Yemen: The conflict in Saada Governorate - analysis

SANAA, 24 July 2008 (IRIN) - Since 2004 hundreds of people have been killed and thousands displaced as a result of fighting between Shia rebels and government forces in the northern governorate of Saada. IRIN takes a look at the background to the conflict, and tries to shed light on why it still smoulders today.

The Shia al-Houthi rebels take their name from their leader, Hussein Badraddin al-Houthi, who was killed in September 2004, and succeeded by his brother, the current leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

Whereas most lowland Yemenis in the south of the country are Sunni, Yemenis in the northern, more mountainous areas are Shia - specifically, followers of the Zaydi doctrine. (For more on this and the history of the Zaydis in Yemen, see

The Zaydis ruled Yemen for 1,000 years up until 1962. During this time they ferociously defended their independence and fought off foreign powers (Egypt, the Ottomans) who controlled lower Yemen and tried to extend their rule to the north.

However, crucial to an understanding of the present conflict is that while the al-Houthi rebels are Zaydis, by no means all Zaydis support the al-Houthi rebels - something that has been exploited by the government, which has persuaded rival Zaydi clans, backed by government forces, to lead the fighting against them in the mountain fastnesses of northern Yemen.

Zaydis make up about 45 percent of the population, Sunnis 53 percent and there are also tiny minorities of other Shia groups - the Ismaili and Twelver communities. Al-Houthi Zaydis are estimated to be about 30 percent of the population, according to Hassan Zaid, secretary-general of the al-Haq opposition party.

Involvement of northern tribesmen

"The government thought it would be best to fight tribal power [the rebels] with the help of a tribal coalition," Mohammed Aysh, managing editor of al-Sharei local newspaper and also an expert on the Saada conflict, told IRIN.

Over the past four years the government has recruited thousands of northern tribesmen - mainly Zaydis and Salafis who are Sunni - to fight the rebels. Analysts say this has extended the conflict, which recently spread to Harf Sufian in Amran Governorate and Bani Hushaish, a district 20km northwest of Sanaa city.

Aysh said the tribal coalition was effective and fought on the front line, with support from government troops.

There are dozens of tribes, clans and sub-clans in northern Yemen but just two powerful tribal coalitions, the Hashid and Bakil (both Zaydi). The government persuaded tribes from the former to fight against the rebels (Bakil). Hashid tribes have long been known as supporters of the state.

"But the government made the mistake of recruiting Zaydi Hashid tribes that were traditional rivals of the Saada-based Bakil. This led to talk of the conflict being tribal in nature, with the Saada tribes backing al-Houthi," Aysh said.

In early July President Saleh met various tribal leaders with a view to forming an anti-al-Houthi "popular army" of 27,000 tribesmen. Some Saada 'sheikhs' also wanted to participate in the "popular army" as their interests in Saada had been damaged in the fighting that broke out in May 2008. "The sheikhs of Saada are the wealthiest [in the country] but the fighting destroyed most of their farms," Aysh said.

Peace efforts

The government accuses the rebels of trying to install an Islamic Imamate government based on Zaydi doctrine. It has variously described the group as "extremist", "terrorist", "backward" and "apostate".

The al-Houthis, meanwhile, say they have been defending themselves from a "dictatorial, corrupt power" that had tried to "eliminate their doctrine".

In 2007 and 2008 Qatar mediation efforts succeeded in brokering short-lived ceasefires, but in the last few weeks fighting has flared up again.

However, on 17 July, without mentioning if his troops had defeated the rebels, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared the conflict over, saying dialogue was better than bloodshed. "The war in Saada ended three days ago and, God willing, it will never return."

New Shia movement (1992)

Evidence of the gradual radicalisation of Zaydis in Saada Governorate comes from Hassan Zaid, an intellectual living in Sanaa who prefers not to reveal his doctrinal or tribal identity for security reasons, who said that in 1992 a Shia movement known as Believing Youth, was founded in Saada.

