Islamic History Podcast 4-2: Yemen And The Houthis

Islamic History Podcast 4-2: Yemen And The Houthis

On Saturday, September 20, 2014, the White House was evacuated when a man scaled the fence and tried to enter the residence. President Barack Obama and his family were not at home at the time and were never in danger.

Also on this date, Nicki Minaj’s song, Anaconda, was number one on the Billboards while the movie “The Maze Runner” opened to box office success.

Internationally, Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, went public with a $68 per share IPO, garnering the company over $230 billion in market value and making founder, Jack Ma, the richest man in China.

While all this was happening, Houthi militants began invading the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

Within two days, the Houthis controlled most of the city. They captured the Yemeni national television station and began broadcasting messages from their leader, Abdul Malik Badreddin al-Houthi.

This was the beginning of the current Yemeni crisis, now stretching into its fourth year. It has been called a Yemeni civil war, a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia.

To understand the crisis in Yemen, we must first look at its history, the major players, and the regional politics of the Middle East. It is a complicated story involving religious figures, global super powers, and rapidly changing alliances.

To understand this crisis, we must first understand the Houthis and their faith, the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam. And then we must also understand the recent political shifts that have led to the current situation.

Like many things in Islam, the story begins in Arabia over a thousand years ago.

The Zaydis

The Zaydi branch of Shia Islam is named after Zayd ibn Ali, the son of Zaynul Abideen. Zaynul Abideen was the son of Hussain ibn Ali, who was in turn the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Ali ibn Abi Talib was Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) cousin and one of his closest companions.

The Shia’tu Ali, or simply Shia, are a group of Muslims who believe a descendant of the Prophet’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, should have been the Caliph. The Shias have developed into a distinct Islamic sect, separate from the main body of Sunni Muslims.

The Zaydis, in turn, split off from the Shias because they felt Zayd ibn Ali should have been the next Shia Imam, after Zaynul Abideen.

Though they are technically Shia, Zaydi religious practices are very close to Sunni Muslims, and historically, there have been few clashes between them. In fact, some Sunni scholars refer to the Zaydis as the fifth madhhab, or school of thought.

Zaydism was brought to Yemen in the ninth century by a Zaydi scholar named al-Hadi ila’l-Haqq Yahya al-Rassi.

Yahya al-Rassi was born in Medina but later moved to Yemen to spread Zaydi Islam among the tribes living in its northern mountains.

At first, Yahya al-Rassi was unsuccessful. But over time, his popularity and fame in the north grew to the point where he was acknowledged as the Imam of the area. Yahya’s teachings would become the foundation of most Zaydi religious doctrine.

Yahya al-Rassi’s descendants would become something like royalty in northern Yemen and eventually established the Rassid Dynasty. This family would control the affairs of north Yemen for centuries.

The Modern Yemeni State

By the eighteenth century, Yemen was a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire. But the Ottomans were very weak by this time and had difficulty governing the troublesome tribes of the northern mountains.

When World War I ended, the Ottoman Empire was gone, the Caliphate was abolished, and Britain and France snatched up most of the Empire’s former territories.

Great Britain gained control of Yemen. But they faced strong resistance from a Zaydi Imam named Yahya Hamid ad-Din al-Mutawakkil.

Al-Mutawakkil spent much of his life fighting the British and the newly formed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Finally, in 1934, Britain recognized Al-Mutawakkil’s autonomy, and he became the king of northern Yemen. The rest of Yemen remained under the control of various British-approved Arab leaders.

In 1962, a civil war toppled the Mutawakkil family and north Yemen was reorganized as the Yemen Arab Republic. That same year, the British withdrew from South Yemen, granting it full independence. The power vacuum was filled by the Soviet Union.

For the next twenty-three years, there were several conflicts in both Yemens. There were wars fought between the Yemen Arab Republic, supported by Saudi Arabia and the British, and South Yemen, supported by the Soviets. There were also many wars fought within South Yemen as different factions vied for control.

Throughout all of this, there was always the hope that the two nations could one day join and form one, united Yemen. And in 1990, that hope was finally realized.

With the Soviet Union collapsing, and the discovery of oil in both north and south Yemen, both nations felt they were stronger together. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, became the first president of a unified Republic of Yemen.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was a Zaydi from a village just south of Sanaa. He was a smooth, polished politician who knew how to play different groups against each other. His speeches were delivered with passion and authority and carefully chosen words.

