Yemen: Between a dream and a decisive storm

Yemen: Between a dream and a decisive storm
Comment: Dreams of political hegemony under Zaydi leadership, revived by the Houthis, have collided with regional geopolitics.
6 min read
02 Apr, 2015
Imam Ahmad and his son Badr in 1932 [AFP]

The dream belongs to the Zaydi imamate in its Houthi mantle, and the mantle of the guardian jurist worn by its new leader, Sayyid Abdul Malik Badr al-Din al-Houthi.

It has not sprung up in a vacuum.

It originated about a century ago, when northern Yemen was under Ottoman rule and southern Yemen was a British protectorate. The collapse of the Ottomans as a result of the First World War presented the powerful Zaydi leader Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din with an opportunity.

He declared the independence of North Yemen and established the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. He set up a closed theocratic system of governance that marginalised the Shafii sect - which comprised 60-70 percent of Yemenis - and the Ismaili sect, which represented no more than six percent of Yemenis, and considered Jewish people to be "People of the Book" - non-Muslim but protected.

Imam Yahya closed Yemen to the outside world, and ruled by religious authority and by playing on disagreements between the tribes.

Imam Yahya closed Yemen to the outside world, and ruled by religious authority and by playing on disagreements between the tribes.

He and his successor, Imam Ahmad, were able to preserve the Mutawakkilite Kingdom for 44 years (1918-1962), despite several attempted coups.

An assassination attempt finally succeeded in 1962. Imam Ahmad was killed on 19 September. His son, Imam Saif al-Islam Mohammad al-Badr, succeeded him - but only lasted one week.

The commander of Imamate Guards, Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal, and Abdul Rahman al-Baidani, staged a coup. The Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen fell, and the last of the imams fled to Saudi Arabia.

A republican regime was established in North Yemen headed by Sallal, who was promoted to the rank of field marshal. However, things did not go well.

Egypt, under Gamal Abdul Nasser, supported the Yemeni revolution as it sought to strengthen its hold, while Saudi Arabia supported Imam al-Badr and the tribes that supported him, and sought to reinstate him as the Zaydi imam.

A bitter struggle ensued for more than five years to control the mountains, valleys and plains of Yemen. Thousands were killed and much wealth and resources were wasted. Without going into further details, which may not be called for at this time, everyone then woke up to a major catastrophe that befell the Arabs: the June 1967 defeat by Israel.

The shock of the six-day war

The Egyptian army returned from Yemen to rebuild its armed forces and prepare for an inevitable war to liberate occupied land, and the Arab nation again became preoccupied - not with Yemen, but with working to reverse the effects of Zionist aggression.

The imamate was not restored in Yemen. Instead, the first military coup against those who had overthrown the imam occurred, and Field Marshal al-Sallal, who was removed from power in November 1967, took refuge in Cairo.

That same year, Britain ended its occupation of Aden and South Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Yemen, which had socialist leanings, was established. The Arab Nation was no longer focused on Yemen - both north and south - because it was preoccupied with its internal and external concerns and conflicts.

The two parts of Yemen united in 1990 as the Arab Republic of Yemen under the presidency of Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had taken power in North Yemen in 1978, following an unsettled period during which two successive presidents - Ibrahim al-Hamdi and Ahmad al-Ghashmi - had been assassinated, and a third - Abdul Karim al-Arshi - had stepped down.

Saleh had successfully convinced the leaders of the Hashid and Bakil tribes - Abdullah al-Ahmar and Sinan Abu Lahoum - that he was capable of becoming president and controlling the institutions of the state.

Saleh became president and succeeded in holding on to power for 32 years, using various methods of deception and underhanded dealings and exploiting rifts both at the internal tribal level, as well as at the external regional and international levels.

In addition, he used all methods of despotism and repression to deal with any opposition. This continued until the winds of the Arab Spring began to blow in 2011, undermining the foundations of the Saleh regime.

Violent political and social cracks opened, and they reignited all the inherent historical legacies, at the tribal and sectarian levels, within the wider context of new regional and international circumstances that were affecting Yemen.

The most important legacy to resurface was the dream of the Zaydi Imamate, and the Houthis put themselves forward to achieve it from their stronghold of Saada.

The Ansar Allah group was their political cover, and they received support from their closest confessional ally - Iran. Within a wider context of internal political failure to manage the post-Saleh transitional phase and Saleh's avoidance of fulfilling his commitments under the Gulf Initiative, al-Houthi's interests intersected with those of Saleh, despite Saleh's long-standing traditional conflict with the Houthis.

Amid considerable regional turbulence, particularly with the troubling rise of the Islamic State group, Iran imagined that all this represented a golden opportunity for its ally in Yemen to gain power and establish the guardian jurist state.

That state would be represented by Sayyid Abdul Malik Badr al-Din, who would be the Houthi Ayatollah in Yemen, but owing spiritual loyalty to the Ayatollah in Qom. The Houthis spread out in Yemen's mountains, and its northern, eastern and western parts.

The transitional authority collapsed, despite its legitimacy, and its president was forced to take refuge in Aden. The Houthis then headed south for Aden. Their Iranian ally could not hide its joy, and the adviser to the Iranian president boasted that his country's influence had reached the Mandab Strait and the Red Sea, having already overtaken Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus.

How far will the dream of the Zaydi Houthi Imamate under Iranian sponsorship go?

A Zaydi state?

So the dream seemed almost ready to come true: a Zaydi state under Houthi leadership subordinate to Iran along the Bab al-Mandab Strait and overlooking the entrance to the Red Sea.

It would have been impossible for Saudi Arabia, other member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the states of the region to accept the fulfilment of that dream.

The US understood this well, and it could not have opposed any serious and practical move to confront Iranian designs on the entrance to the Red Sea, because those designs were a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia and a threat to the approaches of the Gulf states.

So decisiveness took shape as a coordinated military operation led by Riyadh in close alliance with four Gulf countries, and a supporting role by five Arab and Islamic countries. The operation was named Decisive Storm.

The launch of this operation may be somewhat late, which might also make it more costly. However, the principle that the Arabs regrettably adhere to is "better late than never".

One week has passed since Operation Decisive Storm was launched. It has entailed airstrikes targeting the military infrastructure of al-Houthi and his ally, Saleh. This has succeeded in halting the progress and spread of their forces and their planned occupation of Aden to the south.

The airstrikes are trying to avoid causing civilian casualties, which is very difficult.

How far will the dream of the Zaydi Houthi Imamate under Iranian sponsorship go? Will the collapse of that dream provoke those who have embraced it into attempting to destroy Yemen?

Will Decisive Storm succeed in achieving a decisive outcome in favour of the people, security and stability of Yemen? Will it succeed in crushing Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces in order to end his damaging role? Will it succeed in pushing al-Houthi into a genuine negotiation that will not give him more weight than he merits?

Ultimately, will Yemen be prosperous once again? The Yemeni people holds the answer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.