He said Believing Youth was led by Mohammed Salem Azzan and Abdul-Karim Jadban, who had contacts among some Shia figures in Iran and Lebanon.

It opened summer centres in the governorate to propagate its views and co-opted 15,000 students in Saada Governorate, he said.

"The two leaders [Azzan and Jadban] provided materials, especially videos, for the summer religious centres in Saada. The materials included lectures by Mohammed Hussein Fadhlallah [a prominent Lebanese Shia leader] and Hassan Nasrallah [secretary-general of Lebanon's Hezbollah opposition party]," Zaid told IRIN.


Although Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed in 2004, had no relation with Believing Youth, according to Zaid, he contributed to the radicalisation of some Zaydis by persuading them - after the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003 - to chant anti-American and anti-Jewish slogans in mosques.

Al-Houthi was supported by a number of youths in Sanaa city who began to shout "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" slogans in the city's grand mosque after Friday prayers - something that worried the authorities.

According to Zaid, in 2004 the authorities arrested some 800 al-Houthi supporters in Sanaa who had refused to stop chanting the slogans.

"Their insistence on chanting the slogans attracted the authorities' attention and increased government worries over the extent of the al-Houthi movement's influence. The security authorities thought that if today the Houthis chanted 'Death to America', tomorrow they could be chanting 'Death to the president [of Yemen]'", he said.

Zaid pointed out that al-Houthi followers were calling Hussein al-Houthi "Sidi" - which means "my Lord" - and this further increased the authorities' concern.

"War" begins on 18 June 2004

Al-Houthi was invited to meet President Saleh in Sanaa but he procrastinated, Zaid said. "If he had met President Saleh, the war might not have broken out. The meeting could have eliminated Saleh's fears about Hussein's [al-Houthi] intentions," Zaid said.

In June 2004, a military contingent consisting of 18 military vehicles tried to arrest al-Houthi, who was living in Marran District. Clashes between his supporters and Yemeni government forces ensued, with the "war" officially beginning on 18 June 2004. At the time, al-Houthi only had about 200 supporters, Zaid said.

According to Zaid, the conflict in Saada has both political and sectarian dimensions: "The president became convinced that his tenure was threatened by Zaydi doctrine and that its restoration might leave him out of office," he said. Saleh frequently expressed fears about the restoration of the Zaydi Imamate.

Saudi role?

Yahya al-Houthi, another brother of the current rebel leader, said in early July that Saudi Arabia had put pressure on Saleh to fight the rebels in Saada. He alleged that the Saudi authorities had supported the government campaign with US$25 billion. The allegations were denied by the Yemeni authorities. Saudi Arabia has made no official statements on the issue. (For more on Yahya al-Houthi's recent thinking see

"Saudi Arabia was worried about such a [Shia] movement close to its borders," Zaid of the al-Haq party said.

The Yemeni government has accused Iran and Libya of supporting the rebels - something the rebels themselves say is not true. At the same time President Saleh has developed close relations with Saudi Arabia, which recently ceded land to Yemen in a long-standing border dispute.

Arbitrary arrests

Local human rights groups say thousands of people have been arrested during the four-year conflict and that some are still being detained despite the president's declaration that the conflict is over.

Abdul-Rashid al-Faqih, head of Hiwar Forum, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), said about 3,000 people had been arrested by the authorities for supporting al-Houthi. Of these, 500 detainees are known. The rest are unidentified because their families are scared of reporting their fate. Their whereabouts are unknown, he told IRIN.

He said that during the recent fighting - known as the fifth war - about 60 people were arrested in Sanaa city alone. They included 16 students from Saada Governorate accommodated at Sanaa University.

Radiyah al-Mutawakel, a human rights activist, said the detainees were from the Zaydi sect. "Such practices have played a role in extending the war. The first thing they think when they are set free is how to go and support the al-Houthi group," she told IRIN.

Analysts are divided over whether the conflict is sectarian or tribal in nature, but it is certainly political, and many innocent people have suffered and are suffering.