One serious question that arises from last week’s fighting between Saudi forces and the Yemeni-based Houthi rebels is whether the “infiltrators” have any support inside the kingdom.
The Saudi authorities certainly seem to be taking no chances. Under the reassuring headline “Situation under total control”, the Saudi daily, Arab News, reveals that some 3,000 people (described as “violators of Saudi residence regulations and unidentified persons”) have been summarily dumped across the border into Yemen – presumably as a result of security checks on the local population.
Portraying the events of the last few days simply as an “incursion” by “infiltrators”, as many of the news reports have done, doesn’t fully reflect the complexities on the ground – in particular the long-standing connections and affinities among inhabitants on both sides of the Yemeni-Saudi border.
Jizan (Jazan, Gizan, Gazan) province is not what we usually think of as “typical” Saudi Arabia. It is one of the ethnically Yemeni areas conquered by the Saudis in 1934 and not permanently ceded by Yemen until the border treaty of June 2000.
The border in this area is difficult to control (especially with numerous islands dotted around the Red Sea nearby) and consequently it’s a hornets’ nest of illicit activity which sometimes extends to government officials.
Local tribes view the border either as a modern inconvenience or an opportunity to make money from smuggling. To avoid arrest, smugglers have even trained donkeys to transport goods across the frontier pathways unaccompanied. This was also the route taken from Yemen by two al-Qaeda militants who were shot dead in Jizan province last month.
The 100,000-plus population of Jizan city, the provincial capital, is a mix of Arabs and Africans – with the Africans mainly of Somali or Eritrean origin. The Yemeni Arabic dialect predominates over Saudi dialects.
In religious terms, Jizan province is traditionally Shia (Zaidi and Isma’ili), with a Sunni minority. Wahhabi influence has increased since the Saudi conquest in the 1930s. This is another element of common ground, since the Houthis in Yemen are also Zaidi Shia.
The root of the “Houthi problem” in Yemen is marginalisation coupled with resentment at encroaching Wahhabism. Similar conditions exist in the southern provinces of Saudi Arabia – so the main threat to Saudi security is not so much attacks by rebel infiltrators as the possibility that sections of the local population might start to identify with their struggle.
Shia Muslims are marginalised throughout the kingdom but there is also an ethnic dimension with the Yemenis, who are often presumed to be illegal migrants or members of a criminal underclass, and this further exacerbates tensions.
The map below shows the area affected by the current fighting in Saudi Arabia, with the white line marking the border. Jabal al-Dukhan, where the rebels first attacked on Tuesday, is at the top right, east of Ruayli. Samtah/Samitah (centre left) is where casualties have been taken to hospital.
Dagharir, where six “infiltrators” were reportedly caught sitting on the roof of the village mosque, is close to the point where the road from Samitah to Ruayli intersects with another on the map. It is well inside Saudi terrority – a good 30 miles by road from the border. Unfortunately, the villages of al-Qarn, Qawa and al-Dafeneyah, mentioned in an AFP report, are not marked.
Shrinking the map brings in Jizan city and the Red Sea.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2009.