Aijaz Zaka Syed

Playing with fire in Yemen

Yemeni supporters of the separatist Southern Movement, loyal to the government forces, at the western outskirts of Aden during reported clashes with Shiite rebels on April 7, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Yemeni supporters of the separatist Southern Movement, loyal to the government forces, at the western outskirts of Aden during reported clashes with Shiite rebels on April 7, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

THE fabled Queen of Sheba, Bilquis in Arabic, features prominently in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures. The Queen went to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones", as the First Book of Kings notes in the Bible. "Never again came such an abundance of spices" as those which she gave to Solomon, says the Second Book of Chronicles.

In the Quran, there is a whole chapter, Saba, dedicated to the legendary Queen, who reigned supreme over a powerful, rich empire that stretched from southern Arabia to Abyssinia.

Given the violent chaos Yemen is battling today, it is hard to imagine that this is the same land whose incredible riches and prosperity were the stuff of legends in Solomon's time.

Yemen has, of course, been in free fall for some time. But it has never been this bad with everyone fighting everyone else.

Indeed, it is not just Yemen.

For the first time in its history, the Middle East is fighting four major wars all at the same time. After Iraq, Syria and Libya, it seems it is now Yemen's turn to unravel. In addition, there are five other low-intensity conflicts in Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan and Lebanon that one way or the other are part of strife plaguing the Muslim world.

Not far from the neighbourhood is the long-simmering Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict.

How did Yemen end up as the latest theatre of war - and tussle between Arab states and the West on one side and Iran, Iraq, Syria and Russia on the other? And who stands to gain as more and more countries are drawn into this dangerous conflict?

Yemen is paying the price for the shenanigans of regional and world powers, and the hubris and selfishness of leaders like former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. After enjoying 33 years of absolute, unquestioned power, Mr Saleh had to be dragged - kicking and screaming - out of power in 2011 following a national reconciliation accord facilitated by Arab states and the United Nations. There had been so much hope and euphoria when the Arab nation held its first free election in 2012, choosing President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi as Mr Saleh's successor.

However, an out-of-power Mr Saleh proved more disastrous for Yemen, perpetually plotting against his successor. In his desperation, he has joined hands with the Houthis, who for years fought his rule. A Shi'ite minority, the Houthis are seen as Shi'ite Iran's "proxies" in a largely Sunni Arab nation. So what if Yemen is destroyed in the process?

The ageing potentate and his progeny must rule until kingdom come, even if they have to kill their way to power. The lust for power, like bloodlust, never seems to end.

So what is unfolding in Yemen and the rest of the Middle East is nothing but an old-fashioned struggle for power and hegemony. It is inconceivable that the Houthis could have captured nearly the entire country without the collusion of Mr Saleh and the blessings of Iran's ayatollahs.

It is even more unimaginable that Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region would have stood around and stared as Iran or an Iran-backed regime planted itself deep in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.

If Saudi Arabia, Yemen's usually cautious big neighbour and leader of the Arab world, for the first time in its history has taken the extraordinary step of sending fighter jets to bomb targets in a neighbouring Arab country, it has evidently plenty of reasons to do so.

By capturing Yemen and its institutions, and unseating President Hadi, the Houthis and their patrons crossed several red lines as far as Gulf Arabs are concerned. Yemen is considered the heart of old Arabia and a pro-Iran regime in Sanaa is thus unimaginable for most Arabs.

Already alarmed by Iran's increasing clout and involvement in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, the Arabs have been jolted out of their stupor by the Houthis' ascent. It has brought Iranians right to the Saudi doorstep, putting them on a direct collision course with their Gulf neighbours.

Given their long and porous border, and the historically close and symbiotic relationship that the Saudis have shared with Yemen, the alarm in Riyadh and the Gulf capitals, with the Persians at their gates, is understandable.

The United States-Iran nuclear deal this week and the vanishing distance between Teheran and Washington have not helped. With America warming up to the Persians, Arabs see the geopolitical equations shifting.

The Saudi campaign has not elicited unequivocal support of Arab allies and the West, of course. It would, however, be dangerously simplistic to cast this conflict in binary, Arab-Iran or Shi'ite-Sunni, terms. But unless efforts are made to find a swift, peaceful resolution to the Yemen conflict, it risks turning into one spilling across the region.

Riyadh apparently knows this and has called for dialogue involving all parties in Yemen. This is the only way forward. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation leadership, which pleaded for Islamic unity at the Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on March 29, could help bring all stakeholders, including Iran, together for lasting peace in the region.

Iran, or for that matter any other country, would win itself no friends if its policies and actions inflame an already volatile region.

The Muslim world has never been more divided. From Africa to Arab Maghreb and from the Gulf to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is up in flames, with all its time, energy and resources being squandered in firefighting. The Palestinian question has receded into the background.

It is in the interest of both Iran and Arabs to put out this blaze in Yemen. There will be Armageddon if this conflict is allowed to get out of hand. Teheran would do well to address the concerns of Arab neighbours and win their trust and confidence. Such an engagement will not only heal the rift in Yemen, it could stabilise Iraq and Syria as well.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.