The War in Yemen is Political, Ecological: Forget Sunnis and Shiites

By Solaiman M. Fazel | (Informed Comment)

As the Saudi led coalition closes its second week of bombardment in Yemen, the dominant narrative in the mainstream media depicts this conflict as another episode of the Shi’a-Sunni sectarianism that has now spread into the southwestern region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Representing the warfare in terms of sectarianism is inadequate with unforeseen implications. It fails to address the political and ecological realities of this impoverished state, which is now compounded with the arrival of more transnational jihadists, declining oil revenues and a steep population growth.

Underrepresentation of Minorities

The underrepresentation of the Shi’a population in the modern State of Yemen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is an overlooked dimension of the current crisis in Yemen. Over the years, the Shi’as (nearly 35% of the 26 million people) had to conceal their religious identity and redefine their individual ties with the Sunni dominated state institutions.

Overall, Yemen suffers from a 33% unemployment rate, but this number is believed to be higher in the Shi’a regions. Political elites of the yesteryears were unwilling to accommodate the Shi’as within the confines of the modern state.

Bombardment or institutional marginalization of the Shi’a population is not a lasting policy. Labeling them as Iran’s “fifth-column” is problematic. It undermines the aspiration of those Yemeni citizens striving for political power. Today, Shi’as are demanding equal representation in the state institutions that impacts their daily lives.

This predicament raises the question of whether a broad-based state model, which could guarantee the individual freedoms of all the Yemenis within the universal Human Rights framework could be quickly implemented.

Apart from the domestic security needs, implementing a political solution through the diplomatic channel is also essential for global maritime trade. Port of Aden is at a strategic location that could interrupt the flow of oil tankers and other commodities that routinely pass through the narrow Red Sea inlet.

Ecological Crisis

Yemen is has one of the world’s top population growth rates (2.72-), yet practices agriculture in the arid and semi-arid climates. Yemen is now facing one of the world’s most severe water crises, which poses threats to its economic foundation and social fabric. The shortage of surface water is compounded by low levels of ground water (40 meters below normal). To meet the demands of the population, deeper water wells had to be drilled in order to access the falling water tables. Intensive drilling has produced infiltration of polluted water and salinization of the agricultural soil.

This dependency on groundwater has produced the possibility that large portion of Yemen could run out of fresh water in the near future and become the first “ecologically failed state.” Sana’a and the fertile agriculture regions of the north also face serious water challenges. Yemen has not met the per-capita World Bank standard for water security since mid-20th century. Desalinization of seawater is too costly and technologically out of reach for Yemen’s overly dependent economy. The ongoing war has now interrupted the U.N. Development Program, which aimed to address the groundwater depletion problem by returning to a more traditional method of irrigation by relying on the existing community level abilities.

If Yemen is to achieve water and political security, the country has to overcome the deep historical grievances and implement a viable power sharing model. Otherwise collapse of the state institutions will only invite more global jihadist into the country. And as witnessed in Syria and Iraq, the goal of the jihadists is to bring down the international state-system order in the Fertile Crescent and in the Arabian Peninsula.

Solaiman M. Fazel holds a MA in History, and is a PhD Candidate in Department of Anthropology at Indiana University.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Arirang News: “Yemen conflict: Houthi rebels make gains in Aden despite Saudi-led air strikes”

4 Responses

  1. I suggest that another probable contributor is Yemen’s steadily declining oil production (and hence, government revenues from exports). See, for example, link to (Sorry, I don’t know how to embed). Exports were >430,000 barrels per day in early 2002 and as of 2012 (I think) were 91,000 bpd.

  2. “Over the years, the Shi’as (nearly 35% of the 26 million people) had to conceal their religious identity and redefine their individual ties with the Sunni dominated state institutions.”

    Honestly can’t dismiss and say ‘forget’ the Shia Sunni angle in all of this. Its like saying one has to ignore the racial divide and attitudes between white and black in regards to marginalization. You simply can’t. Maybe it may have started out as purely a political thing, but with the current intervention and past Saudi involvement, its definitely taken a more sectarian tone.

  3. 1) You claim that the conflict is not sectarian, yet one of your two main arguments focuses on the underrepresentation of Shi’a in the modern state? It is, indeed, not a sectarian conflict, but you are shooting yourself in the foot here.

    2) “The underrepresentation of the Shi’a population in the modern State of Yemen since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire is an overlooked dimension of the current crisis in Yemen.” Hu? After the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918, the Zaydi (Shi’a) Imam Yahya established the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, which ruled Yemen with from 1918 to 1962 – a state, which was ruled by Shi’a. The marginalisation of Zaydis is rooted in the post-1962 revolution era, particularly with the spread of the salafiya and wahhabiya from the 1980s onwards.

  4. Sunnis and Shi’a, historically, have not fought on sectarian grounds in Yemen. In Yemen the politics almost always center around ideological movements or personalities. The Houthis themselves are a good example of this. The western media paints them as a Shi’ite organisation, even a proxy for Iran. The truth is there are Sunni members and tribes who are members of, and working with, the Houthis. Some of the strongest opposition to the Houthis comes from within the Zaidi community itself.

    I look back at the events in 1948 in Yemen when I see events today. The aborted “Al Waziri” coup saw a diverse group of Yemenis, both Sunni and Shi’a, who tried to overthrow the corrupt Imamate, itself Shi’a. The leader of the al-Wazir coup was Zaidi, but the group itself was formed of people and groups from all walks of life and included the heads of most of the major tribal groupings. The Sacred National Charter, the document drafted by this group, included some elements that came from Zaidi beliefs, but was more related to the national movements of the time. In a twist to this, the people involved actually worked with Hassan al Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood. Who, in this day, would ever think of Shi’a working with the Muslim Brotherhood on a national level to foment a revolution? But that is Yemen.

    There are those trying to make this into a sectarian struggle, but their immediate goals are of a political nature. The Saudis have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Yemen, exported their ultra-Salafiyah theology into the country. They have helped and supported Islamist groups such as al Islah, and AQAP. As to under representation, this goes many ways.

    Yes, the Zaidis were under represented, but so was the South. There were many promises made to the South prior to unification and almost none of them have been kept. There were multiple peoples in Yemen who were under represented. Tobias claims that Zaidis set up rule after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but that is not exactly correct. There has been some form of Zaidi Imamate/Kingship in Yemen since 897.

    This, in no way, means that the Zaidis of Yemen in the last 40+ years have not been discriminated against. Saleh, himself a Zaidi, sought to repress the Zaidi community of the north. There was a conscious move to delegitimize the Zaidis, to even soften their religious views. One could view it almost as an attempted “Sunnification” of the Zaidi community. This mistreatment as well as an awakening of the Zaidi identity starting in the 1980s in the face of hostile government treatment and rising influence of the Salafiyah spurred the Zaidi revivialist movement from which the Houthis were born. The Houthis, were initially a non violent group composed of other groups like the Young Believers. It was only when the state murdered their leader and launched military actions against the Houthis that they took up arms.

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