April 14, 2015 By K. Ashraf

Unrest in Yemen: Beyond Sunni-Shia Cliches


‘Sectarian’ is the trait adjective in the media coverage on the contemporary conflicts in the North African/West Asian regions. However, by ‘sectarian’ they rarely mean the much-too familiar racial or communal sectarianism, but rather than religious sectarianism partitioned between the Sunnis and Shias. Why the word sectarianism acquires such an instant translation should be discussed at length. Orientalists like Joseph Schacht are of the view that there has not been a linear progression of the Sunni-Shia conflict in the last 15 centuries of Islamic history. But why do media shed sharper focus on the religious conflict between Shias and Sunnis in their analyses on the political developments in the region than it is really needed?

Take for instance the political developments in Yemen. Is it primarily a conflict between Houthis, a social movement among the Shias, and rest of the Sunnis? This is not to deny the fact that the problems born of sectarianism between the two major religious sects still exist in the country as it does in many other countries. However, deeper analyses into the issue show that religion is one of the major factors in the social division of the country. Other key factors include tribes, region, geography, state and history. To search for the key factors that have determined political developments in Yemen will help us cotton on to the fact that sectarianism and social conflicts in the country are not merely predicated on the simple factor of Shia-Sunni dialectics. InSectarian Politics in Persian Gulf edited by Lawrence G Potter (Hurst Publishers 2013), Khalid Fatah looks into the social fissures in Yemen and comes up with other three prominent factors in the social divisions of the country.

  1. Disintegration of the Yemeni state
  2. The rapidly escalating Riyadh-Tehran tug of war in the region
  3. Political unrest born of the US-led invasions after 9/11

Here I would narrate three instances Fatah cites in order to prove how these factors are being worked out in the region.

Fatah claims that the social fissures in the region are well reflected in the geography of the country. The craggy mountains of north Yemen are dominated by the tribes that predominantly practice the Shia-Zaidi form of Islam. Shia-Zeydis also live in the arid region of East Yemen. The wandering tribes of Shia Zeydis are the by-product of the different geography of the region. The tribe constitutes 35-40 per cent of the total population of the country. The Shafiite Sunnis are concentrated in south Yemen as well as in the coastal region of the country. They are predominantly urban dwellers and engage in agriculture, trade and fishing. Global interconnectedness maintained by the Shafiite Sunni Yemenis through trade via ports including the Aden Port has been a topic of research for a number of scholars, the prominent among them being the anthropologist Engseng Ho.

Notably the factor that gels and divides social groups in Yemen is not the state, but around 185 tribes. The state enters into agreements with these tribes. An all-powerful and all controlling state has never existed in Yemen. Moreover, the way even Saudi Arabia has relied more on the tribes there than the Yemeni state to enter into agreement and safeguard its internal politics. Fatah says that the Saudi government entered into many agreements with the Shia tribes on the southern borders of the country in view of peace and stability.

This dynamic in the productive forces and relationships in Yemen is not heard of in the media narratives on the country. Going by statistics, the state centred in Sana’a can be seen as a decayed institution without any power of influence in the life of Yemenis. The Human Development Index of UNDP locates Yemen 154th among 176 countries in its index on countries from rich to poor. The state is a failure in resolving social and economic problems. Given the autonomous tribes and their arms strength, the Yemeni state can be considered as merely a parallel institution in the country.

However, what has brought Yemen under the radar of global politics for many years? In the month of October in 2000 and 2002 respectively, the US, French-flagged oil tankers were attacked on the coast of Yemen, which made the region a fly in the ointment of global stakeholders. The George Bush government alleged at that time that Yemen is an entrepot of anti-US arms groups all the over the world. The fact that the safety and security of the Gulf of Aden where around 22,000 oil tankers are trafficked a year has disturbed the sleep of the Euro-American power centres should not be missed in the analyses. It was the time when the late Hussain Badruddin Houthi, the founder of Houth9 movement, stole the limelight on the Yemeni streets with the claim that the political unrest in the region was caused by the presence of the US in the country.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Shii Zeydi president who had ruled Yemen from 1978 to 2012, resigned in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. With the revolters not being able to form a strong democratic alternative, the country was led to internal schisms and turmoil. Too fractured a political fissure developed in the country to be resolved by a coordinated effort of the opposing groups consisting of Salafis, Ikhwanis and Shia groups. However these factions are gelled together by a strong anti-American sentiment. Fatah is of the view that anti-American graffiti reminiscent of the Iranian revolution can be seen all over the country. The advance of Houthis can be seen as a development of these political fissures.

Yemen is in search of a political future as all north African/west Asian countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt. There are lots of analytical and empirical drawbacks in restricting this welter of political fissures in Yemen into the Shia-Sunni dialectics. The political uncertainty in the country that contains several layers of political and social situations, however, reflects the global, national and local political developments.

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