Does Donald Trump Know He's Helping Saudi Arabia Ruin Yemen?

An F-15E Strike Eagle. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

Why Trump needs to rethink his decision to support Saudi Arabia's role in the Middle East.

The euphoria over reinvigorating the Riyadh-Washington alliance has reached dizzying diplomatic heights. Both capitals are rejoicing over rejuvenating the decades-old alliance, which had become abrasive during the Obama administration. Assertively, the Trump administration has underscored the strategic value of a strong Riyadh as the pivot to strengthening the relationship. This American posture, however, is critically grounded in military terms as a foil to Iran’s regional role to the exclusion of all ideological and sociopolitical factors and values that undergird a strong relationship. More specifically, whereas Washington should be rightly concerned about Iran’s spoiler role in the region, it has perilously swept under the rug all concerns about Saudi Arabia’s role in directly—or indirectly—fomenting terrorism as a growth and/or byproduct of the kingdom’s religiopolitical policies to promote its Wahhabi-Salafi creed and to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East.

During his recent shuttle visit to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis declared in the Saudi capital that the “United States wants to see a strong Saudi Arabia,” and added that “there is disorder wherever Iran is present.” During his meeting with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Mattis emphasized military and security cooperation with the kingdom as a means to enhance the strategic friendship between the two allies. Excited by the Trump administration’s vocal anti-Iranian tone, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman highlighted to Mattis the American-Saudi cooperation to counter regional challenges, including “the malign activities of Iran.” No sooner, in an apparent display of the assertiveness of the Trump administration’s Middle East foreign policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson threw into sharp relief America’s attitude towards Iran. He stated: “Iran is the world’s leading state of terrorism and is responsible for intensifying multiple conflicts and undermining U.S. interests in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, and continuing to support attacks against Israel . . . A comprehensive Iran policy requires that we address all of the threats posed by Iran, and it is clear there are many.”

Certainly, United States should address all threats posed by Iran. Nevertheless, United States cannot address those threats by oversimplifying the context and background against which Iran carries out its spoiler regional role. True, Iran has had a deleterious role in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain; yet its role cannot be looked upon in isolation from Saudi Arabia’s policies in those countries. In other words, Saudi Arabia’s regional policy has more or less paved the way for Iran to meddle in and influence the societal and political affairs of these countries.

Notwithstanding (as I wrote on these pages “Why America Needs to Beware of Saudi Wahhabism”) Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the fundamentalist Wahhabi-Salafi creed whose theological and political ramifications cannot be discounted as principal factors for paving the way for Islamic radicalism, nowhere is Saudi regional policy more inconsistent with U.S. national interest and more causative to Iranian intervention in regional politics than in Yemen. Yet, United States espouses an oversimplified view of Iran’s intervention in Yemen irrespective of Yemen’s history and sociopolitical dynamics. Secretary Tillerson expounded that “In Yemen, Iran continues to support the Houthis’ attempted overthrow of the government by providing military equipment, funding, and training, thus threatening Saudi Arabia’s southern border.” Unless United States bases its policy on Yemen in a clear understanding of the country’s domestic dynamics, this view is superficial and makes our intervention on the side of the Saudis in Yemen significantly hazardous to both Yemenis and Americans.

Islam reached Yemen in the seventh century. But Yemenis embraced two religious schools of Islam: The Shia-Zaidi school, found in the north and northwest, and the Sunni-Shafi’i school, found in the south and southeast. Throughout Umayyad rule (661–750), Abbasid rule (750–1258) and Ottoman rule (1280–1918), Muslim rulers had nominal control over northern Yemen. Zaidi imams controlled most tribal areas in the north and their rule was de facto recognized by Muslim rulers.

Significantly, Zaidi Shiism is theologically closer to Shafi’I Sunni Islam than to Twelver Shia Islam, as embraced by majority of Iranians. Zaidis don’t consider the Imams (grandsons and great grandsons of Prophet Muhammad) following Zaid as infallible. Zaidis, unlike Twelver Shia, believe that the leader of the Shia community could be the one best fit to lead. Moreover, they don’t share with other Shia denominations the hatred towards Sunni Caliphs as usurpers of power. Significantly, Zaidi Shia share with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Twelver Shia Islam the principle that an oppressive ruler can be challenged. The formal Zaidi school as expressed by religious scholar al-Hadawi confirms: first, though the Imamate is in principle confined to the descendants of Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons Hassan and Hussein, those who came to rule outside the Ali family, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, are accepted according to the justness and fairness of their rule. However, they are considered Da’iya (missionaries) not imams. Second, the Zaidi school confirms the right to rebel against an unjust ruler.

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