By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on al-Araby.
Comment: With Yemen in danger of entering a new order outside Riyad’s control, Saudi Arabia had to act. All talk of Iranian proxies and Shia-Sunni divides obscures Yemen’s real conflict.
Threatened by the Arab Spring’s promise, the Saudi regime fought back in its Peninsula, across North Africa and in West Asia to snuff out republican tendencies. Bahrain’s uprising was crushed without much adverse comment in the Arab world, or indeed in the West. In Syria, the Saudi backed Islamic Front has done its utmost to smother any independent democratic sensibility in the rebellion.
Matters took longer to handle in Egypt and Libya, where the Muslim Brotherhood posed a problem. Egypt’s General Sisi
welcomed Saudi money in exchange for closing down any substantial ideological challenge to autocracy in the region. Libya continues to be a battlefield of these sensibilities, with General Khalifa Haftar carrying the Saudi order mantle.
The current Saudi intervention in Yemen should be seen in light of this regional geo-political thrust. On March 25, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm. It sent its bombers to pummel targets in Yemen. The assault was immediately backed by the United States, and by various Arab states (including all the Gulf Arab countries except Oman). It was not a surprise. Saudi troops had amassed on the border, and Saudi bombers had threatened Yemeni airspace already. Such adventures are not alien to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen as recently as 2009, to deal with the very social forces that it has gone after this time.
Protecting the GCC order
What was the target in Yemen? Could it be al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose suicide bombers had already tried to assassinate senior royal family members (current Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef was almost killed in 2009 by the “anal bomber”, Mohammed al-Awfi)? Well, no. None of the bombers hit sites associated with AQAP – mainly in the western edges of Yemen and scattered in the eastern desert towns.
Instead Saudi and other Gulf Arab bombers hit targets associated with the Houthi rebels and with forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of the country. Why did the Saudis go after the Houthis and Saleh? The Saudis claim they intervened to protect the legitimacy of the president of Yemen, Mansur Hadi. Hadi was elected in 2012, unopposed. His election was part of an ongoing deal brokered by the Saudis and the Gulf Arab states. The underlying problems raised by the 2011 popular rebellion in Yemen were not addressed by this deal. It would unravel within two years.
What were the underlying problems? As with other popular rebellions, the 2011 uprising in Yemen concentrated its attention on the removal of Saleh – although the demands came in bursts for a more equitable social division and for an end to bureaucratic corruption.
Encampments across Yemen spoke in this register – some identifiable grievances, but a great deal of diffuse frustration with Saleh’s manipulation of the “War on Terror” for his own sectional ends, including the transfer of government resources for private gain. The various political forces that showed themselves in the demonstrations indicated that Saleh’s regime had no answer to the entrenched problems in Yemen. The GCC deal that emerged to effect the transition from Saleh to Hadi simply covered over these structural problems. The Sultans of Arabia had secured a deal that was built on sand.
The agendas of 2011, smothered beneath the Hadi government, would have to reappear. The question was who would be the agent of their reappearance, and what would be its nature. Given the highly militarized environment in Yemen, it was unlikely that the more sedate political parties would be able to carry the mantle of anti-corruption and sectional justice. The socialists, the Nasserites and the liberals did not have the wherewithal to take on Hadi. Discontent reigned supreme.
In 2014, Ansarallah, the umbrella group of the Houthis, swept into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, carrying their own sectional grievances as well as the pent-up grumbles of large parts of Yemen’s population (including al-Hirak, the Southern Peaceful Movement, and the youth movement). The United Nations – under the envoy Jamal Benomar – brokered an important accord called the National Peace and Partnership Agreement of September 2014.
A progressive pact
While most discussion of this pact concentrates on its political commitments, the two longest articles are about social and economic matters. Article 3 was about the question of livelihood. An economic committee was to be set up to deal with prices of basic commodities, proper tax collection, elimination of ghost workers, reform of fuel subsidies, investments in infrastructure and increase of social welfare programs. Article 4 went into depth on the need for an increase to the Social Welfare Fund by fifty per cent, increase in state worker salaries, and increase in education and health expenditure in the 2015 budget. These gains, the deal explicitly noted, “shall be targeted toward people living in poverty and in marginalized areas.”
The Houthi emergence in Sanaa, the crafting of this progressive deal, the failure of this deal to come to life, and the move by the Houthis to the march to Aden should be seen in light of these grievances. This is Yemeni politics, based on Yemeni grievances, with very poor institutional routes to make claims on an obdurate state structure.
It is convenient to obscure these debates with the statement that the Houthis are nothing other than proxies of Iran. It befits Saudi Arabia to describe any assertion by oppressed Shia pockets in its eastern edge and in West Asia as infiltrations of Iran, what in Lebanon’s Future Movement is known as the “Persian Scheme”. When oil workers in its eastern provinces strike, they are accused of acting at the behest of Tehran; much the same for the uprising in Bahrain.
Certainly Iran’s ambitions have grown immeasurably ever since the United States fortuitously for Tehran removed in two strokes its major enemies on its two flanks – the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Baath regime in Iraq. Iran’s confidence in Arab lands and in Central Asia rose, but this does not mean that every action of the heterodox Shia community in the region is somehow subordinated to Iran. Local politics play an enormous role, as do the tentacular politics of Saudi ambitions – equal if not more interventionist than that of Iran.
The Saudis could not allow the shifts in the status quo. Yemen was in danger of being drawn toward a new order, one that would be out of the control of the Saudis. The Saudis amassed on the border, threatening intervention. The US backed the Saudi move, which then swept through the skies of Yemen. All talk of Iranian proxies and Shia-Sunni divides does not capture the essence of what is going on in Yemen – the real fight, contorted by unclear political agendas, is between the forces of the popular unrest of 2011 and the old guard. In the wings sits al-Qaeda. Ready to thrive in the chaos.
Saudi Arabia has amassed its oldest international confederacy for this battle. In the skies are its Gulf Arab friends. The two most significant allies – for the purposes of historical linkage – are Morocco and Pakistan. In 1962, it was Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Pakistan that created the World Muslim League (Rabita al-Alam al-Islami) and then in 1969, they spearheaded the creation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The purpose of the WML and the OIC was to undermine secular Third World nationalism by the promotion of a Saudi-oriented Islamism and to sideline the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)’s agenda of socialist development. These platforms had a great impact across the world, including in pockets that would later manifest themselves as the heartlands of al-Qaeda – such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and Sudan. This old reactionary alliance is now aggressively in action against Yemen’s people.