and Al Jazeera ran titles like “Shia protesters killed,” as though they were somehow able to determine the religious denomination of each of the deceased, or as if it was crucial to the story.

It’s true, the Houthis are mostly Shia. But they have Sunni members too, and the army, much of which is allied with the rebels, is composed of both Sunnis and Shias. For the majority of the time the Houthis have existed, they were fighting the former president, who is Shia. The conflict is not about sectarianism, it’s about local power politics. However, perhaps in part due to a self-fulfilling prophecy, the conflict has taken on some real sectarian dimensions. The Houthis often call those they don’t like “Daesh,” while Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) call the Houthis heretics.

Q) Why would Saudi Arabia choose to undertake such a campaign in the first place?

Brett: There are a number of reasons, the simplest being that the Houthis and Saudis are enemies, having fought in 2009. Territory gained by the Houthis is territory no longer under Saudi’s sphere of influence. Such territory includes the Bab al Mandeb, which is a major world oil transport route, as well as the port city of Aden and oil-rich land. Beyond this, the Houthis are allied with Iran. Although they are not controlled by Iran, their gains entail increased power for Iran at Saudi Arabia’s loss.

In my opinion, Iran’s role in Yemen has been overemphasised. They are likely supporting the group with finances and strategic advice, but the Houthis are not “puppets of Iran”, as many say. While there is certainly reason to think that a component of the problem is the larger Saudi-Iran rivalry, it is a gross simplification to say this is a Sunni-Shia war. The Houthis are from the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, which is unique to Yemen and more accurately described as being in-between Sunni and Shia Islam. Truth be told, I do not know what Saudi Arabia hopes to achieve. Anyone in Yemen from day one of the airstrikes could tell you that Al Qaeda is going to benefit the most. If I had to guess, I would say the new king is trying to cement this and figures that to prevent any gains for Iran or any threat to his oil production or oil transportation he will bomb Yemen to the ground.

Q) So who exactly are the Houthis?

Brett: In 1991 a man named Hussein Badr Al-Deen Al-Houthi created the Youth Believers, a forum for Zaydi cultural events. It aimed to gather Zaydi imams and other figures to support the Al-Haq party, which represented Zaydi political ideology.

The movement can be seen as a response to the spread of Salafi religious doctrines, which were supported by former president Saleh in order to prevent the increase of power of Zaydi Shias in the north, who he feared would challenge his power.

President Saleh played the Zaydi Shias and Salafis off each other, in order to prevent either group from becoming powerful and able to challenge his authority.

The term “Houthis” comes from Hussein Al-Houthi, founder of both the Youth Believers and the Al-Haq Party, and a member of the Hashemite family. In June 2004, the Youth Believers became known as the Houthis when they started an armed campaign against the government.

The Houthis fought against the government from 2004 to 2010 in six rounds of war, though fighting never fully ceased. In 2004, group leader Hussein Al-Houthi was killed and Abdulmalik Bin Badr Al-Deen Al-Houthi took over. He remains the leader of the Houthis.

Q) What exactly sparked the current conflict?

Brett: The Houthis, in an alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who ruled Yemen for 33 years, had taken over large swathes in the north of the country and had recently taken over many governorates (provinces) in the south. Many governorates in the north were fairly stable, including the capital Sana’a. However, there was intense fighting in others, such as Al-Baida, where AQAP was launching attacks on Houthi fighters.

When the Houthis came to Sana’a in September 2014, they presented three key demands: implementation of the National Dialogue Conference outcomes, which were the result of a lengthy political dialogue between parties after the overthrow of former President Saleh; the reversal of fuel subsidy cuts, which the incumbent President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi had recently implemented to the general public’s discontent; and the toppling of Hadi’s government.

By the time Operation Decisive Storm began at midnight on March 25, fuel subsidies had long been re-instated, the president had fled to Saudi Arabia, and political talks — while still on the table — were overshadowed by rampant fighting as the group took more and more territory.

Q) Where do you see the situation heading?

Brett: Before making predictions of what will or could happen, it is important to note that developments thus far have occurred contrary to what many analysts thought. When airstrikes began in my area of Sana’a around 2:30am on March 26, I never imagined Saudis were bombing the city, and no one had suggested it would happen.

I think the Saudis will continue to destroy the country’s military infrastructure in order to increase their bargaining power in the hopes of achieving a favourable politically negotiated deal. I do not think they will try to completely destroy the Houthis, as the group has public support in many areas and it would require sending ground troops into the entire north of the country.

Q) What are your personal experiences of working in Yemen; like the various power centres that you would have to, as a journalist, be wary of?

Brett: The state of media in Yemen is very poor. It has been for a long time, but the Houthi takeover made it worse. They took over state-run media institutions and punished many who spoke out against them. Many journalists were kidnapped by the group, some tortured. The Houthis are not the root of the problem; the problem was institutionalised under the former president’s reign and made worse by groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For example, prominent Houthi journalist Abdulkarim Al-Khaiwani was murdered in a high-profile case recently. He was imprisoned for his writing by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for his assassination.

One thing that may be fairly unique to Yemen was the ease with which we could speak to certain groups. Like most places, the government was not always easy to reach. However, any time of day we could get comments from senior Houthi representatives and Al Qaeda was easily reachable as well. For stories on covert American drone attacks we could speak to local tribesmen, Houthi representatives and Al Qaeda, but not the Yemeni or American governments.

Brett Scott was an Editor at the Yemen Times, Yemen’s first and most widely read English newspaper, from April to December 2014. From January 2015 to the beginning of April he served as Managing Editor. He was evacuated on April 5 this year after living under airstrikes in the capital Sana’a for 10 days.

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