Wahhabism, anti-Shia ideology, and the fate of Yemen’s Zaidi population. Update 24.12.15

saada destruction

Most of the news from Yemen this week concerns the ceasefire that didn’t happen, the promised humanitarian aid that hasn’t actually arrived, and the peace talks that have been adjourned; apart from that war and starvation as usual, except worse as the war and blockade grind on towards month ten.

Meanwhile, as Da’esh and Al Qaeda proliferate in Yemen with evidence that they have cooperated with the Saudi-led coalition in its war there, Saudi Arabia has announced that it has formed an alliance against ‘terrorism’. Rosemary Higgins states: “Terrorism is a term without legal significance. It is merely a convenient way of alluding to activities…in which either the methods used are unlawful, or the targets unlawful, or both.”   Another international legal expert, Richard Baxter, states “…the term (terrorism) is imprecise…ambiguous, and above all, serves no legal purpose”.

Many have been critical of KSA’s anti-terror initiative, which they claim is supported by 34 Muslim states. Turkish analyst FehimTastekin states: “For Saudi Arabia, the main terrorists are Shiites. At the same time, the large number of groups with Wahhabi ideology are not considered terrorists by the Saudis.”   British journalist Robert Fisk points out “…what kind of relationship do the Saudis envision with the Iranians who are fighting in both Iraq and Syria against the same Isis “terror” which (Prince Mohammed bin Salman) identifies as part of the “disease”? Neither Shia Iran nor Shia Iraq, needless to say, is part of the new international Muslim army.” Nor is Shia-led Syria, which it could be argued is the only state that is making inroads against Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia follows the Wahhabi sect of Islam, which is Sunni and conservative; one of the characteristics of Wahhabism is a negative attitude to Shia. The leader of the congregation at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Adel Al Kalbani, stated on BBC Arabic Television in May 2009 that all Shia Muslims were apostate, unbelievers, and as such should be hunted down and killed. Other fatwas include that by Saudi cleric Nasser Al Omar who called for conversion or slaughter of Shia men, sexual violation of Shia women and forced conversion of Shia children. Shia Rights Watch claims that every month 402 Shia are killed and 497 injured in sectarian violence.

Saudi Arabia has been strongly linked with the Sunni extremist militias fighting in the Middle East. US Vice President Joe Biden stated that the Saudi regime, along with others from the Middle East had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight Assad,” naming Al-Nusra and Al Qaeda as beneficiaries.  Other observers have pointed to the similarities in the methods of rule of Saudi and the ‘Islamic State’, in crime and justice issues, and also in its anti-Shia rhetoric. This has led some academics to speculate about growing future links between Saudi Arabia and IS.  As of March 2015, a Salafi jihadi extremist militant group and self-proclaimed caliphate and Islamic state led by Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria, took control over territory occupied by ten million people in Iraq and  Syria. Amnesty International reported ethnic cleansing by the group on a “historic scale”, including attacks on Shia Muslims. According to Shia rights watch, in 2014 ISIS forces killed over 1,700 Shia civilians at Camp Speicher in Tikrit Iraq, and 670 Shia prisoners at the detention facility near Mosul. The New York Times reported “frequent accounts of (ISIS) fighters’ capturing groups of people and releasing the Sunnis while the Shiites are singled out for execution”. Although Saudi has been involved in military activity in Syria, there is skepticism that he is attacking ISIS and a belief that Saudi is supporting groups that are attacking the Syrian army by many observers.

Although in early decades, KSA used ‘soft power’ to spread its interests – such as the selective use of humanitarian aid and building Wahhabi madrassas – in recent years its policies have involved military interventions; linked to destruction of Shia communities or denying their political rights. For example, in 2011 one thousand troops from Saudi Arabia helped to crush the peaceful Arab spring protests in Bahrain, which was largely a Shia movement.  It has not offered protection for Sunni Muslims who have been oppressed by other than Shia Muslims, such as the Palestinians and Darfurians.  KSA was reported as appreciative of the massacre of Zaria Shia in Nigeria on 17th December 2015 – expressing outright support for Sunni President Bulhari of Nigeria for his fight against ‘terrorism’.

In announcing the new Islamic military alliance against terrorism this month, Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman named Yemen as one of its targets. The reality inside Yemen is that the conflict is a fight for power between two unpopular men, Shia Ali Abdullah Saleh a President deposed in 2012, and Sunni Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi who was elected as Interim President for two years in 2012, whose term has expired. The Houthi militias, who are largely Zaidi Shia, sided with Saleh, who has the support of most of the Yemen army, who are a mix of Sunni and Shia, but mostly from the old North Yemen.  Hadi, a Sunni Muslim, was supported by a Saudi-led international coalition, and from Yemen a small religiously conservative section of the Yemen army and numerous militias that are mainly Sunnis, such as Al Qaeda, Daesh, Islah (Muslim Brotherhood), other Salafist militias, and Al Hirak (southern secessionists).

