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Yemeni Houthi movement has more to do with the internal conflict within Yemen and less to do with the projected Shia-Sunni rivalry in the region, says Bilal Ahmed, graduate student at SOAS, University of London

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In Yemen a military intervention lead by Saudi Arabia, with U.S. backing, is underway. Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia. Air strikes began on Wednesday, just days after Yemen’s foreign minister called on the GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the UN to stop the Houthi movement, which took control of the capital Sana’a back in September of last year. Meanwhile, the Yemeni president, Hadi Mansur, fled Sana’a in February, and he has now appeared in Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Joining me now to discuss all of this from London to put this in more context is Bilal Ahmed. He’s associate editor of He’s also a Ph.D. student at SOAS at the University of London. Thank you so much for joining me. BILAL AHMED, GRADUATE STUDENT, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON: Glad to be here. PERIES: Bilal, explain why the Yemeni foreign minister would call on the GCC, and Saudi Arabia in particular, to respond to this. AHMED: Well, I think — I don’t actually think it’s very surprising. Saudi Arabia has a very long history of being involved in Yemeni politics. It certainly dates back through the Yemeni revolution several years ago, but Saudi Arabia has been historically involved in shaping the Yemeni political process. It was intimately involved in the North Yemeni civil war, which was a proxy war that involved Egypt, and it has also been involved before that in shaping the nature of the Imamate that control the country. Saudi Arabia has also been historically very anxious at a southern movement that previously had much more avowedly Marxist tendencies, and threatened to destabilize the country. So I’m not actually surprised at all that Saudi Arabia would have these ties in place, that it would be seen as a natural partner, and I’m also not surprised that the current government would call to Saudi Arabia directly, considering the extent of their partnership, and the fact that you can very easily argue that a large part of the reason why Hadi is currently, or was formerly controlling the country, was because of Saudi Arabian patronage. PERIES: Now, most mainstream media, the New York Times and others, are calling this a proxy war for regional dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Do you think there’s any truth to that? AHMED: Well, it’s actually — I just read a posting by a SOAS professor named Laleh Khalili who said that the interesting thing about this prolonged series of conflicts in the Middle East has been the tendency of international media analysts to constantly segment every political organization and group within these categories of Shia and Sunni in order to explain everything in this bizarre sectarian language. Part of that involves Iran and Saudi Arabia as two representatives of what it means to be Sunni and what it means to be Shia, and everything gets rationalized based on that. I do think that there’s an extent of proxy conflict going on. You could argue that a large part of the reason why Saudi Arabia is leading this offensive is because of the fact that it needs more diplomatic leverage over Iran in upcoming nuclear talks. However, you cannot understand the Houthis as a movement without understanding them within the context of Yemeni tribal politics, and Yemeni religio-ethnic politics in the northern end of the country. That is the context in which the Houthis began to mobilize. That is the context in which the Houthis have historically fought with the central government. And even despite the recent actions of international actors, which have given it more qualities of a proxy conflict, in the end this is still a conflict within Yemen itself. And it involves Yemeni politics, and we have to analyze it as primarily that. PERIES: So then give us a breakdown of what’s going on there. What is the Houthi minority … complexity in the country, and why are they opposing the central government here? AHMED: Well, the Houthis originally mobilized as a completely non-military exercise, you could argue. The Houthis were originally known as the Believing Youth. They assembled around 1992, and they were a cultural revival organization in Northern Yemen. In the Sa’dah governorate more specifically. It was through that that they mobilized a variety of linguistic and educational programs that lasted for about ten or eleven years under the leadership of [Hassan Badr Hussein al-Houthi]. The Houthis would eventually become known as such after an aggressive move by the central government in 2003. Saleh was extremely bothered by protests by the Believing Youth in the capital city by the grand mosque. PERIES: Now, this is the former president you’re referring to, Ali Abdullah Saleh. AHMED: Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was extremely perturbed by the fact that these protests in 2003 were against the Israeli military offensives in the Second Intifada, and also against the war in Iraq. He personally believed, and many of his close aides, that Hassan Badr Hussein al-Houthi was about to position himself as a religious leader and arguably an imam, and he was going to make a major grab for state power. As a result of that, it is widely believed in Yemen that Saleh had Hassan Badr Hussein al-Houthi killed, and through that, the Houthis began adopting his name in order to martyr him, as well as other names in Arabic, and then they started prolonged conflicts with the central government. These are known as the Sa’dah wars. These stretched from 2003 into the Yemeni revolution, which the Houthis supported, and you had a coalition government being set up through the National Dialog Conference that was supposed to decide on the eventual Yemeni constitution. The Houthis were present at these talks, but marginalized and many people did not entirely trust them. There has been talk for a while that the Houthis have been an Iranian proxy. You could argue that this hasn’t exactly been a serious accusation, with zero hard evidence, until a few years ago. And it was in the failure of the National Dialog Conference that you had an opening for some non-state actor and some militia group to take power from the Hadi government, because Hadi was so ineffectual, because his base of support was actually rather weak, and because large parts of the country were completely unstable and collapsing. You had tribal uprising in many areas of the country. You had failure of many areas of infrastructure. You had an inability to deliver basic goods and services. And all this created a situation where someone was going to be able to take power. The Houthis, eventually, did take a chance and occupied the capital city directly. It is my belief that you had a bit of a delay from the Houthis occupying the capital city and the Houthis eventually taking the presidential palace because they wanted to consolidate their power a little bit more, and because they wanted to set up a variety of logistical posts, a machine gun nest, and so on, in order to eventually defend the capital city from a possible intervention. PERIES: So Bilal, this seems to be a very serious effort in the sense that they’ve taken over the main airport, and also they’ve managed to push or exit the Americans who were occupying and controlling that airport out of the country. Now, in terms of geopolitical, strategic value of Yemen, and perhaps the interest of the United States in Yemen, which, you know … which, obviously, they are backing the Saudis to conduct these air strikes. What would be the U.S.’s interest here? AHMED: The U.S. has a couple of interests. You could argue that part of what’s going on is that Bab el-Mandeb, which is the sliver of sea space that connects the Yemeni coastline with the Suez Canal in the West and the Indian Ocean to the East would be threatened by potential instability in the country, although I myself am skeptical of this argument, because the Houthis haven’t given any indication that they would shut Bab el-Mandeb down. You could argue that another part of what’s happening is that the oil market is currently convulsing from instability in Yemen, even though Yemeni oil production is negligible. But the largest reason the United States is involved right now is because the Houthi activities in the country are currently compromising U.S. activity against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. And Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula has become an obsessive issue for the United States in the country, and frequently at the expense of other concerns that you could argue they should have, such as developing the central government. The United States is parochially focused on counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP. PERIES: Bilial, thank you so much for joining us today. AHMED: No problem. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Bilal Zenab Ahmed is the associate editor of He is also a PhD candidate at SOAS, University of London.