Rebels' challenge to Saudi state

Yemen’s Houthi rebels drew up a plan two years ago to establish a Shia state embracing parts of northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia, according to one of the movement’s former leaders quoted in the Yemen Post.

The state would include all of Saada province together with large areas of al-Jawf, Marib and Hajja in Yemen, plus large areas of Najran and Jizan in Saudi Arabia, “as a first step”, the paper said.

Whatever the motives of the ex-leader (identified as “Abu Sulaiman”) for saying this now, the story is certainly intriguing in the light of Saudi Arabia’s increasingly public military embroilment in the conflict.

There has been much talk in the past about the Houthis wanting a separate state in Yemen (which may be one of several alternative options) but as far as I’m aware this is the first suggestion that such a state would aspire to include parts of Saudi Arabia too.

It would not be very surprising if the Houthis were indeed thinking along these lines, however. As I pointed out last week, there are strong affinities between the Zaidi Shia in northern Yemen and many of their neighbours across the border in Saudi Arabia – a shared sense of ethnicity, shared religion and long-term marginalisation.

That does not necessarily mean the Houthi rebels have supporters or sympathisers within the kingdom but it’s a possibility that the Saudi authorities must surely be considering.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are said to have “imposed a naval blockade on the Red Sea coast of northern Yemen to stem the flow of weapons and fighters”, though it is unclear how extensive or effective this will be. With numerous islands dotted around the sea in the vicinity, plus lots of small fishing boats and others bringing refugees from Africa, it’s probably quite difficult to police. The Saudi navy is also quite small, and split between the Gulf and the Red Sea.

A strongly-worded editorial in the Yemen Post suggests the Saudis will get a bloody nose from taking on the Houthis, and that Yemen’s president can now sit back and watch it happen:

The headache of the last five years has suddenly turned into the gift that Salih always dreamed of having, making Saudi pay for its mistakes against Yemen.

Even though we respect Saudi Arabia, we cannot hide the fact that they are the main reason for the sectarian clashes in Saada between Houthis, Zaidis, and the Saudi-supported Wahhabis.

One of the factors underlying the conflict is Zaidi resentment at the spread of Wahhabi/Salafi influences from Saudi Arabia in their area.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2009.