The ancient land of Yemen bore the name of ‘Arabia Felix’, roughly translated as Arabia the happy, in view of its salubrious climate, fertile land and plentiful water. This turned out to be ironic, because Yemen’s history through much of the time since then is a sad chronicle of endless wars and conflicts between ruling contenders of different hues and persuasions, both Sunnis and Shias.
Ruled by different monarchies and fiefdoms, the region remained in perpetual turmoil for centuries. In the virtual absence of a state in Yemen, the British grabbed southern Yemen in 1839 as they needed coal, which the region had in plenty, for their steamships sailing between England and India. In 1962, the royalists of the Mutawwakilite monarchy formed a state in northern Yemen after the death of the last Zaidi Imam, Ahmed bin Yahya Al-Mutawakil, who had ruled the land till then.
They were supported by Saudi Arabia, Britain and Jordan. But the socialists, inspired and backed by then socialist Egypt, challenged the group in power, and a new civil war ensued.
The British left Aden in 1967, and a new state of South Yemen emerged. Efforts began for the unification of the north and the south, which finally succeeded in 1990, when the United Republic of Yemen was proclaimed with Ali Abdullah Saleh as president; Saleh was already heading the Sanaa government from earlier on.
He cleverly played Egypt against Saudi Arabia and held power till 2011, when he was forced to relinquish office as a result of an insurgency that had begun in 2004. He handed over the government to Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, his vice president, and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the Houthi insurgency against the Sanaa government which had begun in 2004, led by a dissident cleric, Hussein Badreddin al Houthi, head of the Zaidi Shia sect, became progressively bigger and consequently less and less controllable.
It eventually threatened the Mansur Hadi government directly, took over control of the airport and roads and stormed the presidential palace, forcing the president to seek refuge somewhere else, where he still languishes.
This process of grab of power by the Houthis began in January and large swathes of the country are now in Houthi hands, especially in the south and the west.
Interestingly, in the changing line-up of political forces in Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh now backs the Houthis, and opposes Mansur Hadi, once his own vice president, and is thus in the opposite camp from that of Saudi Arabia, where he had once sought refuge.
In analysing the present situation, it should be borne in mind that the Houthi uprising is one of a pattern that has marked Yemen’s history since forever. The issue in Yemen, besides being a power struggle, is also a sectarian conflict between the Sunni majority and the Shia minority, and therefore unlikely to end at any time in the future.
What is new in this situation is the larger sectarian divide that has emerged in the whole of the Muslim world – from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and beyond.
In this equation, the largely Sunni state of Saudi Arabia and the largely Shia state of Iran are at loggerheads. It is this factor that has brought the Yemen crisis to a bigger focus.
But it should be remembered that Yemen itself will continue to work out its sectarian dynamics in its own native fashion, irrespective of what is happening in the larger Middle East.
In this scenario, the Saudi decision to intervene militarily in Yemen is, to say the least, highly ill-advised, especially since there is no likelihood of any military threat to its territorial integrity.
Saudi Arabia as well as the other powers supporting it in this offensive – Turkey, Egypt, the GCC countries and the US behind them – all seem to be reacting to the anti-Shia reflex that they have developed in recent years. But Iran, Iraq and Syria will not countenance such a strong provocation and will rush to the support of the Houthis. Unfortunately, this battle will be fought on the already war-torn Yemen.
Pakistan should keep out of this impending sectarian conflagration for a number of reasons. In the first place, Pakistan has always remained neutral in intra-Arab and Arab/Ajam conflicts. It did not get involved in the Syrian conflict between the Bashaar al-Assad government and the rebels, and it remained neutral in the eight years long Iran-Iraq war. Even in the Yemen crisis, Pakistan initially avoided any commitment to the Saudi government.
Secondly, Pakistan has always been opposed to military intervention by one state against another. We opposed the then Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, American military interventions in Panama and Grenada and we have opposed foreign intervention in Syria. Thus we will be reversing a time-honoured principle of our foreign policy.
Third, we should look at this matter from the perspective of the region. Iran and even to some extent Afghanistan will see Pakistan’s joining what is in effect a Sunni coalition against a Shia uprising in Yemen, as a partisan act. We should avoid earning the ire of our two neighbours in the interest of regional harmony.
Finally, we need to ask ourselves whether we are indeed in a position to help either with troops or air power or anything else when our armed forces are fully engaged in our own internal security challenges as well those of a volatile eastern border. Internally it will further exacerbate the already tense Shia-Sunni divide that we are faced with.
Our contribution to dealing with the Yemen crisis should be to do what we have always done, seek a peaceful resolution of the political conflict, by persuading Saudi Arabia and its allies to make efforts towards that end.
The how and what can be worked out once the military recourse is eschewed. As for Yemen itself, I have a feeling that it will roll along, with or without fighting, as it has done for the last many millennia.
The writer is a former ambassador.