Yemen: Tribalism And Zaydism: Roots Of The Sa'ada Conflict

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By: Ali Saeed


Since its beginnings in 2004, the conflict in Sa'ada between the government of Yemen and Houthis has been fueled by tribalism and Zaydism, according to a recent study prepared by the RAND Research Institute for the US Department of Defense.

The conflict in Sa'ada has displaced over quarter of a million people from the warzone and resulted in great human and material losses. In the recent sixth phase of the war that broke out in August 2009, Saudi Arabia intervened and airstrikes from both Saudi and Yemeni air forces damaged houses, public facilities and farms.

The study investigated these cycles of war by understanding the socio-cultural characteristics of northern Yemenis and came out with a finding that tribalism and religion were two large factors that have been feeding the conflict.

The study said that when the Yemeni government sent military forces to the Houthis' land in Sa'ada, the Houthis supporters in the north considered this as a violation to the qabyala (tribal) norms, used to resolve strife with mediation and preempt violence.

The Yemeni government has labeled Houthi fighters as terrorists or rebels, according to the study. However, it speculated that Houthis should not et be considered as insurgents, in terms of having specific goals.

The Yemeni and pan-Arab media has been describing the fighting in Sa'ada as guerrilla war, according to the study.

It confirmed that the Yemeni government sought both to tar Houthis as Iranian Shiite pawns in the Arabian Peninsula and to have them listed as a terrorist organization by western governments.

The study analyzed the Yemeni government's action of permitting international mediation with the Houthis through Qatar as an operational pause to reassess their future actions.

It also claimed that the government employed tribal elements as proxy forces and oppressed Houthis supporters in education and media, as it closed Zaydi schools and mosques.

The study indicated that the state justified its actions by portraying Houthis as anti-republicans who wished to restore the imamate rule, ended in 1962.

As to the military, the government focused on the physical elimination of Houthis principles and the destruction of the region of Sa'ada.

It also said that the Yemeni government considered Houthis as foreign supported imamists, threatening Yemen' republican nature and they have internationalized the conflict, by portraying Houthis as a danger to regional Arab Sunnis.

In their defense, the Houthis said that they are working on rejuvenating Zaydism and fighting for Zaydi Yemenis against Wahabism or Salafism.

The study explained the emergence of the Houthis to the lack of state presence and lack of state citizens.

It said that in the south, the Marxist regime attempted to eliminate tribalism and created the meaning of state citizenship, but in the north, despite the abolition of imamate rule, the former Yemen Arab Republic did not result in a state presence or state citizens and this marked the northern Yemenis as a tribal society.

It speculated that the tribal feature among northern Yemenis made it easy for the Houthis to emerge and resist the state forces.

The study highlighted that Sa'ada, after unification, remained one of the least developed governorates, politically, socially and culturally.

Its proximity to the Saudi border and its dependence on expatriate remittances, prior to the 1990's, also allowed Sa'ada residents to develop local economic initiatives, which increased their self-reliance and economic autonomy parallel with the political autonomy of tribal leaders.

It said that people in the north are socially fragmented between qabili (tribal) and non-qabili (non-tribal), as sayyids or descendants of the prophet Mohamed who have social and cultural prestige directly from Zaydis. Other non-qabili persons in the north, such as butchers, café workers and singers, are an inferior social class.

In addition to these differences among northern Yemenis, the structure of the tribes in the north is also not unified, the study noted.

In addition, it linked religious sectarian to the socio-cultural characteristics of the conflict, saying that Yemeni Muslims in the north are largely Zaydis and southern Yemenis are Shafi'i Sunnis.

Sa'ada itself is the center of Zaydism and some parts of the north are Shafi'i Sunnis.

After the revolution in 1962, the Zaydi elite in the regime of the former Yemen Arab Republic started to disconnect themselves from the Zaydi sayyids. Instead, they turned to follow mainstream Sunnism, aligned with pan-Arab currents.

It said that the regime in the Yemen Arab Republic and the unified Yemen, after 1990, supported the Salafi existence in the northern highlands and Sa'ada itself, where Zaydism is largely dominant.

Moreover, Zaydism itself is not a monolithic system as it differentiates between the general community and those families claiming descent from the prophet Mohamed through the line of Ali who is the prophet's cousin, the study explained. Known as Hashimis, the Zaydi theology entitles them to political rule in the form of the imamate, as it used to be in northern Yemen before the revolution in 1962.

The study said that the regime and Salafists in the 1980s benefited from this divide among Zaydis each for its own purposes. Zaydis revivalists responded by taking action to rehabilitate Hashimis to save Zaydism against the Salafism spread in the north. Because of the state standing with the Salafi spread in the north, Zaydis felt that the regime was targeting Zaydism as a whole, while the regime accused them of attempting to revive the imamate's rule, the study noted.

Houthi leaders, who originally live in Sa'ada in the village of Houth, claim their descent from the prophet of the line of Ali and thus have sayyid privileges.

It mentioned that with this division among northern Yemenis, the regimes in both the Yemen Arab Republic and the unified Yemen, after 1990, have fed this social and cultural division.

Government presence in Sa'ada

Today, Sada'a is divided into 15 districts which are also sub-divided into sub-districts, the study indicated. Sa'ada has the greatest turnover rate of around 22 governors among all Yemeni governorates since 1962, demonstrating the inherent difficulties of establishing any government control over such a naturally ungovernable territory.

The study said that partisan pluralism and competition created another channel for social division, as the state empowers some at the expense of others.

A religious and social phenomenon

The study also highlighted that Zaydism emerged in the 8th century among those early Muslims who felt that Ali should have followed the Prophet Muhammad as his first successor (caliph) in the Muslim leadership.

It went on to say that when Abu Bakr became the first caliph in 632 CE, the partisans of 'Ali (shi'at 'Ali, hence Shi'a) felt the latter's claim was more legitimate because of his reputed nomination by Muhammad and his family ties to the Prophet ('Ali was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law).

Sunnis (or ahl al-Sunna, meaning 'people of accepted tradition') recognized Abu Bakr and his successors as legitimate, whereas partisans of 'Ali considered only those from the family of the Prophet, in the form of 'Ali's male descendants, to be worthy of ruling.

These male descendents became imams, one from each generation-although on a few occasions, disagreement emerged over which descendent of 'Ali was to be considered an imam. This explains the emergence of Zaydism.

Zayd bin 'Ali, a grandson of 'Ali's son Husayn, was killed leading an unsuccessful rebellion against the Umayyads in 740. Whereas most Shi'ites regard his brother, Muhammad al-Baqir, as the Fifth Imam. Some considered Zayd to be the Fifth Imam, and they became known as "Fivers" or Zaydis.

Zaydism, as a doctrine, has emphasized philosophy and rationalism rather than textual literalism. In practice, the later Zaydi Imamates demonstrated tolerance for Shafi'is, the dominant Sunni school of thought. In Yemen, these are said to make up slightly over half the population.