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Saudi Arabia’s Role in Creating Disunity in Yemen

Sheikh Hamid WaqarSaudi Arabia funded a plan to create disunity between the Afghani government and the Northern Alliance. This disunity resulted in a war which weakened the government, allowing another group to take over: the Taliban. Some believe that the same plan is being implemented in Yemen.

Sheikh Hamid WaqarYemen has been the focus of a great deal of media attention in recent times. The internal war between Ali Abdullah Salih’s government and the al-Houthi Movement (HM) ended not long before the auspicious month of Ramadan last year, with both sides independently calling for a ceasefire.

The government of Yemen retracted a condition that it had placed on the HM in order for a ceasefire to be reached; the condition was disbarment. The HM would never agree to put down its arms and the standoff between the two sides extended for a considerable period of time. Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, the head of the HM, agreed to the conditions and thereafter called for a ceasefire.

The ensuing peace did not last for long. Shortly after the ceasefire, the crisis resumed on a much higher scale as fierce fighting was reported on Eid al-Fitr. Although initially limited to Sa’dah, the bloodshed spilled into neighboring areas such as the Amran and Harf Safyan provinces. It was reported that 150 soldiers died in the battles.

Both sides had seemed quite eager to come to an agreement and bring peace back to the country. There is much speculation over why calls for a ceasefire were disregarded by both parties and fighting resumed. Each group claimed that a third country was the culprit. Ali Abdullah Salih claimed that the Islamic Republic of Iran was at fault, while Abd al-Malik al-Houthi claimed that Saudi Arabia was to blame.

The truth of the matter will become clear if one looks back into the history of Yemen and its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Here we will examine this relationship as well as briefly review potential pros and cons of the claim that the Islamic Republic of Iran had interfered in the internal war.

Saudi Arabia’s History with Yemen

There has been a great boundary dispute regarding the two major cities along the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni border. Yemeni nationalists call the cities – or the better-termed provinces – the “lost provinces”. King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud annexed the Asir region in 1934. The two cities Najran and Jizan came along with it. Thereafter, the Saudi Arabian army led by Prince Faysal invaded Yemen, conquering territories far south of the region in dispute. In the end, the Imam of Yemen sought pardon and King Abd al-Azid gave back much of the land that was taken.

This was followed by the Taif Agreement, signed in 1934. The two countries came together and demarcated their border from the seacoast to a point in the mountains, the area east of which was left undefined. Furthermore, this agreement was given a twenty-year lifespan, after which the agreement would be nullified and the territory agreed upon would be in dispute once again.

When the twenty years ended, Saudi Arabia extended the period because, as they claim, neither side seemed to pay any attention to the fact that the Taif Agreement was expiring. In 1974 Yemeni Prime Minister, Abd al-Rahman al-Hajri, extended the agreement for another two decades, but he was soon overthrown and the extension was never ratified.

The boundary between Saudi Arabia and Yemen is the only border in the Middle East which is not clearly defined. This has caused many a dispute – with some even escalating to the level of war – between the two countries. The only reason that it is not defined is Saudi Arabia’s desire to occupy large portions of what is commonly known as Yemen. This border has been in dispute since 1934, and before that, the two countries were constantly at war.

Saudi Arabia has also occupied numerous islands that belong to Yemen. These islands are located in the Red and Arabian seas. Saudi Arabia currently occupies over ten Yemeni islands.

Yemen has had serious internal feuds that led to it being split up into two countries. North and South Yemen have always been at odds with one another. In 1972, the South declared independence after the United Kingdom withdrew its occupation. Eighteen years later, on the 22nd of May, 1990, the country reunified when Ali Abdullah Salih of the North became

Head of State and Ali Salim al-Beidh of the south became Head of Government. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia continuously tries to disrupt this unity and create civil war. They usually side with South Yemen, despite the fact that its leaders are communists. Saudi Arabia will savor the day when Ali Abdullah Salih will face Ali Salim al-Beidh militarily.

Shortly after the unification, Saudi Arabia financially supported the leaders of various Yemeni tribes beginning a civil war. This war was fought between Ali Abdullah Salih’s government in Sana’a and the Yemeni Socialist Party who was fighting for an independent South. The government prevailed and prepared legal cases against the southern leaders for misusing governmental funds. These leaders included: Ali Salim al-Beidh, Haydar Abu Bakr al-Attas (a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party who was appointed Prime Minister by Ali Abdullah Salih in 1990), Abd al-Rahman Ali al-Jifri (Chairman of the National Opposition Front), and Salih Munassar al-Siyali.

An interesting note to mention is that before the civil war, an agreement was made between the North and the South in Amman, Jordan. Immediately after its ratification, Ali Salim al-Beidh went to Saudi Arabia to inform the Sa’ud family of the details. Barely twenty-four hours later, fighting between the North and South intensified, and a full-flung civil war engulfed Yemen. The civil war ended after an entire month of warfare. Over 200 southern commanders fled Yemen and found refuge in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia did not only provide financial aid to the southern fighters in the civil war of 1994, but they sent many generals into Yemen to fight alongside Ali Salim al-Beidh’s forces. This was a bloody war and, at the lowest count, 200 000 Yemen citizens were either killed or injured. This is but a taste of Saudi Arabia’s desire to control Yemen. There are more examples but mentioning all of them would be outside the scope of this brief article.

Conflict between Yemen’s Government and the HM

There are three main theories behind the fighting between Yemen’s government and the HM.

The first one is that the Wahhabi faction in Saudi Arabia (Wahhabism lying outside the domain of Sunni Islam) feels threatened by the HM’s ideological differences. The HM is comprised of Zaydi Shias who have a different outlook on religion than do the Wahhabis. The secular faction in Yemen, headed by Ali Abdullah Salih, also feels threatened by the HM’s ideological beliefs. They want a secular, irreligious Yemen, whereas HM wants a more religious state. Saudi Arabia and Ali Abdullah Salih have joined forces to destroy the danger that both of them are feeling.

The second possible reason is a little more interesting. In order to understand it, one has to turn to Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia funded a plan to create disunity between the Afghani government and the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the Northern Alliance. This disunity resulted in a war which weakened the government, allowing another group to take over: the Taliban. Some believe that the same plan is being implemented in Yemen. The secular Shia government of Ali Abdullah Salih is being pitted against the Shia al-Houthi Movement in order to weaken Yemen and provide a door for the Taliban to come through.

The third possibility is that the HM is fighting to regain the government that they controlled before the unification of Yemen.

Concluding Remarks

Ali Abdullah Salih stated that Iran is behind the fighting that took place on Eid al-Fitr. This is hard to imagine considering the following facts: Iran does not share a border with Yemen; its language is different from that of Yemen; its state doctrinal beliefs are different than that of Yemen; and their cultures have very little in common. In general, Iran has no interest in Yemen and hence, no reason to interfere there.

It seems much more likely that Saudi Arabia would be the third country that had interfered and the catalyst through which bloodshed continued in the country. At the least, Ali Abdullah Salih must provide some sort of evidence to solidify his claim.

If Iran was not the culprit, what motives would Ali Abdullah Salih have for claiming this? This is an interesting question. It seems that Ali Abdullah Salih has turned into a loudspeaker for the Saudi Arabian government and what he says and does seems to be in accordance with the kingdom’s desires. Labeling Iran as the culprit – a country which helps Shi’a groups fight against established Arab governments – would help Saudi Arabia in its psychological war against Iran.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Al-Taqrib magazine. It has been reproduced here with permission of the author.

About Arsalan Rizvi

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