Zaidi and promote Saudi interests within Yemen, through

Zaidi Shia Imam Al-Hadi ila’l-Haqq Yahya, a descendant of Imam Hasan
ibn Ali, founded the Rassid state, Yemen’s progenitor, at Sa’dain, in 893–
7 AD. Since then, Shia Imams, in varying incarnations, have ruled Yemen
till 1962, when the Shia Imamate/Kingdom was overthrown by nationalist
secular-minded military officers led by Colonel Abdullah Sallal. Both
Colonel Sallal and Republican Yemen’s second President, Abdul Rahman
Yahya Al-Iryani, were Zaydi Shias; Ali Abdullah Saleh, President from
1978– 2012 for 34 years, is also a Zaydi.

Modern Yemen’s major problems have been almost entirely due to the
incessant interference by Saudi Arabia in Yemeni affairs since the Kingdom
came into existence in 1932. This began with the Saudi invasion of Yemen
in 1934 when it annexed the four northern provinces of Yemen. In a role
reversal, Saudi Arabia strongly supported the Imam, militarily and
financially, during the Civil War in Yemen from 1962 to 1970; Nasser also
deployed Egyptian troops, at their peak about 85,000, to help the nascent
Yemeni Republic to survive. Notwithstanding this enormous setback, Saudi
Arabia was determined to try to influence, if not control, the political
dynamics within Yemen to ensure that the shared border regions remained
peaceful, and Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical interests in the Arabian Peninsula
and the Red Sea were not undermined by pumping in billions of dollars
to various tribes, clans, groupings, and the government in Yemen.

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Saudi Arabia covertly organized the setting up of the Islah party in
1990, and provided it political patronage and infusion of massive funds

110 West Asia in Transition

to spread Salafist influence throughout the country, injecting sectarianism
in the internal political dynamics of Yemen in a significant manner for the
first time in Yemen’s history. Saudi Arabia also finally succeeded in making
Ali Abdullah Saleh a pawn to protect and promote Saudi interests within
Yemen, through massive personal financial incentives to Saleh, from the
early 1990s till 2011.

The Houthis are a Zaidi Shia tribal clan, one amongst hundreds of clans
constituting the overall Zaidi Shia population of North Yemen. The
charismatic leader of the Houthi clan, Hussein Badreddine Al Houthi,
established an entity named ‘Ansar Allah’ (Partisans of God) in the 1980s
as a broad minded cultural, educational, and theological movement. With
the rise of Saudi influence and Islah activism, Zaidis generally began to
feel increasingly angry and frustrated due to an almost complete lack of
economic development, growing political marginalization, and the
undermining of their socio-religious traditions. Therefore, Ansar Allah
adopted a political agenda and platform. By now, other Zaidi Shia tribes
and clans joined the Movement in large numbers. Widening protests
against Saleh’s autocratic rule were launched by Ansar Allah by the early
1990s. All these Zaidi Shia protesters against/opponents of Saleh’s rule
came to be collectively dubbed as ‘Houthis’ in common parlance.

Under Saudi prodding, Saleh waged a bitter military campaign against
the Houthis from 2004 to 2010, at the outset of which their founder leader
was killed in 2004. His brother, Abdel Malek al-Houthi, and later his
nephew, took over the movement’s leadership.

Yemen was among the four West Asian Arab countries convulsed by
massive ‘Arab Spring’ related protest demonstrations from February 2011
onwards. Alarmed by prote?ge? Ali Abdullah Saleh’s inability to control the
burgeoning unrest, Saudi-led mediation by the Gulf Cooperation Council
(GCC) forced Saleh to step down in February 2012, and imposed Abd
Rabbuh Mansour Al Hadi (Vice-President under Saleh for 17 years and a
Sunni military officer from the South) through a completely manipulated
and entirely undemocratic one candidate ‘election’ which represented a
flagrant disregard for peoples’ hopes and aspirations. Power was
redistributed among Hadi and the other existing power holders, leaving
out the Houthis even though they had participated very actively in the
protest demonstrations. The Houthis participated in the subsequent
National Dialogue. However, following the assassination of two of its
delegates they walked out. Exceedingly angry by now, and taking
advantage of continuing chaos, very weak governance, and a lack of
internal cohesion within the government, the Houthis finally launched an

Yemen 111

armed revolt, and very quickly took control of 3–4 northern governorates
and of Sana’a itself in September 2014. Hadi resigned and fled to Aden,
and soon thereafter fled to Saudi Arabia.

