By Lamya Ibrahim:
Nestled among mighty Arab nations, the erstwhile overlooked state of Yemen has roared its fiery head to the world in the past few weeks. As opposing forces wipe each other out in their efforts to take control over the country, unanswered questions abound regarding the crisis.
While history’s authenticity is often debated, real-time news is usually spared such scrutiny. We rarely expect an organization that runs 24×7 on the finest technology available to be delivering anything less than the best. However, the power of the media to shape public opinion has often served as a double-edged sword, and the present issue runs the risk of facing the same due to the hitherto minimal attention given to current events in Yemen.
Unlike other conflicts in the Middle East, Yemen’s violence-ridden past and present hold the distinction of not being along simple religious or sectarian lines. The chaos can be traced back to the birth of the Houthis, an alliance of tribal militants based in Northern Yemen. The Houthis are religiously Zaidis, an offshoot of the Shia sect of Islam, a minority in Sunni-majority Yemen. Originally perceived as a threat to the deposed President Abdullah Ali Saleh, the Houthis’ predecessor organization, the Believing Youth, began operating in the early 1990s, focused mainly on Zaidi cultural and educational revival projects. Unsettled by the widespread tribal and religious support its leader Hussain Badreddin al-Houthi garnered, Saleh’s troops decided to thwart the group altogether.
There was a hefty price on Houthi’s head, and a full-fledged attack on his supporters in September 2004 led to his killing. Instead of suppressing the movement, the attack backfired and led to the reorganization of the followers around Houthi’s brothers and a rechristening to ‘the Houthis’ in their leader’s memory. It quickly escalated into an armed insurgency and eventually culminated into Yemen’s 2011 Revolution.
But things did not improve by simply deposing Saleh. The transitional government formed under Saleh’s vice-President, al-Hadi’s rule, did not represent Zaidi interests either. Increasing tensions led to frequent attacks by the Houthis that were repressed as quickly. Only now, they are winning.
Saudi Arabia did not take well to the rise of the Shia faction, and backed by Egypt, launched an airstrike on Yemen earlier this month. They fear Yemen’s strategic location at the Bab al Mandeb strait could adversely affect international oil shipments, aside from other security issues. However, if the external forces decide to pursue the Yemenis on ground, they will be on a suicide mission considering Yemen’s rough terrains serving a breeding and training ground for the world’s toughest guerilla warriors against whom the ill-prepared Saudi army would not measure up.
Meanwhile, Yemeni epicenter of the Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) along with rumors of the Iran-backed Zaidi militancy has fuelled American support to the Saudis. However, with no solid evidence of Iran’s direct involvement and a series of attacks with no clear vision at hand, this chaos is set to turn into a bigger catastrophe for the region.
Yemen is among the poorest Arab nations and the present drone-strikes and civilian deaths push the country to devastating extremes. Instead of fixating on black-and-white Sunni-Shia rivalries and entertaining American or Saudi interests, a revolutionary overhaul in the approach to Yemen’s problems is the need of the hour. A civil war, if not an entire invasion, seems imminent, and the world looks on as the multiplayer battles rage on. A complicated web has been woven where Al Hadi’s supporters and the Houthis are variably given support by Yemen’s security forces, all of whom struggle against AQAP, and further ISIS’s recently emerged affiliates in the nation.
The Middle East remains a minefield of violence and power struggles, not to mention a breeding ground for extremism directly as a result of poverty, illiteracy and corruption. Against this background, to have the flames of Yemen’s troubles raging on for selfish reasons would affect the world at large. Let there be a ceasefire, let there be room for negotiations and let medical aid and relief reach every corner. Here’s hoping the oil giants and the US Government learn their lesson and know when to stop, and what to change, before it is too late.