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Yemen exposed

Gulf states may need to get involved to prevent fighting from spreading

Image Credit: Nino Jose Heredia, Gulf News
Gulf News

For many decades, the political story of the Gulf states has been one of steady progress towards greater stability and social cohesion. All of these states are relatively new, with their territories only really taking shape in the last half of the 20th Century and their boundaries only being finally defined very recently. It is a mark of the success of the leaderships in the six GCC states that the different tribal and social groups now accept and actively support their nations.

But stability is not just about having secure nations. It is also about social cohesion, and in Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states there was a lingering minority support from a few of the more conservative and religious sections of society for some of the ideas behind the more violent, radical Islamist groups.

So it was a very important development when Al Qaida bombed several sites in Saudi Arabia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and killed many Saudi citizens. This in turn led to the long-established official policy against the violent extremists of Al Qaida and their like being unequivocally matched by popular opinion.

Political and social progress has been at the national, social, and individual levels as the millions of Gulf citizens slowly accepted the deep and irrevocable changes. But this progress did not happen by chance, and is due to continual and careful leadership.

This is why the ongoing fighting in northern Yemen is attracting so much attention around the Gulf. The Al Houthi tribal federation and their allies are seeking independence from the Yemeni state, which naturally refuses to give it. The issues that have arisen are ones that all Gulf states have had to deal with in the past: tribal loyalty, suspicion of central government, religious conservatism and a fierce independence.

Yemen is very different from the six GCC states as its government has only relatively weak security control over the huge country of 26 million people. North and South Yemen only became one country for the first time in 1990. The former royalist north was ruled by the Zaidi Imams for centuries and endured a brutal civil war in the 1960s as the Egyptian-backed republicans took over. The South was a British colony for most of the 1800s and 1900s until a Marxist revolution forced a British withdrawal in 1967.

So the Yemeni government has to deal with the active revolution in the conservative north by the Al Houthis, the continuing murmurs of succession by some of the disgruntled southern leaders and with Al Qaida setting up bases in the more remote parts of Yemen, where they can operate without much interference. This would be a tough ask for any government, and Yemen needs all the help that it can get to keep the situation under control.

The Iranians are delighted with what is happening. They have been working hard over the past decade to spread their political message through the Arab world and they have been nurturing groups who seek their support. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and several Shiite parties in Iraq are the more obvious examples. So the Iranians have leapt to support the Al Houthis, claiming them as fellow Shiites and seeking to promote their cause.


But this Iranian espousal of the Al Houthi cause is opportunistic. There are no religious or cultural links between the mainstream Twelver branch of Shiism, which Iran has made its own and is trying to export around the region, and the very conservative Zaidi branch of Shiism that is limited to northern Yemen.

The Zaidis make up the majority of the population in north Yemen, and are mostly conservative tribal people living in the countryside, or have become urbanised and more secular in the cities.

The only real link was that Hussain Al Houthi, the original leader of the rebellion, spent some time in South Lebanon and admired what Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was doing. But this personal link has not yet lead to Iranian armed support; the limit of what Iran has given the Al Houthis is some finance, and a lot of favourable publicity.

But even this interference in Yemeni issue has been sensitive for all Gulf states and has set alarm bells ringing. No Gulf state wants the Iranians training the Al Houthis, bringing to bear the military skills and abilities honed in the tough wars in Lebanon, and indoctrinating them with their particular Iranian political and radical outlook on life. The possibility that the fighting might spread beyond Yemen is frightening.

Iran is delighted to support the cause, and cause serious problems for the Gulf states. It is a classic opportunity to foment fighting and civil discord, which might allow Iranian-backed forces to creep in and take advantage of what is going on.

Meanwhile, the Al Houthis are delighted to find an ally. They have launched six rounds of fighting with the Yemeni government since 2004, and the present seventh round does not look like being the last.

The Yemeni government needs substantial support to bring this rebellion to an end. It cannot do this by executing everyone who took part, so it needs a military victory  followed by a political programme to absorb the rebels back into the Yemeni mainstream.