By Dr.Ali Ahmed Aldailmi
For the Yemen Post
Yemen is a country with very similar numbers of Sunni and Shia Muslims. From a religious point of view, a key consideration is the increasing risk of regional escalation with the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict. Iran has played this game allowing others to exaggerate its regional power and military reach. When Saudi Arabia started to echo Yemeni complaints of Iranian intervention, while Iran’s involvement remains a matter of speculation, Saudi Arabia’s is much more real. Indeed, it has numerous reasons for concern: Iran’s growing clout in the region; the development of a Shia movement in Yemen; the import of a Shia –Sunni civil war into Saudi Arabia; and wider border instabilities.
So when the Arab Spring began to sweep through the region, Islamist parties could make a case that they were the only credible alternatives to authoritarian power. This image, combined with access to foreign funds mostly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, give the Islamists an advantage in the ensuing elections. Welcome to the age of "political Islam", which may prove to be one of the most lasting legacies In Yemen, and it seems likely that political Islam will define the shape of the new landscape. Whatever comes next in country’s political trajectory, there is little doubt Yemen will be heavily influenced by Islamist politics. However, there are Islamist ideologies in the country are incredibly diverse and complex.
To simplify, There are five main Islamist movements in the country:
Islah Party: Islah encompasses a broad range of Islamists, from moderates, such as Ali Ashal, to more conservative voices, such as Sheikh Zindani, who has strong connections to tribal elites. The party, which has styled itself as a pseudo-Muslim Brotherhood, remains an ambiguous yet pertinent force in Yemeni politics. The movement has, however, lost some support and legitimacy because of its controversial role in the protests, including its attempts to hijack the protest movement and allegations that Islah members have been manning detention centres to stop people from protesting the GCC initiative.
Quietist Salafist Movement: The quietest Salafist movement has shied away from politics, believing that the only legitimate form of government is rule by God.
Activist Salafists: The Arab Spring has seemed to inspire a growing movement of ‘Activist Salafists’ who have broken from Salafisms’ traditional apolitical stance to embrace party politics, albeit tentatively. Similar to the Al-Nour party in Egypt, some of these Yemeni Salafists have warmed to the idea of participating in elections.
Zaydi Revivalist: commonly associated with the Al-Houthi rebellion in the northern governorate of Sa’ada, the Shi’a Zaydi revivalists gained control of the region following the government’s collapse last year. Since their decision to form a political party, known as the Al-Umma party, the movement has undergone tremendous changes, signalling its desire to move beyond the single-issue politics of Sa’ada and gain ground in other parts of the country.
Jihadis: Yemen’s jihadists are incredibly diverse. The pro-democracy protests in Yemen have created a severe legitimacy crisis for old school jihadists. While the army’s fragmentation has allowed jihadists, some of whom align with Al-Qaeda, to seize control of villages, this has forced the jihadists to move beyond the rhetoric of jihad and focus on local and practical problems.
Like the Zaydi revivalists, the Sunni jihadists will have to undergo a significant transformation, the success of which will largely depend on their ability to cater to local demands and address popular grievances on issues such as infrastructure, security and justice. Because of that, I think the future of Yemen will be predominately of sectarian concerns.
Saudi Arabia’s current concern regarding Yemen centers not on the future of Yemen’s authoritarian power capabilities but on the al Houthi rebels in the north, who have wasted little time in exploiting Sanaa’s distractions to expand their territorial claims in Saada province. The Houthis belong to the Zaydi sect, considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam and heretical by Wahhabi standards. Riyadh fears Houthi unrest in Yemen’s north could stir unrest in Saudi Arabia’s southern provinces of Najran and Jizan, which are home to the Ismailis, also an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Ismaili unrest in the south could then embolden Shia in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, who have already been engaged in demonstrations, albeit small ones, against the Saudi monarchy with heavy Iranian encouragement.
So, what are the prospects for the improvement of the security situation in Yemen and what is the role played by the Islamist parties in yet another Arab spring country which Yemen obviously is?
One of the things that needs to be taken into consideration is perhaps the role of western and regional actors because we have to remember that given the internal politics of Yemen. Sunni separatists in the south have strong sectarian links with Saudi Arabian, the north has the same connection with Iran and understands the situation in the region.
Its extremely problematic when we start looking at what the situation is on the ground and how it will develop in terms of regional politics.
For that I think there will be a Saudi Iranian war in Yemen, and I hope I am wrong.