The involvement of Iran in Yemen conflict has raised widespread concern that civil war in that country, and the subsequent Saudi-led Arab intervention, represent a new form of sectarian conflict involving Sunnis and Shia.
This impression is misleading, and even dangerous if this assessment becomes the basis for policymaking. The developments in Yemen are too important from strategic standpoint to be dismissed as a sectarian conflict.
The developments in Yemen present Pakistan with strategic perils and opportunities. We need to avoid the perils and benefit from the opportunities. A blanket dismissal of Yemen as a sectarian issue carries the danger of blinding Pakistani policy to those perils and opportunities.
All the major countries involved in Yemen conflict are approaching it from the standpoint of their interests. All key players are approaching Yemen at a strategic level. Interestingly, no country has described the issue or characterized it as sectarian. This includes Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran never said that Shia are persecuted in Yemen, and the Saudis have not complained about any threats to Sunnis in that country.
This raises key questions: Why the Pakistani debate, in the media and the Parliament, focused on sectarianism to the exclusion of all other dimensions? Who turned the discussion on Pakistan’s policy options in Yemen into a sectarian debate instead of a strategic one? Who benefits from ‘sectarianizing’ our foreign policy options? Did this debate hijack our decision-making process and force us to delay or miss timely decisions and actions that could have furthered Pakistani strategic interest in the Gulf and the Middle East?
A blanket dismissal of Yemen as a sectarian issue carries the danger of blinding Pakistani policy to those perils and opportunities.
Isolating Pakistan from developments in our neighbourhood is not an option. Caution and restraint are understandable and desirable in foreign policy. Neutrality can be exercised – from the Pakistani perspective – if anything happens far away and is not affecting us in any manner e.g. in the Danish claims over Terra Scania, the southern parts of Sweden. However, we ignore what happens in our neighbourhood at our own peril [in Yemen’s case, our western neighbourhood].
The developments around Yemen are significant for the strategic balance of power in the Gulf region, the Arabian Sea and the Middle East. Pakistan shares the Arabian Sea with Yemen’s Gulf of Aden. Pakistani territorial waters are linked to the Gulf. The world’s largest Pakistani diaspora lives in this region, in Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. This diaspora is larger in numbers to the number of Pakistani-origin residents in North America and Europe, and is a source of injections into the Pakistani economy to the tunes of billions of dollars. Pakistan sought the help of Gulf States, in particular Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to counter the economic sanctions that the United States and some European countries imposed on us after our reaction to Indian nuclear tests.
It is very important that we in Pakistan de-link the developments in Yemen and the Gulf from sectarianism, and refocus the debate on preserving and furthering the interests of Pakistan and its citizens.
This is done by understanding what role sectarianism plays in Yemen.
Yemen’s Zaidiyyah Sect is Unique
Yemen is the fountainhead of all Arab tribes that ever existed. Today, around 40% of Yemenis are followers of a sect known as Zaydiyyah, which only exists in Yemen. Followers of the sect describe themselves as ‘Fiver’ who are not recognized by the ‘Twelvers’ Shia Muslims of Qom, Iran. This sect has existed for about a thousand years. The Zaidis and Sunnis pray in the same mosques, often use the same books of Islamic theology, while retaining different interpretations on many other issues. In fact, the most learned of the Shia ulema in Qom, Iran, know that the derogatory term ‘Rafidah’, now used in sectarian hate speech, was originally coined by Zaidiyyah scholars to describe those who reject the Zaidi position on the first two Caliphs in Islam. Often in the same Yemeni mosque, a Sunni delivers the Friday sermon, while the imam is a Zaidi.
In short, there is a long list of proofs that Yemen is not part of the Shia-Sunni sectarian debate, and just because Iran’s name is being mentioned in Yemen does not make it sectarian.
In Pakistan, we mostly get our information about the Middle East from the Anglo-Saxon media sources of United States and Britain – the Western media. The English-language media simplifies the Houthis, for example, as ‘Shia rebels.’ A direct conversation with educated Yemenis would paint a very different picture. One of the best insights on this have come in an article titled, “Yemen is More Nuanced than ‘Sunni’ & ‘Shia’,” published by Yemen Times in February. One of the key findings in this article is about the deposed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi, who fought six wars against the Houthis, also Zaidis, since 2004.
The conflict in Yemen is a power struggle between different tribes in a tribal society. The warring factions are not divided by sect or religion.
Saudi Arabia Protected the Zaidi Imam
Another evidence that the conflict in Yemen has nothing to do with sects. In the 1960s, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia protected and defended the Zaidi king of Yemen, known as the Imam, against Soviet-backed southern communists. Riyadh fought small wars to keep the Zaidi Imam in power for as long as possible. The sectarian angle never came into play, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia was a much more religiously conservative society than compared with today.
All the major countries involved in Yemen conflict are approaching it from the standpoint of their interests. All key players are approaching Yemen at a strategic level. Interestingly, no country has described the issue or characterized it as sectarian.