With both Saleh and the Houthis shut out, the stage was set for an
alliance of convenience between these two erstwhile bitter enemies. Having
headed the Army for so long, Saleh enjoyed considerable support within
it, and particularly among the powerful Republican Guard. The army’s
huge weapons inventory became a key factor that enabled the Saleh-
Houthi alliance to swiftly take control of many of the country’s main cities
and ports, and more crucially, its administrative, energy, financial, and
governmental apparatus.

Since the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia has been engaged
in shrill daily rhetoric that Iran has been interfering in Yemen. This has
never been the case in any meaningful sense. Using this as an excuse, Saudi
Arabia abandoned its long standing traditionally cautious, deliberate, low
key diplomacy, and adopted a surprisingly muscular approach at the
behest of Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the very young and
completely inexperienced new Saudi Defence Minister and Deputy Crown
Prince, the youngest and favourite son of the newly anointed King Salman.
On 15 March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched ‘Operation Decisive Storm’
involving extensive air strikes against the Houthi and Saleh forces in and
around Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeidah, and even Aden. Two years since then,
Saudi Arabia’s completely unjustified aerial onslaught, with indiscriminate
bombing of Yemen and its people, has resulted in unprecedentedly large
scale deaths, destruction, and devastation far worse than what has
happened in Syria. There was nothing that the Yemenis, the Houthis, or
Iran did to justify such a drastic reaction.

The havoc caused by the Saudi onslaught in Yemen is such that, under
the personal instructions of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the UN was
unprecedentedly constrained to blacklist the Saudi coalition for the deaths
of thousands of children (later withdrawn temporarily due to Saudi
financial blackmail).

Though the international community accepts Hadi as the legitimate
head of the Yemeni government, the dour, completely uncharismatic Hadi
has no legitimacy in the eyes of the people. He has no tribal or political
support base whatsoever in northern Yemen, and even in the south; he
has almost none outside Aden. To the extent that support exists, it is mainly
due to Saudi Arabia’s military and financial support and the spread of
Salafist influence.

After the Houthis assumed control of Sana’a, Iran started supplying

112 West Asia in Transition

weapons, oil, and funds to them. Saudi claims notwithstanding, Iran could
not have provided anywhere near large enough consignments of weapons
to the Houthis to make a tangible difference on the ground, given the huge
arsenal of state-of-the-art weaponry of Saudi Arabia and its coalition of
Sunni countries as well as arms supplies by the USA and the UK. From
never having had even a miniscule role within Yemen and in the geopolitics
relating to Yemen in the past, Saudi actions, policies, and rhetoric have
made Iran a very significant player in Yemen. Iran has now acquired
credible locus standi and will, inevitably and unavoidably, be an active
player in the processes to determine Yemen’s future.

A Saudi military victory is unimaginable; Saudi Arabia can destroy
the country but it cannot win over the people. No Saudi installed regime
will be acceptable to the Yemeni people now. Yemen has to get from where
it is now to a viable political dispensation under a ‘national unity
government’ in which the Houthis and southerners, as a political bloc,
must be included as active and important participants; otherwise Yemen
will remain mired in instability and conflict. A semblance of peace can
only be re-established through negotiations mainly between the parties
directly concerned domestically as well as their external patrons—Iran and
Saudi Arabia under UN auspices.

Yemen is the poorest and most backward country in West Asia. 19
million Yemenis are in dire need of urgent humanitarian assistance, with
6–8 million of them, including very large numbers of children, now facing
acute famine conditions. Al least one third of over a thousand airstrikes
have hit homes, schools, factories, hospitals, markets, mosques, and
economic infrastructure. It will take years and huge funds for the
reconstruction of housing and other basic infrastructure.

The long term political consequences of recent Saudi policies are: first,
the enormous strengthening of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
which is the strongest Al Qaeda entity in any country, and has long been
based in Yemen. This will ensure ongoing domestic instability which AQAP
will cause by continuing its attacks even after Saudi Arabia can be
persuaded to end its invasion of Yemen. Second, the virus of sectarianism
will now be a permanent feature of the domestic political scenario in Yemen
where it had not existed at all through its history.