Last Sunday, Professor of Religion William Darrow, Amina Awad ’18, Maryanne Rodriguez ’15 and Center for Development Economics fellow Sameer Khailah spoke together on a panel about the war in Yemen.
Darrow began the panel by positing that the media portrayal of the war in Yemen as a proxy war between Sunni and Shiite forces is too simplistic, and that what is occurring in the country could be better labeled as a “civil war.” He then offered historical context for the conflict.
Yemen is located on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula, which has always had more potential for prosperity than the northern portion of the peninsula, in part because of better opportunities for agriculture, and in part as a result of greater international trade. Despite that, Yemen is currently the poorest country in the Middle East.
The geographical isolation of Yemen, Darrow proposed, has allowed certain schools of Islam to flourish, including the Zaidi school of Shi’aism.
Darrow also suggested that Yemen functions in many respects as two separate countries. The histories of the north and the south differ significantly, especially after the independence of Yemen in 1932 and the continuing British presence in the south until 1962. After the south gained independence, a power struggle between the north and the south created a civil war from 1962 to 1968, which was absorbed into international politics in the height of Arab nationalism. Jordan and Saudi Arabia supplied the royalists of the north, while Egypt assisted the republicans of the south. “Yemen easily becomes a site for struggle between larger forces,” Darrow said.
The north and the south united in 1990 with the capital in Sana, as the notion of Yemen as a united country began to gain traction. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of North Yemen, served as president of the Yemen from its unification until early 2012. From 2004 to 2009, Saleh struggled against the Houthis, an emerging movement in the north within the Zaidi community, with an inconclusive truce in 2009 briefly putting an end to continuous warfare and repression of the Houthis.
The Arab Spring of 2011 reignited the conflict, as President Saleh was forced out of office and an interim government was set up, headed by former Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.
In response to “a plan of federation, which they felt did not significantly acknowledge the independence of the regions they controlled,” the Houthis became militarily active again around 2014, successfully taking Sana and moving south. They are seen to be in a “strange alliance” with former President Saleh, suggesting that a Houthi victory would mean a restoration of Yemen’s original government.
Foreign narratives, Darrow said, consider the conflict as a proxy for Iranian expansion, to which the Saudis are responding militarily. “There is a narrative that either a Shiite crescent or a Shiite power is being united in all these different areas where religious identity is being asserted by a Shiite movement over and against Sunnis,” he said. To Darrow, it is clear that Iranians are not as involved in the conflict as their opponents propose, and this movement is not the result of conniving in Tehran, but rather an indigenous, independent conflict. He pointed out that the Iranians attempted to stop the Houthis from taking Sana.
Darrow finished by asking why the United States has aquiesced to Saudi Arabia’s activity, namely its airstrikes on Sanaa and in the south. “The long-term consequences of this,” Darrow said, “we will take some time to understand.”
In consideration of the internal displacement that the conflict in Yemen has caused, Awad spoke about the larger context of displacement and its effects. Her passport is Jordanian, though her grandparents were forced to immigrate to Jordan from Syria and Palestine. “Oftentimes when we talk about politics we love to abstract about the best foreign policy moves to make,” Awad said. “We forget that these are millions of ordinary people whose lives are being affected.”
She spoke about the psychological effect of continuous bombing, especially on children. Young children in Syria, Iraq and now Yemen have been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and it is difficult for them to get treatment because of a severe lack of resources. According to Awad, war also causes economic hardship, altering the entire fabric of a society. Most consequentially, millions of refugees are displaced, with passports that are essentially useless once conflict has broken out in their country.
Rodriguez traveled to Yemen last year to study culture, with a focus on the similarities between Hispanics and Arabs. She said that in her cultural research, she kept coming across people who were entirely uninterested in her subject, when they had “more immediate worries and concerns,” like the power going out or the lack of education. She is still in contact with her host family and frequently texts them to make sure they are still okay. She shared what a Yemeni friend had told her: “We don’t have anything, but we will give you anything: we’ll take our shirt off our back and give it to you.”
Khailah spoke about witnessing the conflict in his home from abroad, and watching the airstrikes take out mosques and schools in Sana. “It is a really miserable life in Yemen,” he said. According to him, many children carry blankets around and cover themselves if they hear an astride, with the belief that it will protect them.
He also talked about the soldiers who are still loyal to Saleh, who view him as a hero or a god. “This is not between Shia and Sunni,” he said. “That’s just the outside view. This is about our previous president Saleh.”
Darrow finished by commenting on that outside view of a Sunni-Shia war taking precedence over a more complex outlook: “These kinds of paradigms and simple models tend to become self-fulfilling and do significant damage. Each case is different, but the parallels and the consequences of the assumptions that are made are the same.”