In 1991, the United States, with the help of Saudi Arabia, formed a global coalition to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to support this coalition earning the ire of both the US and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia responded by cutting diplomatic ties with Yemen and expelling thousands of Yemeni workers. Saudi Arabia was Yemen’s main trading partner, and with so many men out of work, discontent began to rise in Yemen.

In 1992, a young Zaydi man named Hussein Badreddin started a social group called Ansar Allah. Ansar Allah promoted Zaydi religious education and unity focusing on things like physical fitness and good character. With Saudi sanctions wreaking havoc and little work to be found, Ansar Allah attracted many young Yemenis.

In 1994, war broke out again in Yemen as Saudi-supported communists in the south tried to form their own government. Yemen was full of veterans from the Soviet-Afghan war who were eager to fight communists again. President Ali Abdullah Saleh unleashed them on the south and the rebels were crushed.

The Minister of Defense, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, played a key role in President Saleh’s victory over the communists. As a reward, Saleh promoted him to vice-president. Together, they would govern Yemen for the next eighteen years.

Demographics and Economy

The population of Yemen is 40% Zaydi Muslim with the rest mostly Sunni. There are small pockets of other Shia branches including Ismailis and Twelvers. There are less than twenty-thousand Christians in Yemen and barely a hundred Jews.

Despite being a minority, Zaydis have always played a significant role in Yemeni politics. Historically, there has been little internal strife between Sunnis and Zaydis in Yemen. This may be due to the fact that their religious law is very similar and softens the divide that otherwise separates Sunnis and Shias.

Most Zaydis live in what is considered northern Yemen, in Saada province, just south of Saudi Arabia. Much of what is considered southern Yemen is bare, uninhabited desert. As such, most of Yemen’s wealth is generated in the north as well. The main economic engine in the south is the port city of Aden.

The capital, Sanaa, is one of the oldest cities in the world and has always been the seat of Yemen’s power structure. Even during the era of the Islamic Caliphate, the governor ruled from Sanaa.

But Yemen’s demographic complexities are not limited to north and south or Sunni and Zaydi.

There is also an educated, secular populace, situated mostly in the three largest cities of Sanaa, Aden, and Taiz.

There is a strong Socialist party in the south, a holdover from the days when South Yemen was aligned with the Soviet Union.

There is also a religious-political group called Al-Islah, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood is banned within Saudi Arabia, the kingdom has supported Al-Islah on various occasions.

And interwoven among all of this are innumerable tribal loyalties and alliances.

Unlike their wealthy northern neighbor, Yemen is a very poor country. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and the poorest nation on the Arabian Peninsula.

Most of its income comes from oil which Yemen does not have much of. This has increased Yemen’s reliance on Saudi Arabia for protection and foreign aid.

That aid dried up in 1991 when President Saleh refused to support the first Gulf War. However, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Yemen became a partner in the war on terrorism. The United States gave Yemen billions of dollars in military and financial aid and encouraged Saudi Arabia to reestablish diplomatic relations.

The War on Terrorism

In October 2000, two men on a rubber raft filled with explosives blew a hole into the side of the USS Cole, an American naval destroyer, killing seventeen sailors. The ship had stopped to refuel at the Port of Aden in the south.

The United States launched an investigation and determined Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack. The US did not respond militarily and instead, tried working with the Yemeni government to apprehend those responsible.

When the war on terror began the following year after the 9/11 attacks, President Saleh made sure Yemen supported the US this time. With funding and support from the US and Saudi Arabia, President Saleh nearly wiped out the Yemeni branch of Al-Qaeda within a year.

Meanwhile, the FBI had become interested in an American Imam of Yemeni descent by the name of Anwar al-Awlaki. His lectures about early Islamic history and stories from the Quran appealed to young Muslims living in the West. More troubling was his implicit support of suicide attacks.

As the pressure from the FBI increased, Anwar al-Awlaki left the United States and moved first to the UK, and then relocated to eastern Yemen.

Yemen’s involvement in the war on terrorism was not popular with most Yemenis. This discontent increased when President Saleh supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As a result, Hussein Badreddin’s Ansar Allah movement became more politically active. Ansar Allah not only disapproved of Yemen’s involvement in the war, they also resented Saudi Arabia’s constant meddling, and felt the government was neglecting the Zaydi population.

Show Notes

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