Yemen: A sectarian fairytale

By Tom Walsh

Since the Arab Uprisings of 2011, the Sunni-Shi’a dynamic has been revitalized. Initially, these rebellions filled Western journalists with positivity, as cries for democracy and human rights spread across the region. Characteristically non-partisan, the vast majority of people put their differences aside to fight for fairer, more tolerant societies. Yemen was no exception.  Even the Shi’a Houthis, who were already engaged in a war against then leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, put down their guns and joined the nonviolent protest. Yemeni history shows us that this negation of sectarian identities is not unusual. In some cases, Sunnis and Shi’as actually pray together. Zaydi Shia’s, the current Houthi regime do not have strong affiliations to devout Shi’ism. They do not celebrate Ashura, for one, and only believe in five imams. Historically, they have been fairly tolerant to Sunnis. There is always a propensity for people to blame religion for upsurges in violence in the Middle East. In this case, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Essentially, the violent situation in the country and its “sectarian” tone is something that is being fueled by regional superpowers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, as part of a wider revolt, managed to topple President Saleh, who was replaced by Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi. Yet this did not mark the change they had hoped for. Hadi was essentially a puppet of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Iranians capitalized on this discontent, seeing the potential to put an ally in power on the doorstep of their Saudi rivals. In 2014, with the help of Iranian weapons, the Houthis took Sana’a. Ever since, Saudi Arabia has been fighting for the reinstatement of Hadi, with support from America and the UK. Preying on grievances, Iran has managed to militarize e an otherwise fairly passive sectarian identity. Fearing the spillover effects for Saudi Shi’as, Riyadh has responded with the utmost violence.

Measures have gone as far as setting up a blockade on Yemeni ports, preventing humanitarian aid entering the country. Widely condemned, most notably by Theresa May, this has resulted in the starvation and death of thousands of innocent people. Figures on the death toll since the official beginning of the civil war in March 2015, total at around 10 000.  5 200 of them were civilians. With Prince Salman calling Khamenei the new Hitler, Iran stepping up its support for the Houthis, the killing of former President Saleh, and missiles being fired at Riyadh, there doesn’t seem to be a clear end in sight. Yemen, like Syria, is just another battleground for the new Middle East Cold War. The sectarian narrative is employed by both sides in an attempt to legitimize their violent struggle for power.

Image ‘Felton Davis’ via Flickr

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