The Strange Relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni tribes.

Saudi is the only country in the world named after a family – the Sauds, from the Nejd region in the middle of Arabia.  They were motivated by religious Wahhabi zeal and from 1902 the Saudi tribes started to capture much of the Arabian peninsula, which Abdulaziz Al-Saud declared to be a kingdom in 1932; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  After the discovery of oil, the tribes were rapidly pulled into the modern day. A comfortable life afforded by wealth from its large oil reserves softened the tribes who became used to a very different way of life.  Instead of fighting for power, for over 80 years Saudi maintained its position by use of its wealth to buy friends and influence, and relied on a pact with USA to defend the kingdom against any dangers.

king abdulaziz al saud
King Abdulaziz Al Saud

Historically, the wealth in Arabia had been generated in the south west of the peninsula, in the areas that became known as North Yemen plus the Aden area; mountainous, with a higher rainfall and able to grow crops especially coffee that generated a high income, Yemen also controlled land trade routes of valuable commodities such as frankincense, whilst the ports of Aden and Mocha controlled the trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe.  They were the most sophisticated and cultured people in the peninsula, with comparatively large urban conurbations and distinctive architecture.

Dar al Hajjar2
Stunning and sophisticated architecture of Yemen

The area was guarded by the mountain tribes that originated from the north of Yemen, who were notorious warriors who knew the mountain terrain and were able to defend their position for a millennium; adventurers such as the Ottomans found it impossible to control them. The largest of these was the Hashids, and the other important large tribe was the Bakils whose ancestral home was in Saada near to the Saudi border.  Yemen was ruled for one thousand years by an Imamate, whose ruler was drawn from the Bakil tribe; in recent decades was known as the Mutawakkilite kingdom.  The last 150 years of the Imamate were spent trying to recapture Aden which was occupied by the British since 1839, developing Aden as a Crown Colony.

Imam Ahmed bin Yahya
Imam Ahmed bin Yayha 1891-1962

The autocratic, unpredictable and conservative Imam Ahmed died in 1962 and his son Muhammed Al Badr was briefly crowned, but within days he was overthrown by revolutionaries who wanted a more forward looking  Yemen, assisted by Egyptian forces.  Yemen was declared a republic, but the unseated Imam was supported by Saudi Arabia who feared a vibrant democracy developing on its doorstep.  Al Badr was given asylum in Saudi Arabia, and for a half a decade they supported the deposed Imam and his tribe in the quest to return to power.  Egypt lost thousands of soldiers trying to hold the peace in Yemen, only to find that being bogged down in Yemen tribal warfare probably cost them the six day war against Israel. Al Badr eventually settled in UK and died from natural causes at a grand old age.  The British were forced to relinquish Aden in 1967, and South Yemen became a communist state.  The ruling sheikhs were deprived of their assets and fled to Saudi Arabia, where they smouldered resentfully after their loss of status and wealth.Eventually an uneasy peace settled between Saudi Arabia, the northern tribes and the Yemeni President. However, Saudi provided weapons and financial support to the Hashids and Bakils, which meant they remained a thorn in the side of the Yemen government.

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Yemeni tribes often had more weapons than the Yemeni army, supplied by Saudi Arabia.

When US wanted volunteers to fight in Afghanistan to overthrow the communists there, two Yemeni groups immediately volunteered as mujahedeen.  One was the deposed rich from the South who were living in exile  in Saudi; they thirsted for revenge against any communist state. From the same background as Bin Laden, they soon moved into positions of command, the most well-known being Tariq Al Fadhli whose father was Sultan of Abyan, near Aden, who organised the first jihadi movements in Yemen on his return. The other group was from the Bakil and Hashid tribes, natural warriors who were used to fighting in mountain terrain. When they returned, they believed that they had caused the downfall of the Soviet empire.  Many were given civil service jobs on their return, jobs which most did not even do, but they drew a regular salary which bloated the already inefficient civil service of North Yemen.

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President Ali Saleh of YAR (North Yemen)
ali al bidh
President Ali Al Bidh of PDRY (South Yemen)

After the fall of the Soviets, the two Yemens both had problems, and they decided to unify in 1990.  It was a hurried and not well planned merger, President Saleh of the north knew that Saudi Arabia preferred two warring countries and he forced things to move too quickly to avoid giving Saudi chance to interfere; the South suffered financially after the loss of Soviet support and were forced into full unity rather than a federation, their preferred choice.  The South believed that their better form of government, superior health and education would win them voters in the southern highlands, and also in the coastal plain along the Red Sea called theTihama.

It was not to be; an emerging Islah party (Muslim Brotherhood) reportedly funded by Saudi Arabia took a large proportion of the vote they had counted on. Additionally, a few months after unification, the largest oil reserves in Yemen were discovered in Hadramaut.  The Southern leaders found themselves side-lined in government and the posts they were given were only tokens. Pension payments to retirees in the South were withheld. The real power lay with Saleh’s party, corruption and inefficiencies remained, the oil spoils were divided amongst Saleh and his northern friends, who took the long standing view that they did the protection and in consequence they had a right to take anything in the south that they wanted – and they did.  They took property and business assets, whilst the corrupt legal system offered the Southerners no redress.

