Lining up against the Shia

Suddenly, just about everyone (at least among the Sunni elements in the Middle East) is lining up to support Yemen and Saudi Arabia in their war with the Houthi rebels – even al-Qaeda. 

“We have a war of rhetoric and a lot of people with vested interest want to make this into a proxy fight [against Iran],” one analyst tells The National newspaper.

The Arab League says it rejects "undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia". 

The Gulf Cooperation Council says Yemen is its "most important neighbour" and will continue to support it "in countering threats". 

Egypt has "reaffirmed the full solidarity of the leadership, government and people of Egypt with the government and people of Yemen against the elements of sabotage and terrorism in Saada."

Kuwait – not noted for success in defending its own borders – "stands ready to support Saudi Arabia in preventing any further attacks".

A group linked to al-Qaeda has also called on Sunni Muslims in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to "fight Iran-backed Shiite rebels". In a recording on the internet, Mohamed bin Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, who is on the Saudi list of most-wanted terror suspects, said: "Shiite Iran poses [a more] extreme danger to Sunnis of Yemen and Saudi Arabia than Jews or Christians. Driven by a greed to take over Muslim countries, Shiite Iran has long been plotting to install a Hizbullah-like group to occupy areas at the joint-border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia." 

Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister said: "We strongly advise regional and neighbouring states not to interfere in Yemen's internal affairs and try to restore peace and stability to the state ... Those who choose to fuel the flames of conflict must know that the fire will reach them."

Yemen, not surprisingly, declined Iran's offer to help "restore security". A foreign ministry source said it "definitely rejects the interference in its internal affairs by any party" (unless, of course, they are supporting the regime). 

Two Arab countries with large Shia communities – Iraq and Lebanon – seem to be keeping quiet. The radical Iraqi Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army have allegedly been providing the Houthis with some assistance.

In Kuwait, there are claims that "religious groups" (presumably from the Shia minority) "have been supporting the rebels financially and through the media".

In Bahrain (Sunni-ruled but with a Shia majority), the opposition al-Wafaq party abstained from a parliamentary vote expressing support for Saudi actions against the Houthi rebels. One of the Shia party's MPs told Asharq al-Awsat: "We do not want to involve ourselves in the Yemeni problem ... this is a complicated and internal Yemeni issue."

On Tuesday, the official Yemeni news agency announced the 
signing of a "military cooperation" deal with the United States. Few details have been revealed and the Yemenis are possibly exaggerating its importance. There has long been military/security collaboration between the two countries in connection with al-Qaeda but the official US position on the Houthi conflict is that it will not be resolved militarily.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 November 2009.