If sectarianism existed in Saudi Arabia, it is being actively suppressed and defeated from government and society. In July 2014, late King Abdullah appointed the country’s first Shia minister, Mohamed Abu Saqa, and four Shia members of Shura Council, one of them a woman. Saqa retired as Major-General from the Saudi National Guards.
When Operation Decisive Storm was launched, one of the earliest supporters of the military action against the Iran-backed Houthis was a Shia Muslim leader, President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. He landed in Riyadh on April 5 to meet King Salman. Ten days later, Saleh Heydarov, leader of the Azerbaijan parliamentary delegation, met Shura Council Deputy Speaker Amin Al-Jaafri.
Members of Azerbaijan Parliament, representing a predominantly Shia Muslim nation, “pledged solidarity with the Kingdom in restoring legitimacy in Yemen,” according to daily Arab News.
Two other Muslim leaders who are direct descendants of Ahl-al-Bayt, the kings of Morocco and Jordan, also pledged support for Saudi action against Yemeni rebels.
And just like the Saudis, Iran, too, has not given any sectarian colour to the conflict in Yemen.
In Yemen, Iran’s Interest is Strategic, Not Sectarian
In all of the statements of Iranian leadership on Yemen, not a single official has attributed any sectarian reason for Iran’s interest in that country. Officially, Tehran does not claim to support the Houthis, with weapons or otherwise. But as the Arab coalition intensified military action against the Yemeni rebels, Iran abandoned caution and came out openly in defence of the Houthis. Tehran apparently had no qualms about Iran-linked Hezbollah chief in Lebanon delivering three speeches, siding with the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Recently, Iran’s leaders have been making public statements about Tehran’s strategic influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. This shows that Iran feels confident about its regional role and influence, and expects others to accept its regional outreach, including in Yemen. These statements indicate that, for Iran, this is about strategic competition and national pride more than religion or sect. Like Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the Yemen coverage in Iranian media has been devoid of any sectarian references.
The Strategic Competition
Before 1979, when Shah Reza Pehlavi ruled Iran, his country was locked in strategic competition with Saudi Arabia. At the time, both were allies of the West, both were oil-producing heavyweights, and both aspired to play a prominent role in the Middle East. Yet, sect never fared in this competition. For example, Pehlavi claimed the whole of Bahrain because the region used to be part of the Persian Empire before Islam. But the Shah never used the sectarian card. Nor did the Saudis.
Unfortunately, sect gradually entered the equation in the 1980s. Again, one more convenient tool in the strategic competition. Yemen, too, is a strategic playground. Iran saw an opportunity to exploit the power struggle inside Yemen to create a base on the Saudi border. Any smart country would do what Tehran did. Likewise, the Saudi and Gulf reaction was predictable: they saw Iran encircling them, and they acted. Iran says the Houthis, whom it supports, must get a share in power.
Saudi Arabia and Gulf States say the legitimate Yemeni government must be restored, that Houthis are less than 1% of the Yemeni population and have no right to seize power, and that Iran is not a neighbour of Yemen, and has no right to interfere. This position is supported by Arab countries, Turkey, Malaysia, Azerbaijan, and now Pakistan. China and Russia, sympathetic to Iran’s viewpoint in Syria and Iraq, have supported the GCC-pushed UN Security Council Resolution that authorizes use of force against the rebels. All of this proves the strategic nature of this issue. The sectarian angle, widely discussed in our media, is not present in this discussion.
Factors Affecting Choices
Firstly, there is the question of principle. There is an armed militia that descends from the mountains and seize power based on the advanced weaponry and rockets in its arsenal.
Secondly, Pakistanis of all backgrounds, religions and sects, live, earn and run huge businesses and pursue other economic interests in the Gulf. Any threat to peace and stability in the Gulf affects our citizens, our allies, and the peace in a region neighbouring Pakistan. Third, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have rendered strategic assistance to Pakistan on multiple occasions when we needed support. A relationship of trust built over decades must not become a casualty of the conflict in Yemen.
Fourth, ties between Pakistan and Iran will not be affected by whatever policy option Islamabad exercises in Yemen. We remain friends and neighbours with mutual dependencies and interests. As two mature states with deep history and linkages, we have differed with the government in Tehran before, and we managed those differences. Simultaneously, we have areas of close cooperation and understanding. In recent past, we have differed in approach on Afghanistan, amicably, and it is clear we may not completely agree on Yemen, as do Iran’s two other neighbours Turkey and Azerbaijan. To sum up, all key players in the Yemen conflict are pursuing their strategic interests. Pakistani strategic and security interests entail that we do not shy away from actively protecting our interests, to the extent that our resources and circumstances allow.
The writer is a journalist who regularly contributes for print and electronic media, and also hosts a current affairs programme at a private TV channel. Twitter : @AQpk
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