In the remote south-west of the Arabian peninsula, some 5,000 people have died over the past five years in one of the world’s least known wars. Virtually all the fighting has been in the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen, but now the region’s richest nation, Saudi Arabia, has joined the fray and Al‑Qaeda is circling the chaos eager to exploit any opportunities that might come its way.


Ironically known as ‘Arabia Felix’, Arabia’s ‘land of happiness’, Yemen has been hard hit by the war and other misfortunes. It’s a story, spanning at least 1,500 years, that involves everything from early Islamic politics and the Ottoman empire to Arab nationalism and the Cold War.

The present conflict is being fought between tribal rebels (associated with a Shia Muslim sect and allegedly supported by elements in Shia Iran) and two governments (military-dominated Yemenis and the deeply religious Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabians). In part, the war
mirrors the schism that has divided Islam almost since its inception.

More than 13 centuries ago, the Muslim world split over who should rule it. Should the rulers of Islam – the Caliphs – be direct descendents of Muhammad or could they come from other tribally-related backgrounds? The Shia, who have always been the minority denomination in Islam, took the former view, while the majority group, the Sunnis, took the latter.

The majority Sunnis became the establishment throughout most of the Islamic world –
and, as so often in history, many of their rulers (the Caliphs) turned out to be oppressive despots – a fact that allowed some Shia leaders to position themselves not only as Muhammad’s descendents but also as opponents of tyranny.
Some Shia sects began life as revolutionary movements – not least the one that ultimately established itself in Yemen, a politico-religious system known as Zaidism.

More like this

Multiple rebellions

Named after a Shia scholar who rebelled against a particularly despotic caliph in AD 740, traditional Zaidism maintained that a Zaidi leader – an imam (who must be a descendant of Muhammad) – could ‘elect’ himself, so to speak, by carrying out two specific actions: calling the populace to arms and then leading them against tyranny and oppression.

One such dissident was a ninth-century descendant of the prophet Muhammad called Yahya who, in AD 893, was invited to sort out an inter-tribal conflict in Yemen and used the opportunity to establish a Zaidi state there under his leadership.

The circumstances which allowed him to do this were complex. Obviously his genealogical status conferred great authority, but there were other factors at play too. One was the fact that the Muslim world was in chaos, with a weak Caliphate facing multiple rebellions.

Another was that Yemenis would have warmed to Yahya because there were ancient links with Yemeni-originating groups in his home town, Medina – Islam’s second holiest city.
Another factor in Yahya’s favour was the probable long-standing ethnic links between Yemen and the only pre-existing Zaidi state, Tabaristan in northern Iran. (A segment of Yemen’s population originally arrived in the country several centuries earlier as an invading Persian army). What’s more, there was a tradition that Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, a figure revered by Zaidis and other Shias, had originally been responsible for converting Yemen to Islam.

For all these reasons, Yahya was successful in establishing a religious state, dedicated to
Zaidism, and which totally rejected the authority of the Sunni Caliphate, based in Baghdad.
Soon the original Zaidi state in northern Iran collapsed – and Yemen became the only Zaidi base left in the world.

Ottoman occupation

In Yemen, a succession of Zaidi states (ruled by their own imams) rose and fell. In the late 16th, early 17th and late 19th centuries, Ottoman occupations of Yemen allowed the Zaidi rulers to become nationalist leaders, fighting foreign occupation. Northern Yemen was never colonised by a western power – and the Ottoman occupations were incomplete and temporary.

Thus, the imamate remained extremely conservative. Then, in the 1920s, it became a hereditary monarchy – a development that provoked a reformist and then republican political response. There were unsuccessful revolts in 1948 (when the imam was assassinated) and 1955 – but the imamate system was overthrown in an army coup in 1962. A bitter eight-year civil war between Saudi, UK and US-backed royalists and Egyptian-backed republicans then followed, costing at least 100,000 lives.

Some of today’s rebels are, no doubt, the sons and grandsons of the Zaidi royalists who lost the 1962–70 civil war. Republican distaste for their traditional political culture, their religious affinity with the ancien regime and their frequent unwillingness to obey central government has produced a situation in which some of the more traditional Zaidi tribes (once top dogs in Yemen) now see themselves as marginalised by an increasingly Sunni-influenced and ‘de-Zaidicised’ state. But significantly, extreme Sunni groups (including Al‑Qaeda allies and franchisees in Yemen) see the conflict between the republican government and Zaidi Shia rebels as an opportunity to wade in, unofficially, on the government’s side.

Counterbalance to communists

Some elements close to the Yemeni state, which is officially allied to the west in the War on
Terror, do not want to excessively persecute Yemen’s pro-Al‑Qaeda sympathisers because they have traditionally seen them as a counterbalance to the communist left. Although there is no current communist threat, many extant political attitudes in Yemen were forged at a time when there most certainly was.

During the Cold War (when Yemen was two countries – North and South), North Yemen faced multiple threats from the far left. In 1967, the left took control of South Yemen (which had been a British colony/protectorate for more than a century). Two years later, the South lurched further left and allied itself with the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. The Soviet bloc took over the military training of the South Yemen army – and the South Yemen capital, Aden, became a Soviet naval base. Then in the 1970s, the South – the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen – began arming and funding leftist rebels in North Yemen.

Despite this military build-up, peaceful relations were temporarily established, and in 1990 North and South were, for the first time in 300 years, reunited as one country. But four years later, southern leftists tried unsuccessfully to secede in a North/South civil war that cost several thousand lives.

All this helps to explain the Yemeni state’s complex attitude towards fundamentalist Sunni extremists. But there is one other ingredient in the background to the current war that is even more complex – namely the role of Saudi Arabia.

The conflict itself is taking place mainly on Yemeni territory, in the province of Sa’dah, immediately adjacent to Saudi Arabia – and occasionally the violence spills over the border. The problem is that the frontier is extremely porous. Indeed, on the Saudi side of the border, is 75,000 square miles of territory which used to belong to Yemen. Many tribesmen ignore the frontier – a fact that worries the Saudis. The problem, from the Saudi point of view, is that their geopolitical and religious antitheses, Shia Iran, is perceived by them, rightly or wrongly, as being behind Yemen’s Sa’dah Zaidi revolt.

The Saudi intervention (which started with lethal bombing raids on Zaidi villages in Yemen in November) internationalised the conflict. Yemen’s economy is being harmed not only by the Sa’dah war, but also by the world recession and by an increasingly serious water shortage.
As Yemen’s economy deteriorates, western observers fear that the country could gradually become a failed state which Al‑Qaeda and others could then use to destabilise the region.

Yemen: a brief history

610/620s: Muhammad’s ministry
661: Caliph Ali assassinated
736: Zaid, great-great-grandson of Muhammad, rebels
864: First Zaidi state formed in northern Iran
890s: Zaidi state set up in Yemen
1635: Yemeni/Zaidis defeat Ottomans
1839: British take over Aden
1870-1918: Second Ottoman occupation
1962: Republican revolution in North Yemen
1962–70: Civil war in North Yemen
1967: South Yemen independent from UK
1990: North and South Yemen unite
2004: Current war starts
2009: Saudis bomb Yemen rebels


Further reading

A History of Modern Yemen by Paul Dresch (CUP, 2000);
The Birth of Modern Yemen by Brian Whitaker (e-book, 2009);
A Tribal Order by Shelagh Weir (Texas, 2007);
Yemen Chronicle by Steven Caton (Hill & Wang, 2006);
Peripheral Visions by Lisa Wedeen (CUP,2008)

Map: Martin Sanders