Why Trump needs to rethink his decision to support Saudi Arabia's role in the Middle East
Robert G. RABIL
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.”
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.
Tension between North and South Yemen often flared into armed skirmishes. In 1979, tensions led to a military confrontation between the two countries. The Arab League mediated the resolution of the conflict and helped steer the two countries on a path of unity. As the power of the Soviet Union waned, the leaders of the YAR (Ali Abdullah Saleh) and the PDRY (Ali Salim al Beidh) agreed in November 1989 on a draft unity constitution originally drawn up in 1981. The Republic of Yemen (ROY) was declared on May 22, 1990. Ali Abdullah Saleh became president, and Ali Salim al-Bidh became vice president.
Saudi Arabia, considering Yemen as its underbelly and backwater, tried to influence the politics of Yemen by supporting central authorities to impose their rule throughout the country and to promote their Wahhabi-Salafi school of Islam. Whereas Southern Yemen felt marginalized, Zaidis felt that their culture and religion were under attack. In fact, several Saudi-educated Yemeni religious scholars, such as Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i, Hazam al-Bahlawi, Muhammad al-Mahdi and Muhammad al-Wasabi, have focused on propagating the Wahhabi-Salafi creed and converting Zaidis to Sunnis. Sheikh Wadi’i was successful in creating a Salafi center in the village of Damaj next to Sa’da, the capital of Zaidi Sa’da Province, as well as in converting a number of Zaidi Shia to Sunnism. Worried about their culture and religion, Zaidi religious scholars, led by Badr al-Din al-Houthi, mobilized to face off what they considered a Wahhabi onslaught on their very existence as a community.
Before long, civil war broke out in early May 1994 as southern leaders declared their secession from the union and established the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY). The DRY was not recognized by the international community and all forms of resistance collapsed once Aden was seized by central authorities in Sanaa. Along the thousands of southern leaders and military officers who went into exile were Sheikh al-Houthi and his son Hussein, who supported the secession of the South.
Sheikh Houthi and his son first went first to Qum in Tehran and then to West Beirut, Hezbollah’s stronghold. For some time, they traveled back and forth between Qum and West Beirut. It is over there that the Houthis became allied with theocratic Iran in principle and practice. The Houthis had become faithful believers in Khomeini’s theocratic tenet that unjust ruler should be challenged and that their community should be politically active to support fighting injustice. More specifically, they became close to Iran and Hezbollah on account of their belief that Jihad in the path of Allah against oppressors is legitimate. Consequently, they adopted Khomeini’s slogan “Death to America and Death to Israel,” which became a hallmark of their movement.
Upon their return to Yemen, Sheikh Houthi and his son launched their movement among the Zaidi Shia, whereupon they have become popularly known as the Houthis. It’s noteworthy that Houthis are Zaidi Shia, but not all Zaidi Shia are Houthis. Soon enough, tensions flared between the Houthis and central authorities. Throughout the 1990s—and especially in 2004, 2008 and 2010—government troops, supported by Saudi Arabia, battled Houthi dissidents in the Sa’da Province. Many on both sides were killed and many Zaidi villages lay in ruin.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda deepened its presence in Yemen, thanks in no small measure to the Afghan jihadi returnees and to tribal connection to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden whose family hailed from Hadhramaut. On October 12, 2000, Al Qaeda carried out a terror attack on the USS Cole, following a botched attempt on USS The Sullivans. Al Qaeda’s power in Yemen increased following the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and became a hub for Salafi jihadi ideologues, including the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki. Weak central authorities, internal strife, large swaths of unguarded territories and high unemployment provided the crucible in which Al Qaeda propagated its Salafi-jihadi ideology. In 2009, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was formed from a merger of Al Qaeda in Yemen and Saudi members of Al Qaeda. By clamping down on bin Laden associates, Saudi Arabia forced many of them to seek sanctuary in neighboring Yemen.
It was against this background that the Arab rebellion erupted in Yemen in 2011. As it progressed, this pro-reform movement further weakened central authorities partly because certain tribes and military leaders withdrew their support from the government in favor of trying to control the rebellion. As internal strife spread and shifting alliances radically changed Yemen’s internal dynamics, President Saleh agreed to hand over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was inaugurated as president in uncontested elections in February 2012. Consequently, two of Saudi Arabia’s major supported parties, the Islamist al-Islah party and the Hashid tribal federation, were weakened, thereby undermining Riyadh’s influence in the country. Conversely, the power of Houthis was enhanced not in the least by the fraying of the ties and influence of their opponents.
Unable to withstand the challenges from both his supporters and opponents, President Hadi sacked his cabinet in August 2014 and overturned a controversial fuel-price rise following two weeks of anti-government protests in which Houthi rebels were heavily involved. Soon enough, backed by military units loyal to former President Saleh, Houthi rebels overran Sanaa in September 2014 and continued their onslaught towards southern Yemen. Taken aback by the Houthis’s seizure of Sanaa, and considering their putsch as an extension of Iranian power to the border of the kingdom, Saudi Arabia, along with other Arab countries, launched in March 2015 “The Decisive Storm Coalition” military campaign to “protect and defend the legitimate government of Hadi.” Washington has offered logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led campaign.
Two years later, the Saudi-led campaign had failed to dislodge the Houthis and their allies from the capital. Rather, it had further devastated Yemen’s economy and security. AQAP and ISIS have exploited the ongoing strife to expand their power and terror attacks across Yemen. Following the loss of a number of their troops in Yemen, Arab Gulf Countries have hired mercenaries to do their campaign bidding. The UAE has deployed the largest mercenary force in Yemen, hailing from Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and other countries. Reportedly, Eric Prince and his former Blackwater Security employees have led the mercenary force. Meanwhile, Yemen as a nation has faced the worst human crisis in modern history. According to the UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 21.2 million or 82 percent of Yemen’s population are in humanitarian need, with many children dying from starvation.
It is against this background that the Trump administration wants to cooperate and strengthen Saudi military role in the region mainly as a counterbalance to that of Iran. This singular naïve approach will only deepen the strife and crises — not only in Yemen but also in Syria and Bahrain. It will also indirectly enhance the power of Salafi jihadis. Washington, indeed, should maintain and strengthen its alliance with Saudi Arabia; but that should entail candor talks and firm requests that the kingdom curb the propagation of its Wahhabi-Salafi creed and its anti-Shia religiopolitical policies at home and abroad that inadvertently help pave the way for Iran’s growing influence and meddling in Middle Eastern societies. Otherwise, Washington should not be shocked by the human catastrophe awaiting Yemen.