The Bakil tribe from whom the Houthi movement originated are Zaidi Shia whose homeland is the governate of Saada, just south of the Saudi-Yemen border. In 1992 a Believing Youth Zaidi revivalist movement began, in response to the Wahhabi schools that Saudi had funded in Yemen. The then President Saleh attacked the Bakil tribe in 2004 with the blessing of Saudi Arabia, killing the militia leader Hussein Houthi, giving the movement its name. Yahya al-Houthi said that Saudi Arabia had put pressure on Saleh to fight the rebels in Saada. He alleged that the Saudi authorities had supported the government campaign with US$25 billion, although this was denied by Yemeni authorities.  Six wars took place in Saada, with Saudi Arabia crossing the border to join in the affray after 2009.  Many homes were destroyed; thousands of people were displaced and forced to live in camps. The Bakil tribe helped to oust President Saleh in 2012; they became active members in political dialogue in Yemen, although disappointed with the outcomes, they continued to negotiate.  At the same time, the Houthi militias built alliances with other tribes, eventually taking over much of the north and the capital, Sanaa, without opposition.  As the UN negotiations continued President Hadi, who was very unpopular, moved to Aden and then Saudi Arabia, asking his neighbour to start attacking Yemen, which they did. The Houthis followed Hadi to Aden, where they met strong resistance from local secessionists and Islah militias. Saudi Arabia started aerial bombardment on 26th March 2015. Many of the targets from the outset were Shia, for example, a displaced persons’ camp in northern Yemen was hit on March 30, 2015, ing at least 29 civilians with 41 wounded. Despite this and other serious violations of international law, the UN Security Council met on 14th April 2015, and produced a one-sided UNSC resolution, that supported President Hadi and did not take into account that his presidency was a contested issue within Yemen.

Human Rights Watch reported that on May 8, a coalition spokesman announced that the entire city of Saada was a military target. This not only violated the laws-of-war prohibition against placing civilians at particular risk by treating a number of separate and distinct military objectives as a single military target, but possibly also the prohibition against making threats of violence whose purpose is to instill terror in the civilian population.

As well as the aerial bombardment, Saudi Arabian navy, with the assistance of US, UK and France, imposed a blockade on Yemen which has dire consequences in a country that normally imports 90% of its goods, including diesel used for pumping ALL of Yemen’s water. By May 26th Oxfam put out a statement that two thirds of Yemenis had no access to clean drinking water, creating a high risk of water-borne disease.  This has resulted in diarrhoeal illnesses, untreatable as so many medical facilities have closed down, or are without medical supplies  – causing severe malnutrition in children and death.

On April 17 Saudi Arabia pledged $274 million dollars in aid for Yemen, meeting entirely the UN’s emergency “flash appeal” for humanitarian funding less than 24 hours after it was announced. But six months later, the money had not been delivered. According to a UN memo the Saudi government applied unprecedented conditions that complicated and delayed its disbursement. According to aid workers and officials, ever since its April 17 pledge, the Saudi government has pushed for restrictions on how the aid would be given out, including that it not be spent in areas controlled by Shia Houthi rebels, which a Riyadh-led coalition has bombed since late March.

On 18th August he Saudi-led coalition also attacked Hodeida, the only port which aid agencies were using to supply aid to north Yemen; some organisations called this a war crime.  The White House expressed “deep concerns” over the Saudi action. “”We are deeply concerned by the attack on critical infrastructure at the port of Hodeida in Yemen,” said a National Security Council spokesperson. “The port is a crucial lifeline used to provide medicine, food and fuel to Yemen’s population.

The aerial bombardment of Saada governate has not ceased; it has been attacked every day and night for ten months, with reports of 42,500 bombs in the first 250 days of war. An MSF radio report stated that food trucks on the way to Saada had been destroyed, as were bridges, houses, hospitals, schools, mosques, factories including those producing water and food, market places, petrol stations, and ancient monuments. Protests and appeals have been put out by a number of agencies; UNICEF, Oxfam, Save the Children, ICRC, WHO, Amnesty, and Human Rights Watch, amongst others but the world seems to be unable or unwilling to act in relieving  war crimes and mass starvation, especially in North Yemen. The recent peace talks in Geneva agreed to send aid to Taiz in the south, but made no mention of Saada governate where the civilian population is dying from aerial bombardment,  but more especially of the effects of the Saudi-led blockade.  One mother told a BBC reporter that hunger was the worst; she was hoping that she and her family would be killed together in a bomb attack, because otherwise, they would have to suffer seeing each other die slowly from starvation.  An attempt by the Netherlands to get an independent investigation into the human right abuses in Yemen was blocked by Saudi Arabia, who has since been elected on to the Human Rights Council at the UN.

Many of the people of South Yemen, Aden and Taiz that I communicate with often use the meaningless definition of ‘terrorism’ when referring to Houthi aggression; this term is often used by those with huge arsenals to describe the resistance of those with few military resources. This is not to excuse the Houthi acts of aggression in Yemen, but to put them into context.  Many in Taiz and Aden also describe the deaths at the hands of the Houthi militias as genocide; my assessment is that the Houthis are killing to maintain control of Yemen which they believe is necessary for their survival, and civilian deaths due to ground warfare are a result of a ferocious war inflicted on the community by fighting militias, of which the Houthis are only one.

It is in the Houthi Zaidi homeland that the word genocide could be used more appropriately; Martin Shaw believes that it is far more than killing, but is understood as destroying groups’ social power in economic, political and cultural senses. Saada, old and new, has been purposefully and almost completely destroyed.  “Genocide involves mass killing, but…is much more than mass killing.”  Deaths in the northwest from aerial bombardment are difficult to count, and from examining evidence, I believe they are seriously under-counted.  58% of the population of Yemen have no access to medical services, yet the only deaths in UN statistics that are counted in this war are those from conflict that are counted in hospitals; it is reasonable to assume that less than half of the deaths due to conflict are actually registered.  The casualties from this war do not include the deaths caused by the blockade, and it is realistic to assume that more are dying from the effect of lack of clean water, lack of food, lack of shelter, and lack of medical assistance than from the conflict itself, and that amongst these deaths there will be a high proportion of the very young.  The UN and the world appear to be ignoring the plight of Yemen’s Zaidi Shia population, whilst assisting their oppressors to continue their war unabated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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