If you have been paying attention – and even if you have not – by now you know that something is going on in Yemen. You have heard about the “Houthis” – that is, a group of Shi’a, who have named themselves after a leader of one of their tribes, and who live in the northern part of Yemen, where they constitute a majority of the population. They also perhaps constitute as much as 40% of the total Yemeni population. And you know that these Shi’a are not quite like the Shi’a of iran, but nonetheless, they are Shi’a, and so, to the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, they are considered to be nearly Infidels.
That didn’t keep the Saudis, more than forty years ago, from supporting tribes, including “Zaidi” or Shi’a tribes, in the north of Yemen, against the dangerously “Marxist” southerners of Yemen. But that word “marxist” is treacherous. As J. B. Kelly has written, the casual application of the word “Marxist” in the context of an Arab Muslim country is misleading, for beneath that “Marxism” is Islam. The dictatorship of the proletariat, and the collective ownership of the means of production, is not exactly on the minds of Muslim tribesmen; “Marxism” has been a phrase used by one set of would-be seizers of the national wealth against whatever prior seizers of the national wealth are currently in power.
Yes, in the mid-1960s Yemen, a country that contains a larger population than its immediate northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, was the site of what so many are content to call a “proxy war” between Nasserist Egypt (representing not so much the “Marxists” – as the American State Department appeared to think, as those who were less fanatical, and slightly more secular, in their reception of Islam) and Saudi Arabia, said to be backing people called “the Royalists.” That proxy war in Yemen has no significance whatsoever save that it helped to occupy and preoccupy Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and to weaken the forces of both – an outcome that should be remembered as we try to think about Yemen today.
And in the Yemen today there is not one conflict, as much of the coverage seems to imply, but two. The one that gets all the attention is that in the north, because now at long last, everyone and his brother has finally realized that the Shi’a and the Sunnis do not exactly get along, anywhere. And having grasped at least that – which if it had been thoroughly understand five or six years ago, might have made the goals in Iraq different from what they turned out, impossibly, to be, and we would have left many years earlier, once the inevitable transfer of power from Sunni Arab to Shi’a Arab had taken place. But, in making up for their previous ignorance, many have chosen to see, a bit carelessly, the conflict in Yemen, or at least in north Yemen, as one simply of Shi’a and Sunni. But it is not. It is also a struggle of those who have rightly sensed that they do not share in the nation’s wealth, the nation’s power, as do others. And those people most aware of this appear to be the Zaidis, or as they now style themselves, the Houthis. The President of Yemen himself is a Zaidi. He understands that the battle against his government is that of wanting a greater share of money and power, but as everywhere in Muslim-dominated lands, religion will color and come to define a conflict. Just as a despotic and corrupt ruler cannot be opposed for being despotic and corrupt, but only for being a bad Muslim, for being a friend of Infidels and thus practically an infidel himself, so a war for money and power, conducted by Shi’a, in a country where the Shi’a ruled for centuries and now rule no longer, is likely as time goes by to take on a Shi’a against Sunni cast.
And the Islamic Republic of Iran has been supporting the Shi’a Hizballah in Lebanon, has been supporting the Shi’a Arabs In Iraq, has managed to make the Alawite rulers of Syria come closer to Iran, partly because the Iranian clerics are wiling to consider the Alawites (who rule Syria despite being only 12% of the population) as full-fledged Muslims, a judgment or endorsement that is important to the Alawites, since they are forever threatened by the real Muslims, the Sunni Muslims, who make up more than 70% of Syria’s population. Whether Iran has actually been sending shiploads of weapons or not is unimportant. The conspiracy theories and hysteria that come so easily to Muslim rulers and ruled alike, make it hard for the Saudis not to believe that something is up. Their behavior now has been such as possibly to intrigue the plotters in Teheran, to make them feel that perhaps, for a little investment, they might make trouble for their enemy Saudi Arabia, the country where Shi’a are treated, by some, and regarded, by many, as not only Infidels but even worse than the normal run-of-the-mill Infidels.
