“What the hell is happening in Yemen?” is now one of the most urgent geopolitical questions in the Middle East. Sadly, few people are qualified or knowledgeable enough to answer this pressing question. Most experts agree that most experts can’t give you a straight answer. The reality is Yemen is a complex place that is very hard to understand for outsiders, and even more so for insiders. Indeed, most of the people asking what is happening in Yemen are Yemenis themselves.
Now I am not an expert on Yemen. But being Lebanese, I am an expert on not knowing what is happening in my country, which gives me valuable insight into the situation in Yemen. I have therefore compiled this essential primer for understanding the current conflict in Yemen and what will happen there next. (Experts also agree that anything is possible there next, which narrows things down.)
The first thing to understand is that Yemen is an ancient land, as Yemenis themselves always remind you. It is thought that Yemen’s existence can be traced back to the Earth’s creation, and there’s strong evidence to suggest that it was the location of the Garden of Eden because Eden and Aden, Yemen’s port city, sound a bit similar, especially in English.
Yemen was divided into two states, North Yemen and South Yemen, until 1990, when leaders in both countries realized they could merge the states and save on stationery costs. This, however, created deep resentments, much like when a couple move in together and have to consolidate their belongings and get used to sleeping in the same room with someone who insists on keeping the windows open even in winter. But I digress.
These deep resentments have simmered and boiled for the past 25 years, as deep resentments have a habit of doing. It is not improper to suggest that re-dividing the country is a possibility now, particularly when such statements are caveated with ambiguous references. For example, one can say: “The south might push for independence, unless it decides not to.”
Yemen is not religiously homogenous, which always complicates things in Middle Eastern countries, particularly for external observers looking for convenient categorizations. About two-thirds of Yemenis are Sunni while the other third are Shiite. This latter group consists of Zaidi Shiites as opposed to the Shiites of Iran, who are Twelver. But it’s best to lump all these Shiites together because it simplifies things immensely.
Yemen is also host to a thriving al-Qaeda community, whose members are arch-rivals of the Houthis, whose biggest enemy is the current Yemeni president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Houthis are allied with Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was their enemy while he was in power. Some analysts think the Houthis have an issue with authority figures. The Houthis are Zaidi Shiites, which explains their hatred of the extremely Sunni al-Qaeda, as if anyone needed a reason to hate al-Qaeda. The two groups are so opposed to each other that the only thing they can agree on is that they both hate America and the Jews, but not necessarily in that order.
The Houthis’ slogan, incidentally, is “Death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam,” which, in the words of Tony Blair, shows “a lack of commitment to the values of tolerance and diversity,” if Tony Blair were to comment on the slogan. It also shows that they are fools, but this shouldn’t cloud our judgment of them.
As is generally known, Yemenis consume the stimulant drug Qat in huge quantities. What is less known is that Sunnis refer to it as Qat while Shiites refer to it as Qit. Children of mixed marriages call it Qit-Qat—an encouraging development amid festering sectarian tensions.
The traditional Yemeni dagger, the janbiya, is also critical to understanding political dynamics in Yemen. All Yemeni males wear this item, but here again Sunni janbiyas curve to the left while Shiite janbiyas curve to the right. Things get confusing if you’re standing in front of a mirror. The leader of the Houthis has been known to hold his janbiya in the upright position, which experts agree is a sign of confrontation (the dagger being a phallic symbol in Yemeni culture). Were he to wear the janbiya at an angle, or even horizontally, we could expect him to negotiate. As it stands, the situation looks very dangerous indeed.
The one thing we can be certain of is that Yemen is at a crossroads. And that crossroads has become a chaotic intersection with no traffic lights now that Iran and Saudi Arabia have chosen Yemen as the next venue for their passive-aggressive regional contest, commonly referred to in the trade as a proxy war. Saudi Arabia is on Hadi’s side while Iran supports the Houthis. But Saudi Arabia now also feels threatened by al-Qaeda. Who doesn’t?
In light of all this, the new leadership in Saudi Arabia has decided to wage war in Yemen (make sure to refer to Saudi Arabia’s “new leadership,” not its “new king,” to imply that there are many people involved in making such decisions). There’s no better way to help small nations get through difficult times in the Middle East than larger, more powerful neighbors attacking them. Few are aware that bombing and invading a country is a sign of paternal love in Arab culture, as Syria clearly illustrated by going out of its way to bomb Lebanon for a decade and a half. Similarly moved, Saudi Arabia is doing Yemen a favor by destroying its airports, infrastructure, and army.
Fortunately, Saudi Arabia has avoided appearances that its war is sectarian by getting other Sunni countries to help it attack Yemen. If this move seems to prove the opposite, that’s because appearances are always deceiving in the Middle East. To further prove that this war isn’t sectarian, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah, immediately took the side of the Houthis against Sunni Saudi Arabia. The United States, meanwhile, is supporting the Saudis against the Houthis and finds itself indirectly on the side of al-Qaeda in Yemen. While this is embarrassing given the whole War on Terror narrative and America’s ongoing drone strikes on al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, it will make for a more interesting next season of Homeland. Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of this situation to expand its presence in Yemen, and recently acquired an airport. Though this might sound worrying, it does bring with it the satisfaction of knowing that al-Qaeda now has to worry about airport security.
To sound wise when discussing Yemen, suggest that the decline in the price of oil has something to do with the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but say you’re not quite sure what. Obviously, “the new Saudi leadership wants to send a clear signal about its policy shift, something which is already becoming apparent in Syria.” Hinting at convoluted webs of interconnected conflicts and alliances will make you sound like an expert. Follow all this up by dangling the prospect of a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, which would no doubt have “an impact on the entire region.”
So what will happen next in Yemen? Secession is highly likely, but it’s also a distant possibility. Paradoxes are essential to understanding a land of contradictions like Yemen. It’s not inappropriate to use a metaphor about the shifting sands of the Middle East and the rearrangement of geopolitical relationships. Reflect soberly on sightings of Iran’s notorious and shadowy General Qasem Soleimani in the region, and don’t hesitate to nod your head knowingly and say “Bandar” when the conversation turns to Saudi Arabia. And keep an eye on those janbiyas.