While Yemen has been hailed a revolutionary success by the White House, presented to the world as a perfect example of political cooperation, well-planned institutional transition and a partner in counter-terrorism initiatives, the impoverished nation has been faced with crisis after crisis over the past three years and experienced little in the way of respite.
According to 2013 data from the World Bank, over 40 percent of Yemenis continue to live with less than $2 per day. Plagued by abject poverty, widespread corruption, insecurity and crippling political instability, Yemen remains a country in institutional limbo and socio-economic chaos.
Since revolutionaries took to the streets in 2011, the Arabian Peninsula’s most populous and poorest nation has had to grappled with more political shifts and social transformations than it experienced over the past three decades, notwithstanding the aggravated threat posed by radical groups such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen’s al-Qaida affiliate.
As Yemen struggles to find its footing while being pulled in many directions by conflicting regional agendas, both tribal and political factions have increasingly played the sectarian game, stoking religious-based enmity to give credence and popular legitimacy to their campaigns.
The emergence of the Houthis, a Shiite faction, as a potent rising force within Yemen’s new political spectrum against Al-Islah (the Yemeni Congregation for Reform), a Sunni radical group which serves as an umbrella for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, is believed to have been orchestrated by Saudi Arabia as a means to collapse the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore cut off Qatar’s wings in Yemen. Shedding light onto such covert dealings in Yemen, David Hearst, an editor for the Middle East Eye, wrote for the Huffington Post:
Bandar’s war against political Islam has also made itself felt on Saudi’s troubled border with Yemen. The need to combat the advance of Islamist group al-Islah in Yemen has led the Saudis to support Houthi militias — with whom the kingdom once went to war. A prominent Houthi, Saleh Habreh, was flown via London to meet the Saudi intelligence chief.
“While Yemen was never exactly the land of milk and honey, President Saleh [former President Ali Abdullah Saleh] kept the country together. However rotten and dysfunctional his policies might have been, at least we had a strong sense of direction and a semblance of order. All we have now is chaos,” Sanaa-based political analyst Abdul Salam Mohammed told MintPress News.
“Of all the overlapping crises and changes Yemen has had to grapple with, I think the biggest challenge to national security has been and continues to be sectarian-related. Although Yemen has never been sectarian per se, frictions between Sunni radicals and openly Shia tribal factions have cast a worrying shadow over all developments.”
He noted that the rise of the Houthis, a Zaidi tribe organized under the Ansar Allah political faction, has had a profound effect on Yemen’s political narrative “and led to a form of religious-political radicalization.” Attached to Yemen’s ancestral Zaidi heritage the Houthis have long called for the affirmation of Yemen’s religious independence from Saudi Arabia and the strengthening of Yemen’s democratic institutions on the basis of political self-determination.
Yet, as Mohammed warned, “Religion and politics make dangerous bedfellows!”
Shiite political Islam, please stand up!
Although Yemen’s Zaidi community represents over 40 percent of the total population, Shiite Muslims were pushed to the fringes of power in 1994, when then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh called on Saudi Arabia to quell South Yemen’s secession movement. In exchange for Riyadh’s military and political support, Saleh agreed to give Sunni factions the upper hand. On the ground, this translated to the ostracization and disenfranchisement of Yemen’s second largest religious group.
The Houthis, who hail from the northern Yemen province of Saada, bordering Saudi Arabia, suffered the most under this deal, as Saudi Arabia actively sought to suffocate the tribe and engineer the disintegration of its own Zaidi heritage to benefit Salafism and Wahhabism.
This persistent religious tug of war between Sunni and Shiite Islam has taken on new dimensions, as radicalism clouds Yemen’s transition of power, adding more uncertainty and friction to an already complicated political arena.
Yet, as happens so often, religion is little more than a facade hiding more straightforward agendas. A country where any single faction’s political influence has traditionally been defined by that faction’s ability to leverage tribal backing and exploit economic access, Yemen’s new race for power has turned into a mad dash for control over the country’s natural resources.
As Al-Islah, Yemen’s radical Sunni faction, has seen its power diminished by the Houthis, AQAP has deemed fit to move to the offensive and destroy what it understands as the single most dangerous threat to Sunni supremacy in the region — Shiite political Islam.
While AQAP’s hatred for the Houthis is hardly surprising, especially since the demonization of Shiite Islam has become somewhat of a recurring theme for Sunni fundamentalists, the ongoing clashes which have torn Yemen apart and seen Houthi militants pitted against AQAP operatives go well beyond the religious or even the political.
AQAP’s real war with the Houthis is one for access to Yemen’s natural resources — the country’s economic lifeblood and, as Mohammed describes it, “the nation’s political generator.” Yemen’s oil wells have become the new frontline.
Yemen’s new divide
If Yemen’s AQAP insurgency problem has spanned the last decade, a persistent stain on the country’s efforts to modernize its institutions and promote stability and security, the arrival of the Houthis onto the political scene led to a veritable explosion in terror-related activity that largely targets Houthi sympathizers.
Since the Houthis knocked Al-Islah from its political pedestal in September by destroying its tribal backbone, never has AQAP been so systematic and virulent in its attacks. Following a period of relative calm, sleeping terrorist cells came alive throughout Yemeni territories in September. Where AQAP traditionally limited its movements to the south, where its influence and popular appeal have been greater, radicals suddenly felt bold enough to challenge Houthi militants at the heart of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in October, revealing the extent of their terror network.