There is another, different, smaller conflict. And it is in the south of Yemen, and is centered on the area that was once a separate state, supposedly full of “Marxists,” – the state that we associate with Aden and Aden town. Shades of Mad Mike Hoare and Sir Humphrey Trevelyan. That conflict is important only insofar as it shows what difficulty the government of Yemen may have in holding the country together. As with the north, the revolt in the south is about the distribution of wealth and power. In the Muslim Arab countries, wealth and power come not from economic activity, as we understand that, but rather from control of the government (and the military), and then seizure or diversion of much of the national revenues to the favored family or group or tribe. Think of Saddam Hussein and his Tikrit band, of the Assad dynasty, of the Mubarak soon-to-be dynasty and the stratokleptocrats at the pharaonic court, think of Qaddafi, soon to be succeeded by Saif Qaddafi, think of the FLN generals ruling Algeria, of the Al-Maktoum, of the Al-Sabah, the Al-Nayyan, and above all of the tens of thousands, by now, of princes and princelings and princelettes, all daggers and dishdashas and sneers of cold command, of the rapacious family of the Al Saud. That is what is going on in Yemen. In the north it has another dimension, one that perhaps will grow, of a religious conflict, for part of the reason the dominant Sunnis in Yemen do not give the Zaidis (or Houthis) their due is because, precisely, that they are not Sunnis but despised Shi’a, Arabs.
What should be our reaction to all of this? The answer: Not much. We should take pleasure in the spectacle of warfare, in any Muslim land, warfare that takes up the attention of the locals, and uses up not only their resources, but also, one hopes, the resources of their neighbors. The Saudis are right to be worried. For Yemen is not only more populous, but the border is impossible to defend (the Saudis are planning to spend many tens of billions on a fence, so frightened are they). The Yemenis, unlike the pampered Saudis, are akin to the Afghans in being naturally warlike, living as they do in a Hobbesian state (and in Yemen, itself a Hobbesian state). They are much tougher than the Saudis who have become soft, since they rode out of the Hejaz and defeated the Shammar tribe in 1920, now well-used to relying on blue-eyed mercenaries, Infidels, for their ultimate survival.
Of course the Saudis have airplanes, and are perfectly willing to bomb, mercilessly, civilian villages, and have done so, killing how many hundreds we do not know. No one cares. No outrage from the U.N. That is all perfectly predictable. For Saudi Arabia can get away with this, even though exactly one Saudi soldier had been killed, while Israel, that endured years of rockets shot into Israel’s villages and cities, was furiously and is still furiously denounced for actions far less indiscriminate than the bombings that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in. And note that the Saudis say they will establish a zone, within Yemen, a buffer zone that is not to be inhabited, and that will be 10 kilometers deep. Ten kilometers – why, that’s just a little under 8 miles, and 8 miles is the width of Israel in the 1949 armistice lines to which some, including our immoral and ignorant government, are attempting once again to squeeze the Jews of Israel into – the wasp-waist that goes from Qalqilya to the sea is merely 8 miles, about the width of that buffer zone that Saudi Arabia is now imposing.
Oh, let them impose the buffer zone. Let the Iranians deliver weapons, including missiles to shoot down Saudi planes. Let Saudi planes be shot down. Let Saudi Arabia, with its waddling princes and its unmerited trillions, and its absurd pretensions – a primitive society based entirely on oil revenues, and on the work of foreign, chiefly Infidel, wage-slaves – be occupied with that. The Western world should show no great interest in helping Saudi Arabia. It should be secretly delighted with each day’s news, the news that brings word not of Infidel casualties, but of Muslim casualties, inflicted by other Muslims. And the showdown in Iraq, that is surely coming, between Sunni Arabs (who will never accept their new, inferior status) and the Shi’a Arabs (who will never yield any of the power they have now acquired thanks to the deposing of Saddam Hussein by the Americans) is likely only to exacerbate Shi’a-Sunni tensions and war in the Yemen.
No one was paying much attention, back in the 1960s, to the war in Yemen. I did, because for a short time, in Madrid, I shared living quarters with a most unsavory Belgian who ran guns to the “Royalists” and was as big a crook as you can imagine. But it was, from the viewpoint of Infidels, a good war. It was not as good a war as the eight-year war that took up the attention of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and caused both sides to expend men, money, materiel for eight wonderful years. And if this new war continues, and does not exhaust itself soon, with too decisive a victory over the Houthis, no one in our world, in Dar al-Harb, should worry about this, or think things should be done to stop it. Let it go on. Let it go on, forever.