John Gee, For The Straits Times

In Yemen, a cure worse than the illness

Boys fleeing Sanaa with their family and belongings, fearing renewed air strikes. The stage seems set for greater foreign military intervention.
Boys fleeing Sanaa with their family and belongings, fearing renewed air strikes. The stage seems set for greater foreign military intervention.PHOTO: REUTERS

In the past week, Saudi warplanes have bombed neighbouring Yemen and other countries have made great efforts to evacuate their nationals. The stage seems set for still greater foreign military intervention, and much of the international community seems to approve.

A little investigation of the facts on the ground would reveal how unwise they are to take this view. It comes about through making an old mistake - that of accommodating a local conflict with its own dynamics within a predetermined framework of analysis based on a broader international perspective. In this case, an internal Yemeni conflict is being lazily or deliberately subsumed into a reading of regional politics as characterised by Sunni versus Shi'ite rivalry, with an aggressive Iran as the Shi'ite puppet master.

The foreign intervention has been occasioned by the advance of fighters of the Ansar Allah movement, commonly called "Houthis", across northern Yemen and the flight of Yemeni president Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi to Saudi Arabia. Most Arab states have rallied round to declare their support for Mr Hadi and their determination to defeat the Houthis.

The Houthis are typically labelled "Iranian-backed", and their advance has been portrayed as part of an Iranian scheme to dominate the region through client forces. In fact, Yemen's crisis is very much its own and foreign meddling is likely to do far more damage than good.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian peninsula, but it has more rainfall than its neighbours and a large agricultural sector. Its geography did much to shape its character. Confined by desert to the north-east, it is bounded to the west and south by the Red Sea and Indian Ocean respectively. Southern traders, particularly from the Hadhramaut in eastern Yemen, travelled far and wide. Most of South-east Asia's Arab communities, including Singapore's, trace their ancestry to that region.

The northern interior is mountainous. Inaccessible to would-be conquerors and centralising governments alike, its people are mostly Zaydis (a branch of Shi'ite Islam quite distinct from Iranian Shi'ism). Before 1962, the ruler of north Yemen, titled the imam, was a Zaydi. The coastal areas and the south are predominantly Sunni. Tribal identities remain fairly strong in rural Yemen.

The British seized the southern port of Aden in 1839 and gradually took control of its hinterland all the way east to the Hadhramaut, leaving northern Yemen first in the hands of the Ottoman Turks and, later, independent under its imams. This contributed significantly to the different paths of development of north and south.

While much of southern Yemen remained poorly developed and socially conservative, Aden became a strategically important port, with an oil refinery and other industries, including Arabia's only brewery, since shut down. The National Liberation Front, which fought against British rule in the 1960s, drew most of its strength from Aden and its adjacent districts. It won independence in 1967 and declared the People's Republic of Southern Yemen.

Meanwhile, in the north in 1962, the imam was overthrown by nationalist army officers, who established the Yemen Arab Republic. A civil war between royalists and republicans began, with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt supporting the republic and, ironically in view of present events, the Saudis supporting the predominantly Zaydi royalists in the north. The war ended only after the Egyptians withdrew in 1967 and the Saudis dropped their support for the royalists.

The Saudi regime has always regarded the rest of the Arabian peninsula as its backyard and has assumed a right to intervene in its neighbours' affairs whenever it has detected a threat to its interests. Yemen has seemed particularly troublesome over the years, with its distinct identity and one of the larger populations in the peninsula, including many Shi'ites.

The Saudi government supported attempts to overthrow the radical regime in Aden.

When the two Yemeni states united on May 22, 1990, the former ruling parties agreed that united Yemen should be a democracy, with freedom of the press and contested elections, which is just how it was at first. Saudi Arabia treated this as a threat. It sponsored a conservative Islamist party called Islah (Reform), as well as institutions that sought to bring Sunnis and Zaydis alike to its own interpretation of Islam.

Barely was the new state established than the Iraqi seizure of Kuwait occurred. When Yemen refused to join the international coalition to throw the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia expelled some 700,000 Yemenis who worked there. The consequences were devastating, with a collapse in remittance income hitting many families and the state as a whole.

This exacerbated problems in achieving full unification. Members of the Yemeni Socialist Party, the former ruling party in the south, felt that President Ali Abdallah Salih and his General People's Congress (former ruling party in the north) were marginalising them. They were not the only ones. Discontent with what was perceived as northern rule reached such a level in southern Yemen that, around 2007, a Southern Movement with widespread support from almost all sectors of the population emerged. It called for separation from the north.

In 2011, a mass protest movement in the north condemning corruption and repression and demanding democratic change threatened the government. After months of protests and violent clashes in the capital, Sanaa, Mr Salih agreed to step down.

Saudi Arabia and the other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with broader (including United Nations) backing, supported a process of negotiations that resulted in the National Dialogue Conference that lasted from March 2013 to January last year. Members of the old regime, the established opposition parties (including Islah) and the Zaydi Hashid tribal confederation agreed to establish a transitional  government, headed by Mr Salih's deputy, Mr Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. This amounted to a reshuffling of roles within the elite.

Excluded from these arrangements were many of the people of various political persuasions who had protested on Sanaa's streets against the old regime, as well as the Houthis and the Southern Movement. The transitional government had no legitimacy for them, whatever its international or regional support and consequently, when the Houthis advanced into Sanaa last September, they faced little opposition. The old regime crumbled. Mr Hadi fled from Sanaa to Aden, and then from Aden to Saudi Arabia as the Houthis closed in. They were not fighting as Iranian proxies, but for their stake in a democratic and diverse Yemen.

In the regional context, the nature of the interventionist policy is evident. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has established a barbaric extreme fundamentalist regime in Syria and Iraq. It murders Shi'ites, Christians and Yazidis. Sunnis who dissent face extreme punishments and sometimes death. It has a savagely repressive policy towards women. It seeks to foment violence against all those who it sees as its enemies elsewhere.

In Yemen, a movement based within a community that had been marginalised in recent political talks has asserted itself through violence against the political leadership, but has not imposed a reign of terror in the areas it controls, killed those who hold different religious views or forced them to convert, nor has it set out to establish a dictatorship.

So which of these crises has merited the most vigorous response from Saudi Arabia and the majority of Arab states, with the sympathy of the West? Yemen's.

What Yemen now needs is the realisation of the aims of the 2011 reform movement and an acceptance that, if that does not yield the minimum conditions for unity demanded by the Southern Movement, an amicable divorce between north and south would be better than an unhappy marriage. External intervention aimed at returning Yemen to the previous status quo would, if successful, merely leave the country with a discredited government devoid of popular support and determined, simply for the sake of its own survival, to deny democratic freedoms to its citizens.

Weak central government had already allowed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain control of some areas. The restoration of a regime that was still weaker, coupled with the defeat of the Houthis, would probably leave a power vacuum into which that terrorist network could expand.

Intervention should be halted and a comprehensive national dialogue encouraged. A legitimate government emerging from that process would be in the best interests of Yemenis and the outside world alike.

The writer is a regular commentator on Middle East affairs.