Yemen and the Houthi conflict

Since 2004 the Yemeni government has waged a series of wars against the so-called Houthi rebels in the far north of the country, close to the Saudi border. This conflict is currently in abeyance but a long-term solution will be needed if Yemen is to undergo a successful political transition.

In the most recent episode of fighting (2009-10), which the government called Operation Scorched Earth, the conflict became internationalised when Saudi Arabia carried out bombing raids in Yemen with President Saleh's blessing.

Details are still obscure because journalists and aid workers were not allowed into the area but that thousands were killed or injured and an estimated 350,000 were forced to leave their homes.

Last week, at the London conference on the future of Yemen, a panel of experts shed some light on the origins and nature of the conflict. 

Shelagh Weir said the conflict is often described as "tribal" in a derogatory way, implying that those opposing the government are unruly and inherently anti-state. 

She pointed out that the tribes in the area, far from being anarchic, have their own traditional systems of law and governance. They exist in a symbiotic relationship with the Yemeni state, coordinating with local government officials such as governors, sharia judges and police, but they are also strongly self-reliant. In the absence of government help, for example, they constructed much of the rudimentary local infrastructure themselves.

"Tribes and their leaders are not anti-state," Weir said. "However, their compliance with state officials has always been conditional on fair governance."

"Where officials or regimes have been corrupt or oppressive, have flouted their cherished values, or threatened their welfare or vital interests, they have opposed them ... This also chimes with one of the basic tenets of Zaidism, the dominant religion of the highlands of northern Yemen – khuruj, the right and duty to oppose unjust rulers.

"Until the 1980s, all the highland population of the governorate of Saada were Zaidi Shiites and of those about 5% were sayyids, members of the Zaidi religious elite who claim descent from the Prophet and from whom the imams [rulers of Yemen] were formerly chosen. 

"One of the most prominent and respected Zaidi religious scholars was Badreddin al-Houthi, the father of Hussain al-Houthi after whom the Houthi wars are named."

A major factor leading up to the Houthi conflict was rivalry between the majority of Zaidi Shiites and a growing minority of men who had converted from Zaidism to the salafi or Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, Weir said.

Though ostensibly religious, this rivalry also had a social dimension, she added. Converts included men who occupied the bottom of the traditional status hierarchy and bitterly resented their social disadvantage, as well as youths who resented the power of the older generation or were attracted by the charisma of salafi leaders and their obvious financial resources. "Certain sheikhs openly or tacitly supported salafism for personal or anti-Zaidi reasons or because of the subsidies they received from Saudi Arabia."

Weir continued:

"During the 1990s the growth of socially-divisive salafism within the heartlands of Zaidi Islam was encouraged and funded by officials and business interests in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"Salafis increasingly mocked or questioned the beliefs and rituals of the Zaidi majority, threatening them in mosques and accusing them of wanting the return of the imam [i.e. the end of the republican system] – though this was publicly denied by the Zaidi clerics."

Inevitably, the aggressive salafi/Wahhabi proselytising triggered a response from the other side. Hussain al-Houthi founded his Believing Youth movement – initially a local effort to defend Zaidi rights in the Saadah region. "Gradually it expanded to provide educational and social services and became increasingly politically vocal in opposing President Saleh's perceived pro-American stance after 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq," Weir said. 

"A number of violent incidents took place between Houthi supporters and soldiers. Then in 2004 government security forces assassinated Hussain al-Houthi, allegedly during an attempt at a mediated peace settlement. 

"This extrajudicial murder not only violated the cherished tribal ideal of settling disputes by negotiation through respected intermediaries but it also sabotaged the possibility of an early resolution of the Houthi conflict and stoked its escalation."

In another presentation to the London conference, Madeleine Wells, a PhD student at George Washington University, examined government rhetoric linking the Houthis with Iran.

She said her purpose was not to discuss the accuracy (or otherwise) of this rhetoric but to consider its effects. She argued that the rhetoric had made the conflict more difficult to resolve. Background noise about "foreign" influence "muddles our ability to perceive real signals about what groups actually want, she said – adding that it has also "put the Houthis in a position where they now may actually have nothing to lose by associating with Iran".

Initially, Wells said, the Yemeni government looked favourably on Houthi's Believing Youth movement, supporting it financially as a counterweight to Saudi-Wahhabi encroachment in the north of the country.

"This changed in 2002 when [Hussain] al-Houthi began specifically mentioning Iran in his rhetoric. After 9/11 he picked up increased sensitivity about a global war on Muslims, he mentioned Iran as a laudatory example of anti-western resistance."

Although Houthi had spoken of Iran in the context of a larger Shia struggle, President Saleh latched on to it, Wells said, rallying support for war in part by charaterising the Houthis as proto-Hizbullah footsoldiers for Iran.

She continued:

"The rhetoric has ratcheted up to such a degree that it's hard to see how much worse the political stand-off could possibly get if the Houthis did accept external aid.

"Perception and rhetorical emphasis on Iran's role in the conflict is just as dangerous as real support. Because of the regime's inability to perceive the Houthis as independent agents with legitimate grievances, it gives them nothing to lose in pursuing actual foreign ties."

Regime rhetoric, she added, has also had social and political ramifications that cause elements of the National Dialogue to doubt Houthi commitments to an equitable and local Yemeni solution.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 January 2013