Monday, November 16, 2009

Yeah! Yeah! Yemen !

Sunnis, 85% of Islam, believe in the literal interpretation of the Qu’ran and that each Muslim should read the Holy Book, preferably in classical Arabic, to develop their own one-on-one relationship with God. Shiites, most of the other 15%, believe that the Qu’ran is a mystical revelation from God, and that only the most senior religious leaders are capable of understanding and interpreting its true meaning. The heart of the concentration of Shiite believers is Iran (and neighboring Iraq ), and the heart (and funding source) for conservative Sunnis believers is Saudi Arabia .

While the Saudis are obligated to keep the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina open for all Muslims on their mandatory at least once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage (the Hajj), allowing Shiites from Iran into these cities has always been uncomfortable for the Saudi Royal Family. Put another way, Saudis and Iranians don’t trust each other… Okay, they hate each other’s guts. Sunnis have been hunting down Shiites since the battle of Ashura, October 10, 680 – the date of the martyrdom (slaughter) of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad and a band of his followers at the Battle of Karbala, just a few decades after the death of the Prophet Mohammad.

But despite their proximity across the Persian Gulf, the Saudis and the Iranians seldom engage in direct confrontation, preferring to fight their battles through their proxies – very much like the military support the Saudis gave Iraq ’s Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). Today, that Saudi/Sunni versus Iran/Shiite conflict rages in another regional conflict: the long-standing civil war in Yemen, an impoverished nation that sits very strategically on Saudi Arabia’s southwestern tip. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government (mostly Sunnis) has been fending off Hawthi rebels (who just happen to be Shiites) for the past five years. Suspicions – coupled with some pretty damning evidence – that Iran is backing the Hawthi has escalated tensions in this oil-rich region.

The November 15th Washington Post: “ Saudi Arabia 's entry into the conflict has touched a nerve with Iran . This week, Iran 's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, declared that no nation should ‘interfere’ in Yemen 's internal affairs, a veiled snipe at Saudi Arabia . Some analysts say if Saudi Arabia continues to attack the rebels, Iran might decide to back the Hawthis, if it hasn't already, as a way to gain leverage over Riyadh [the Saudi capital]… ‘ Iran believes the biggest obstacle to its growing influence in the region is Saudi Arabia ," said Najib Ghallab, a political researcher at Sanaa University . ‘To weaken Saudi influence, Iran believes Yemen is the starting point.’”

What does this mean for the United States ? “The fighting could have serious implications for the U.S. anti-terrorism effort in a failing nation [Yemen] where al-Qaeda is gaining strength, Western diplomats and Yemeni analysts say [but an alliance between Sunni al Qaeda and the Shitte Hawthis is clearly unlikely]. The war is drawing attention and scarce resources away from efforts to combat poverty, a secessionist movement in the south and piracy along the nation's shores. A prolonged conflict, they say, could further weaken Yemen 's government and deepen societal fissures, allowing al-Qaeda militants to thrive… ‘The longer the war in the north continues and the longer the problems in the south continue without resolution, the more we pave the road for al-Qaeda,’ said Yahya Abu Asbu, a Foreign Ministry official and deputy secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party. ‘ Yemen will become more dangerous than Somalia .’” The Post.

The region, like most of the Middle East , is rife with tribalism and profound religious passions. The Post: “The Hawthis, who believe in the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, ruled northern Yemen as a religious imamate for nearly a millennium before being overthrown in a 1962 coup. Ever since, Yemen 's rulers have been wary of them and other Zaydi clans. The Zaydis make up more than a quarter of Yemen 's population and constitute a majority in the north.” For the Saudis, having the Iranian Shiite across the Gulf in the north and the Hawthis at their southern border represents an encirclement by dreaded Shiite factions, an untenable situation for them.

The battle lines have been drawn in some unexpected places. For example, Iran ’s state-supported Arabic language news channel, Al-Alam (which means “the world” in Arabic; note that Iran ’s language is Farsi and not Arabic), was removed from the two major Arab satellite platforms: Nilesat and Arabsat, depriving Shiite Iran of a voice in reaching the “hearts and minds” of the region’s Arabs. Nilesat’s majority owner is the secular Egyptian government in this mostly Sunni nation, and Saudi Arabia is the majority stakeholder in Arabsat. Likewise, Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned pan-Arab news network, had its Tehran bureau shut down this past summer.

As people die on the ground in Yemen , and as the battle for sympathetic support from television viewers escalates, it is unlikely that these tensions are going to settle anytime soon; a mindful eye should remain on this potential tinderbox. In an area of multiple “flashpoints,” sometimes it is worthwhile to look at those conflicts that do not dominate our headlines… yet.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I approve this message.

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