The West has a long history of selective focus in covering the Middle-East. Rather than presenting the developments, cultures, religions and politics of the region in an objective manner – the Western world as it is embodied by its media outlets, governmental and non-governmental institutions, and even many of its’ academics have persevered in presenting the region to the peoples of Western Europe and North America from a severely skewed perspective. Instead of the Middle-East’s many complexities, subtleties and fluid definitions being included in political debates – we are predominantly presented with a vulgar simplification – and orientalised and ‘Othered’ continent which has to be dealt within the context of Western interests. Thus we find that unless Western interests are disturbed – it is rare that a situation, an issue or even an idea from the Middle-East will even find its way into the public consciousness.
It should then come as little surprise that the most economically deprived state in the Middle East gets little attention in the West – it has little oil, does not offer the considerable geopolitical leverage of the likes of Iraq and Iran, and has a ruler that seems to not threaten their interests. Despite these factors which on paper offer the exterior of stability – it could very well be that Yemen is on the verge of political disaster. Despite much evidence therefore pointing to the stem of the conflict in Saada being chiefly domestic – President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cabinet maintain that the war is one between a democratic, united and apparently secular Yemen – and an extremist, authoritarian and radical “Islamism”. To his credit, Saleh has in recent months played down the role of Iran in the violence to being no-more than wishful thinking. Nevertheless, Saleh’s and the government’s incapacity in accepting that the Houthis, Zaydis and even Sunnis north of Sana’a are fed up with the government’s apathy towards the grim living conditions in Yemen may prove to be a serious blunder. This is all, of course, before we even begin to talk about the discontent in Southern Yemen.
The Houthis have not only proved to be a capable fighting force – but also a resilient one. The government has been both the initiator of ceasefires (along with members of the international community, such as Qatar) as well as the transgressor of ceasefires since the conflict began – a sign that the Houthis are used to fighting this war on terms outside of their control, and an indication that they are by no means averse to dialogue. Saleh has most recently said that this war will be ended only by the destruction of the Houthi – a strategy which may prove to be a failure based on news that the Houthi have the upper-hand in Saada. With this said, the question remains whether or not the followers of al-Houthi will be as willing to return to the negotiating table if their military momentum continues and if the arrogance of the government persists.
Whilst it is a fallacy to claim that the Zaydis are the sole victims of discrimination in Yemen (the African labourers certainly don’t have an easy life) – they are indeed the subject of much inequality and seclusion. Many Shi’i practises, such as the celebration of `Eid Ghadir al-Khumm, have been branded as “Houthi”, and therefore political and extremist by the government. The commemoration of Ashura in the month of Muharram is of course also severely restricted – the hallmark of an anti-Shi’i state. Furthermore, the widespread support among the Yemeni people for politicians such as Saddam Hussein – whose posters still feature in many shop windows, barbershops and taxicabs – is a constant reminder that it is pan-Arabism which dominates the psyche of many Yemenis, and that the government campaign to paint Shi’ism as distinctly Houthi, and moreover, that anything Houthi is distinctly Iranian, can be well received.
The problems in Yemen are manifold. The first and clearest to anybody inside of the country has been the states’ war against the Houthis in the Saada region – a constant source of instability and uncertainty. In the past month, fighter jets have increased in flown with increased frequency from Sana’a to Saada – their thunderous blare becoming a daily confirmation of a rise in the civilian death toll (which in this month of August in the hundreds, according to the by no means pro-Houthi ‘Yemen Observer’). The number of those displaced is also estimated to be upwards of 100,000 by the UNHCR.
The motives of the Houthi in Yemen are shrouded in government propaganda and rhetoric – the Houthi are said to be acting as agents of Iran with the aim of destabilising Saudi Arabia; with their methods and ideology akin to various Wahhabi groups labelled as “Al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The situation is not helped by the fact that the Houthi – due to their lack of education and wealth – are unable to articulate their cause to West in the same way that groups such as Hezbollah or FARC can. In addition – the Houthis are not a homogeneous and centralised political movement – but a number of different tribes and disenfranchised Zaydis dissatisfied with the government, which makes it difficult for specific demands and grievances to be identified by outsiders. It is also common for the Houthi to be described as adhering to a peculiar mixture of Twelver Shi’ism and Zaydism in an attempt to link them with the Islamic Revolution in Iran – a tactic so cynical that it sounds like it came from of the US State Department.
The reality is that the Houthi find their support not in a commitment to Iranian Islamic revivalism – but poverty, religious discrimination, political seclusion and what is seen as a growing threat of militant and institutional Wahhabism in the rural areas of Northern Yemen. In areas such as Saada, the hand of government isn’t found in the building of infrastructure, the provision of welfare or the creation of jobs – but in American and Saudi made missiles. The only occasion that the people of Saada encounter its government is through the barrel of a gun. As a result it is not the expulsion of Western influence that fills the demands of the Houthi fighters (although they are opposed to Western support for the Saleh regime, and of course Israel) – but the building of roads, schools, water-pipes and hospitals.
From our contributor: S. Aghlani