Late this September, AQAP commander released an audio message in which he called on all Sunni tribesmen to join in the war against Shiite Muslims, asserting that the Houthi takeover of Sanaa was yet another U.S. plot for control over Islam.
In the audio message, al-Raymi describes the Houthi takeover of various Yemeni provinces as “the delivery from one hand to another, from one agent to another, by the command of the master … America, under the supervision of their messenger, Ibn Omar [Jamal Benomar, the U.N. Special Advisor on Yemen.]”
Al-Raymi continued by tapping into growing anti-American sentiment, branding the Houthis as the “coming rifle of America.” He warned against “the horrors that will make the hair of young children turn grey,” urging all able men and women to join in al-Qaida’s jihad against the new Shiite threat. “Why do you not fight in the cause of Allah?” he demanded.
Referring to what AQAP has qualified as unwarranted attacks against Sunni Islam, al-Raymi directly warned Houthis: “The account is long and it has not yet been opened. So be prepared to pay for it with your souls and selves. Do you think that your crimes will pass by without judgment or punishment?”
Since Al-Islah and al-Ahmar — the main tribal power behind Al-Islah — failed to mount an opposition against the Houthis’ rising political star, al-Raymi vowed that his fighters would act as “a strong shield” against the Shiite threat and reclaim Sunni religious hegemony over Yemen.
If such a narrative falls in perfect alignment with AQAP’s intrinsic belief system — that all which is not sensu stricto Sunni should be destroyed — such calls for action obscure ulterior motives.
Aref Abu Hatem, a leading Yemeni analyst, said that he believes AQAP reverted to playing the “religious card” once it saw its influence within Yemen’s political arena diminished under Houthi impetus.
“It is clear that al-Qaida has used Al-Islah’s political and tribal standing in Yemen to assert its own ideology and transform Yemen into another terror satellite. If anything, and whether one agrees with the Houthis or not, the movement has exposed al-Qaida’s ties within the government and underscored the role certain officials played in perpetuating fear among the population,” Hatem told MintPress.
“Al-Qaida had used and exploited Al-Islah in the same manner Al-Islah has taken advantage of terror to push its fulfill its hegemonic ambitions. This is not a theory, by the way, but a fact.”
The new frontline
Speaking to MintPress from Lebanon, political analyst Anthony Biswell emphasized: “Al-Qaida’s opposition to the Houthis is primarily borne out of a rejection of the apparent political, and one can assume economic, gains that the Houthis have made in Yemen’s Northern and Central governorates.”
“Obviously it makes sense for al-Qaida to try and whip up sectarian animosity through various apparatus, including brokering deals with disgruntled tribes/tribesman, social media, and/or retrospectively justifying the killing of Houthi supporters as an extension of a grander religious battle being fought. In reality, however, I’d be inclined to say that this is largely the product of a carefully stage-managed propaganda campaign.”
As both groups vie for control over Yemen, battle lines have been drawn in and around Yemen’s economic centers, the cities of Hadramawt and Marib, which are home to the country’s most important oil and gas resources.
Like an increasing number of Middle East experts, Biswell believes that ongoing attacks in Marib and Hadramawt stem from a desire to establish an economic monopoly which would ultimately give more “bite” to any one faction’s political ambitions in Yemen.
“The battles raging in these territories [Marib and Hadramawt] are in my mind a battle to control two resource-rich areas. While religious sentiments may play some part, I’d argue such sentiments are a reflection of a self-fulfilling prophecy with regards to al-Qaida’s attempts to portray the armed struggle as a religious battle. Much more likely is an acute awareness of the political and economic gains that can be made for the Houthis if indeed they were able to gain de facto control of Marib and Hadramawt,” Biswell said.
As highlighted by Mohammed, the political analyst based in Sanaa, fighting in Marib has become symptomatic of AQAP and the Houthis’ race for control. Earlier this month media reports confirmed that local tribes had organized themselves in popular committee to prevent Houthi operatives from seizing key oil infrastructures.
But as the clashes rage on, enmities have reached dangerous highs, threatening to drag regional powers into the equation.
On Dec. 3, AQAP claimed responsibility for a car bomb which targeted the Sanaa residence of Iran’s ambassador to Yemen, arguing that Tehran had become a nefarious meddling force because it banks on the Houthis to place Yemen within the grasp of its political influence.
Hatem is adamant that AQAP’s targeting of Iranian officials falls within the terror group’s anti-Shiite narrative and desire to turn Yemen into a religious battleground.
“Al-Qaida’s activities in Yemen need to be looked at from a regional perspective. Radicals thrive in violence and chaos … they seek to radicalize the political narrative to better justify their stance and portray their actions as legitimate,” he said.
Yet it appears as if the race for political supremacy in Yemen carries far-reaching implications that extend beyond Yemen’s borders, especially since the impoverished nation sits on the world’s oil route, Bab al-Mandeb.
Access to Yemen’s energy resources is not a just a national matter, as Hatem pointed out: “Yemen is an international choking point. When super powers like Iran, the United States and Europe have such crucial economic interests invested in Yemen, everything is political.”