The real roots of the current conflict in Yemen are fundamentally connected to Saudi Arabia’s systematic proselytization of Salafism, a puritanical form of Islam, inside Yemen. The effect of this proselytizing has caused prominent Shia Zaydi Yemenis—namely, the Houthi group—to revolt. This uprising has also been instigated in part by former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his manipulation and occasional conspiracy with the Houthi group. The Houthis’ current unusual alliance with Saleh, and their control over Yemen, was precipitated by the 2011 Yemen Arab Spring Uprising, which caused great geopolitical disruption in the country.
It can be argued that the United States and international organizations can do more to improve the current conditions in Yemen. But let’s not fool ourselves: as long as President Donald J. Trump remains the head of the U.S. government and the Republicans control Congress, the United States will continue to remain indifferent to the conflict in Yemen.
The Sunnification of Yemen
Since the fall of the Imamate rule in 1970, Saudi Arabia has continued a Salafist crusade to maintain some leverage over the Yemeni government. But its most aggressive Salafist campaign began in late 1970s. In 1979, a student of the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Muqbil Bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, founded the Dar al-Hadith in a village called Dammaj in the heart of Saada governorate, the stronghold of the Shia Zaydi and Houthi groups. The center targeted Zaydi adherents and converted them to Sunnism, while in other parts of the country, individual Salafi advocates would receive financial support from the Saudi government. In 1984, the center expanded and opened a branch in a city called Mabar, another Zaydi predominant village, located in Damar governorate, approximately 70 km south of Sana. A student of Sheikh Muqbil, Sheikh Mohammed Imam headed that center.
The Salafist campaign carried out by these Salafi centers has intimidated the adherents of the traditional Zaydi theology of the Yemeni population. The centers would publicly brag about how many Zaydi Shia they had converted. In the late 1990s, as Saudi Arabia’s Salafist campaign in Yemen intensified, the Saleh regime ignored their activities—for example, the incident in which “students of the Dammaj Center vandalized Zaydi mosques, and shrine tombs of famous Zaydi religious leaders.” The Saleh government remained unconcerned about such activities because Salafists take a passive stance toward the rulers of the country as long as such leaders embrace the Islamic religion. And at the same time, the Salafist movement was in competition with the more politically conscious Islah Islamic Party, Yemen’s biggest opposition party. Both Islah and the Salafists targeted Yemen’s emerging youth. The two parties differed only in that the Islah Islamic Party was more politically active in Yemen’s main street. For Saleh then, the Salafi movement was a political balancer against the Islah.
In response to the widespread campaign of these centers, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, the older brother of Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the current leader of the Houthi group, founded the Believing Youth Club (BYC) in 1990s. The BYC started as a peaceful movement. It “aimed at providing education to the youth of [Sa'ada] while reviving the influence of [Zaydiya], a Shiite branch endemic to Yemen, which had been in decline since the overthrow of the imamate.” The movement became very critical about Saudi Arabia’s campaign. They opened Zaydi centers across northern Yemen, and digitized older Zaydi scripts and made it accessible to the public. They then demanded more recognition and attention from the Yemeni government, as evidenced by Houthi group’s first demonstration in the 1990s, which came in response to the surge of Salafism in the north. As the power and influence of the Houthis increased, Saleh would utilize the Houthi movement against neighboring Saudi Arabia—falsely describing it as a Iranian intrusion, which intimidated the Saudis.
Dancing On the Heads of Snakes
In 2004, Hussein Badr Eddin was killed in a conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government. In what became one of the bloodiest wars between the Yemeni army and the Houthi group, Saleh’s army inflicted a staggering defeat on the Houthis. After killing so many of their number, the Yemeni army besieged the remaining Houthis at Fallah River in Saada, ready to crush them once and for all—until an order came from Sana: “ Withdraw immediately.” The perplexed Yemeni army withdrew. Then, a few years later, the Houthis rejuvenated themselves and began to engage in sporadic skirmishes with the Yemeni army once again, but this time in the border region between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
Historically, Saleh brilliantly manipulated the existence of the moribund Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to secure anti-terrorism training and funding from the United States. He utilized the Houthi group in a similar way against the Saudis. The Yemeni government had struggled economically for so long that Saleh used this tactic as a means to milk a bit more extra cash from foreign states. The demise of these groups would mean to him the loss of those resources. To show the devious face of his politics, Saleh once told a reporter that “his job was like dancing on the heads of snakes.”
In 2009, Saleh achieved his objective of dragging the Saudis even deeper into the Houthi conflict. Saudi Arabia had indeed received its first casualty in scuffles with the Yemenis since the 1960s in 2009. But unlike then, the Saudi government was on the opposite side from forty years ago. Now it was fighting the descendants of the imam whom it had supported before. The system worked perfectly fine for Saleh, until the arrival of an unexpected guest: the 2011 Yemen Arab Spring revolution.
Yemen’s 2011 Uprising: The Greatest Geopolitical Disruptor
At the end of 2010, the rules of the game in Yemen were clear. Saleh controlled the country and managed the Yemeni tribes with political patronage. The Islah Islamic Party, though active in Yemen’s political life, did not pose an imminent threat to Saleh—his General People’s Congress controlled the powerful government positions. The Houthi groups were engaged in a multifaceted war—the Yemeni army on one front and the Saudis on the other, whom Saleh had helped fixate on the Houthis. AQAP carried out intermittent attacks in southern Yemen, particularly in Hadramout, but this was nothing of major concern. The system worked perfectly fine for Saleh.