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.











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.

tribes yemen2
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.

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.

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.

Locations of Sunni and Shia populations in the Middle East
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.

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.