Another Arab Spring?
The war in Yemen could lead to another Arab uprising.
As in the Middle Eastern country of Yemen with the state having almost evaporated, sucking in neighbouring and regional Muslim states into the conflict, the Muslim world is facing yet another mega crisis of the 21st century after the September 9, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Militants belonging to the Houthi tribes, inhabiting the north of Yemen, have captured the Yemeni capital Sana’a while making strides towards another important city, Aden. Former President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi has fled the country to Saudi Arabia due to the advance of Houthi militants. As Houthis are predominantly Shiites, the northern neighbor of Yemen, Saudi Arab, with its Wahabist rulers, has started preemptive strikes on the Yemeni territory on the pretext that the civil war there poses a threat to its sovereignty and security. After a month of air-raids Saudi Arabia announced a halt to preemptive strikes but the declaration remained vague as Riyadh reportedly continued air
bombardment, however, on a reduced scale.
Saudi Arabia has cobbled a coalition of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to back Hadi and fight the Houthis. These countries include Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Saudi Arabia and its allies have blamed Iran for supporting the Houthi militants as part of its plan to establish hegemony in the region. Iran on the other hand charges Saudi Arabia with backing the unpopular Hadi regime for the only reason that the latter had made Yemen a dependency of Riyadh.
There are various political and economic reasons for the crisis in Yemen, including lack of good governance and existence of inflation, poverty and unemployment. The role of Saudi Arabia, Iran and other neighbouring and regional countries in stoking the conflict. Moreover, behind the scenes, Washington has also contributed to the exacerbating of conflict in Yemen but for reasons other than generally debated.
The very strong reaction which Saudi Arabia has demonstrated to the capturing of many parts of Yemen by the Houthi militants and their advancing towards the South is the large-scale apprehensions which the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud, has regarding the threat to its power base. Likewise, the ruling juntas of the neighbouring tiny Arab states also fear for their power base. These Arab-Gulf ruling families and oligarchies fear that disaffected elements within their absolutist and authoritarian regimes, including pro-democracy opposition groups as well as militant and terrorist outfits, would like to oust ruling dynasties once they have a success model in a neighbouring state like Yemen. It is important to note that the Houthi uprising in Yemen is not entirely sectarian in orientation as the tribes are supported by the Sunni followers of the former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
On its part Iran is trying to somehow bring Shiites in power in Yemen in the post-conflict constitutional arrangement whenever it is arrived at. This would put extreme pressure on Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran.
The Saudi-Iran rivalry in the Middle East and Gulf region is symptomatic of the centuries-old animosity between Arab and Persian cultures, which even predate Islam. This rivalry manifested very strongly during the Abbasid rule between the 8th and 13th centuries and afterwards during the Ottoman Empire, of which both Arabia and Persia were parts, from the 15th century onwards. In fact, this rivalry has roots in the claims of superiority by both sides and the struggle for power between them during the Muslim Empires and independently after the First World War, during which the Ottoman Empire practically vanished. In recent times in Iraq and Syria, Iran has supported the Shiite regime of the Alawite dynasty (Syria) and the Shiiteled Iraqi government. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have had supported Sunni political and militant groups in both Iraq and Syria.
The Yemen crisis is fundamentally the result of interaction of the internal factor of lack of good governance and the external factors of the fears of Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies and the Iranian wish of regional hegemony.
However, the role of the US in the latest Middle Eastern crisis cannot be ruled out. Like all conflicts in the Middle East or the rest of the Muslim countries, the crisis in Yemen is ‘made in USA’. Rational foreign policy of any country regarding another country or region is formulated keeping in view the latter’s dynamics and situation(s). With President Barack Obama at the helm of affairs in the US, he would like to resolve or fix the many conflicts of the Middle Eastern and Gulf region instead of leaving them to fester. Washington has the greatest stakes in international politics and hence conflicts and stability across the globe. There should therefore be an exhaustive analysis of the sources of conflict in the Middle East. There is no denying the fact that one of the biggest sources of conflicts in the region has been the authoritarian, dynastic regimes and their policies, which instead of serving the people’s interest are formed and pursued for the social, political and economic aggrandizement of dynasties and royal families.
These conflicts would be perennial unless the common people’s interests are not taken care of and given priority in policies of the states. This could only be ensured when representative or democratic system of governance could be set up in different states. In Arab countries, except Kuwait to a certain extent, there are no truly representative governments in place. Even in Iran the state only has a democratic façade as no true democratic regime exists there. So the US Democratic Party, which historically has been at the forefront of supporting democratic parties and governments across the world, would like to evoke democratic set ups in different dynastic regimes of the Arab-Gulf countries.
The US would initially like to see the crisis to escalate so that a new political order, that is constitutional and democratic in form, would emerge in Yemen as well as other Arab countries. Although the US is backing the GCC countries in their fight against the Houthis and other militant groups in Yemen, but this seemingly is a policy to push these countries deeper into the conflict so as to expose weaknesses of these states and regimes, in order to attract the democratic groups to exploit the situation and trigger another Arab Spring. Against this backdrop, US policy is sound and may bring relative stability in the final analysis.
Ironically, Muslim countries apart from Pakistan and Turkey, have failed to play any worthwhile role in resolving the Yemen crisis and reconciling the Arabs and Iranians. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) has completely failed to even discuss the issue or offer a solution. With such deep sectarian divisions among Muslims, it would be very difficult to bring them together to a negotiated settlement of the issue and related problems. Powers like the US must play their role to end the crisis.
An interesting situation emerged after the US-led west successfully brokered a nuclear deal with Iran recently. Under the deal Iran would prove that its nuclear programme is only for peaceful, civilian purposes and it would not develop centrifuges and would not indulge in weaponsgrade enrichment of nuclear material. However, the deal may not have an impact on Iran’s Middle East policy of supporting the Shiites, including the Houthi militants as it is a matter of the state’s cultural policy rather the very raison d’être of the Iranian state. On its part the West may also have no problems with the pro-Shiite Iranian policy and would like to use it as a check on the extremist Sunni regimes of the region.
Conflicts and crisis are becoming deeper in the Middle East and entire Muslim world. The Yemen crisis represents the situation. No adequate solution can be found unless a realistic analysis of the conflicts and crisis is done. It would show that undemocratic and unrepresentative regimes and their personal and family oriented policies are fundamentally responsible for different conflicts in the Middle East. How can the situation be rectified? The answer is an intellectual revolution in Muslim world.
The writer holds a doctoral degree in International Relations and is an expert on South Asian, Middle Eastern and Af-Pak regions.