Yemen: a cure worse than the illness

Former Caabu member of staff John Gee has written an article for The Straits Times, entitled ‘a cure worse than the illness’, focusing on the unfolding events in Yemen.

The text of the article published in The Straits Times on 4 April can be found below.  

A cure worse than the illness

John Gee

In the past week, Saudi warplanes have bombed neighbouring Yemen and other countries have made great efforts to evacuate their nationals. The stage seems set for still greater foreign military intervention, and much of the international community seems to approve.

A little investigation of the facts on the ground would reveal how unwise they are to take this view. It comes about through making an old mistake - that of accommodating a local conflict with its own dynamics within a predetermined framework of analysis based on a broader international perspective. In this case, an internal Yemeni conflict is being lazily or deliberately subsumed into a reading of regional politics as characterized by Sunni vs Shi’ite rivalry, with an aggressive Iran as the Shi’ite puppet master.

The foreign intervention has been occasioned by the advance of fighters of the Ansar Allah movement, commonly called "Houthis", across northern Yemen and the flight of Yemeni president, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, to Saudi Arabia. Most Arab states have rallied round to declare their support for Hadi and their determination to defeat the Houthis.

The Houthis are typically labelled "Iranian-backed", and their advance has been portrayed as part of an Iranian scheme to dominate the region through client forces. In fact, Yemen's crisis is very much its own and foreign meddling is likely to do far more damage than good.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula by practically all measures of economic development, yet it has a history and culture that set it apart in many ways. The Romans, their empire reaching the fringes of the desert in northern Arabia, traded for frankincense and other goods brought from a land far to the south that they termed "Arabia Felix", or Arabia the Fortunate. That was Yemen.

The country's geography did much to shape its character. Confined by desert to the north-east, it is bounded to the west and south by the Red Sea and Indian Ocean respectively. Traders from the south, particularly the Hadhramaut in eastern Yemen, travelled far and wide. Most of Southeast Asia’s Arab communities, including Singapore's, trace their ancestry to that region.

The northern interior is mountainous and receives more rainfall that most other parts of the Arabian peninsula. Inaccessible to would-be conquerers and centralising governments alike, its people are mostly Zaydis (a branch of Shi'ism quite distinct from Iranian Shi'ism), and their society remains quite tribalised. Before 1962, the ruler of north Yemen, titled the Imam, was a Zaydi. The coastal areas and the south are predominantly Sunni.

The British seized the southern port of Aden in 1839 and gradually took control of its hinterland all the way east to the Hadhramaut, leaving northern Yemen first in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, and later, independent under its Imams. This contributed significantly to the different paths of development of north and south. While much of southern Yemen remained poorly developed and sociality conservative, Aden became a strategically important port, with an oil refinery and other industries, including Arabia's only brewery. The National Liberation Front, which fought against British rule in the 1960s, drew most of its strength from Aden and its adjacent districts. They won independence in 1967 and declared their state the People's Republic of Southern Yemen.

Meanwhile, in the north, the Imam was overthrown by nationalist army officers, who established the Yemen Arab Republic. A civil war between royalists and republicans began, with Nasser's Egypt supporting the republic and, ironically in view of present events, the Saudis supporting the predominantly Zaydi royalists in the north. The war only ended after the Egyptians withdrew in 1967 and the Saudis dropped their support for the royalists.

Saudi Arabia has always regarded the rest of the Arabian peninsula as its back yard and has assumed a right to intervene in its neighbours' affairs whenever it has detected a threat to its interests. Yemen has seemed particularly troublesome over the years, with its distinct identity and one of the larger population in the peninsula, including many Shi'is. The Saudi government supported attempts to overthrow the radical regime in Aden. When the two Yemeni states united on May 22, 1990, the former ruling parties agreed that united Yemen should be a democracy, with freedom of the press and contested elections, which is just how it was at first. This was seen as a threat by Saudi Arabia, which sponsored a conservative Islamist party called Islah (Reform), as well as institutions that sought to "convert" Sunnis and Zaydis alike to its own interpretation of Islam.

Barely was the new state established than the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait occurred. When Yemen refused to join the international coalition to throw the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia expelled some 700,000 Yemenis who worked there and remitted money home. The consequences were devastating, with a collapse in income for most families and the state as a whole.

This exacerbated problems in achieving full unification. Members of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the former ruling party in the south, felt that they were being marginalised by President Ali Abdallah Salih and his General People's Congress (former ruling party in the north). They were not the only ones. Discontent with what has been perceived as rule by the north reached such a level in southern Yemen that, around 2007, a Southern Movement with widespread support from almost all sectors of the population emerged. It called for separation from the north.

Briefly, in 2011, there seemed to be a possibility that southern discontents could be met within a united Yemen. A protest movement in the north condemning corruption and repression and demanding democratic change threatened the government. After months of protests and violent clashes in the capital Sana'a, Salih had to agree to step down, but rather than a thoroughgoing governmental change, what took place instead was a reshuffle within the elite.

Saudi Arabia and the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with broader (including UN) support, supported a process of negotiations that resulted in the National Dialogue Conference that lasted from March 2013 to January 2014. Members of the old regime, the established opposition parties (including Islah) and the Zaydi Hashid tribal confederation agreed to establish a transitional  government, headed by Salih's deputy, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.

Excluded from these arrangements were many of the people who had protested on Sana'a's streets against the old regime, the Houthis and the Southern Movement. The transitional government had no legitimacy for them, whatever its international or regional support and when the Houthis advanced into Sana'a, they faced little opposition. The old regime crumbled. Hadi fled from Sana'a to Aden, and then from Aden to Saudi Arabia as the Houthis closed in. They were not fighting as Iranian proxies, but for their stake in a democratic and diverse Yemen.

What Yemen now needs is the realisation of the aims of the 2011 reform movement and an acceptance that, if that does not yield the minimum conditions for unity demanded by the Southern Movement, an amicable divorce between north and south would be better than an unhappy marriage. External intervention aimed at returning Yemen to the previous status quo would, if successful, merely leave the country with a discredited government devoid of popular support and determined, simply for the sake of its own survival, to deny democratic freedoms to its citizens. That may be in others' interests, but not those of Yemen's people.

In the regional context, the nature of the interventionist policy is evident. ISIS has established a barbaric extreme fundamentalist regime in Syria and Iraq. It murders Shi'ites, Christians and Yazidis as well as Sunnis who dissent face extreme punishments and sometimes death. It seeks to foment violence against all those who it sees as its enemies elsewhere. In Yemen, a movement based within a community that had been marginalised in recent political talks has asserted itself through violence against the political leadership, but has not imposed a reign of terror in the areas it controls, killed those who hold different religious views or forced them to convert, nor has it set out to establish a dictatorship.

So which of these crises has merited the most vigorous response from Saudi Arabia and the majority of Arab states, including armed intervention? Apparently, the Yemen.