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Tribesmen were infuriated by the use of the mocking term ‘Dahbashi’

Southern resentment boiled over in 1994. They believed they could win in a war against Saleh, severely weakened by economic sanctions, and Saudi agreed to back the South’s quest for independence. But Saleh, a powerful manipulator, had a trump card. He called on the mujahedeen to help fight the ‘infidels’, or the communists, in South Yemen. Fired with anti-communist propaganda, these religious extremists saw a new mission. They arrived in the South and fanatically started applying sharia law, flogging people for drinking alcohol or talking to unrelated women, ransacked the church, and burning down the famous Sira beer factory.  They then stripped the city of its assets, even removing bathtubs, windows and doorknobs, to take back to their homelands.  The Yemen Constitution was torn up and a new one devised, no longer a compromise between the socialist South and the tribal North, but one that suited the North and religious extremists. From then on, Southerners believed themselves to be living under occupation.  A new television programme emerged in the south-west, called ‘Tales of Dahbash’.  Dahbash was a hopeless but loveable rogue with a northern tribal accent.  The name ‘Dahbashi’ became a pejorative term used to describe the chaos of northern management and the unsophisticated behaviour of the tribal people, most of whom had little education.  This made northerners bristle.

As Saleh was keen to continue improving his relationship with Saudi, he gave permission for Saudi to set up Wahhabi schools in Yemen. Religious tolerance in Yemen was high and it had never been a factor in Yemeni politics, historically the tribe being a more significant identifier rather than religion. Saudi was beginning to feel challenged by rising Shia power. The massive Middle East oil field with wells in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and East Saudi Arabia was almost totally over Shia lands. Saudi neurotically obsessed in case their Shia population moved its allegiance to Iraq or Iran, both of which had Shia majorities, which would mean it would lose its oil wealth.  Saudi planned to convert the Zaidis to Sunni Islam, but the northern tribes were having none of it, and countered with a Zaidi revivalist movement. This resulted in escalating tensions, and eventually Saleh was paid by Saudi to attack the Bakil tribe in 2004.  Saleh used members of his own tribe, the Hashids, to do so.  Hussein Houthi, a youth leader was killed in the battle hence his movement became known as the Houthis.  After this other attacks on the Houthis followed, and in 2009 Saudi crossed the border to attack the Houthis themselves, only to be repelled by battle hardened Houthi warriors.

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Locations of Sunni and Shia populations in the Middle East
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Gas and oil fields. Note the correspondence of oil fields with Shia populated areas

The Houthis became more and more militarised in response to the very real threat they faced from Saudi Arabia, and once more they wanted to be in a controlling position in governing Yemen. Meanwhile, as US drones attacked Al Qaeda operatives in areas like Shabwa, often killing civilians as they did so, the numbers of recruits to Al Qaeda actually increased. Al Qaeda by now had a strong anti-Shia sentiment; if it wasn’t funded by Saudi Arabia, all of its characteristics were aligned to Wahhabism.  All of these factors increased the Houthi vulnerability, and made their  stance more aggressive.

After Yemen’s Arab Spring and the downfall of Saleh, the Houthis wanted to be a prominent actor in the new negotiations. They aligned all the Zaidi tribes, including the Hashids, and strangely they allied with Saleh, now ex-President but wanting to take back his old job.  Saleh had left office with considerable wealth.  Because of the tribal support, they easily took over large swathes of the old North Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a.  Obsessed with Saudi and Western interference, they did not try to win hearts and minds; most people in Yemen were tired of the old politicians and corruption, and were open to new approaches; they might have welcomed a more conciliatory approach. Some did start to support the Houthis, but when they closed businesses that they thought had any Saudi or US connections – most that they closed didn’t – and they closed newspapers and arrested jounalists, they deprived many people of their livelihood. When negotiations failed and the interim President Hadi fled from Sana’a to Aden, the Houthi militias followed him.  They were determined not to be deprived of the jewel of Aden, as their forefathers had been by the British occupation. They were  reported as using the old rhetoric as in the 1994 war, calling Adenis infidels and stating that they were intent on killing them.

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Aden, Yemen.

The Southern secessionist movement had been more active since 2011 in response to the unrest in Yemen. They were determined this time to win their independence from their northern masters. Most of all, they did not want Saleh to resume his position as their master.  They resisted.  They are not practised warriors; Aden, the south-west and their populations have been destroyed and fighting was vicious; two sides with much to lose.  Saudi is now bombing tribes that had once been allies, the tribes from North Yemen. Saudi bombing has aggravated Houthi aggression and accelerated destruction. Although their presence is resented by many secessionists, Saudi funded Islah militias are fighting along with them together with Al Qaeda and Da’esh militias, who offered military training at Da’esh (IS) training camps.  Da’esh ideology states that anyone can convert to Sunni Islam except Shia, who must be eradicated. Eventually the militias were joined by ground troops reported as from Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia, its power long resented in Yemeni society, has used its wealth to build relationships with individual tribes throughout its history. Now it has used its military might to shape Yemeni society, and has caused a divide that will be hard to heal.

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