In a world where the victors narrative prevails, there is not even grudging acceptance of the truth that the ‘confident and over lusty Saudis were trounced in the oil fields of Aramco in the eastern province. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who peers through his binoculars 24X7, instantly raised his finger: “Iran”.
If Iran was the source from where the drones came, where were all the trillions of dollars’ worth of defensive batteries sold by the US to protect the very citadel of world oil? Or is it even more humiliating to accept reversal at the hands of an impoverished, ill equipped adversary? Asymmetric victories as in David and Goliath, are demoralizing for arms merchants. In such success, ingenuity trumps vast arsenals.
In recent years, the west has quite unambiguously placed, Houthis, Zaidis, indeed, Yemenis in a huge pile called Shias. The Shia-Sunni faultline has been attempted by East-Coast strategists eversince the Ayatullahs ousted the Shah in 1979 and the Saudis began to have palpitations at the sight of a rival pole in Tehran, as a result of a fracture in the Ummah.
The external fracture was severely compounded by an internal one when extremists opposed to Wahabism occupied the holy mosque at Mecca, demanding that the House of Saud vacate the holy shrines. In the ensuing battle, over 130 people were killed. American and French military help was needed. It must be put down to obsequiousness, a worship of Saudi petro dollars that details of how the West helped lift the siege of Mecca have been removed from the narrative.
It is common knowledge that Saudis do not allow non-Muslims in the city of Mecca, leave alone the great mosque. How then did western, Christian soldiers enter the mosque? Regular Mullahs were mobilized to help them recite the “Kalima”, an essential pre condition for conversion to Islam. Faiths were changed to save the mosque and the face of the House of Saud.
While the revolution in Iran and in Mecca took place simultaneously in 1979, it is the latter event which gives the Saudis nightmares to this day. The enunciation of the Shia-Sunni faultline became possible after the revolution in Tehran. This is supposed to have subsumed the Israel-Palestinian faultiline a turn that is useful to Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
In contemporary diplomacy, where propaganda is all, Israeli publicity lists Hamas in the nasty Iran, Hezbollah, Syria (Alawi) Shia axis when everybody knows that Hamas is 100 per cent Sunni. What worries Riyadh and Tel Aviv is something more fundamental. Hamas is Mulsim Brotherhood with deep links in Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.
If Yemen is Shia, why was Prince Naif bin Abdel Aziz, present King Salman’s brother, busy building up a Mujahideen force in Yemen at the same time he was creating such a power in Afghanistan? What was the link?
American expertise, Saudi money and huge Pakistani logistical help created the Mujahideen in Afghanistan who helped expel the Soviets in 1989. It is a measure of the low esteem in which sub continental Muslims are held by the Saudi ruling class, that Naif considered religious zeal being instilled in the Afghan-Mujahideen as a temporary requirement. For the long term, thoroughbred Arabs had to be trained in Yemen because here too there was a real and present “Soviet danger”, in the context of the Cold War.
Aden and Southern Yemen had in 1967 come under Egyptian-Nasserite, and therefore Soviet influence. Naif’s countermove is the origin of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
When Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman rained bombs on Sanaa, past four years, he may not be aware that he was bruising a city continuously inhabited for 2,500 years. Prophet Mohammad sent his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as the Qazi of Sanaa. The old city of Sanaa reminded me of Jaisalmer, its narrow lanes hemmed in by multistoryed structures. The facades of these high structure have exquisite geometrical designs. Suited to Jaisalmer’s harsh summers, on the other hand the façade, without colourful design, is easy on the eye because it does not reflect any light.
The Shia-Sunni narrative in Yemen is not straightforward. When Mustafa Kemal Pasha, Ataturk disbanded the Khilafat after World War-I, a system of Imamate continued in Yemen until 1962. A system of Imams leading the community is internal to Shias who may be segregated between those looking up to twelve or seven or an endless line of Imams. Iranian, sub continental, Lebanese, Kuwaiti or Bahrain Shias are known as Isna Ashari or twelvers.
Zayd Ibn Ali, brother of Muhammad al Baqir, the fifth Imam, did not accept the twelve system and shifted base to Yemen giving rise to a whole Zaidi sect. This unique Imamate lasted till 1962.
Since Ali, the first Imam, was the Qazi of Sanaa in 630 where he built a handsome mosque, Zaid could claim that affiliation too. But Yemen was constantly in the eye of the storm because of the shifting Saudi politics. Its personality was riven between its innate Shia roots and external Wahabi pressures.
This was the confusing maze, when MbS, his fingers burnt in Syria, embarked on a war in Yemen. Americans gleefully encouraged the war to sell arms to the prince of all narcissists. The war has been a disgraceful stalemate for the Crown Prince. Doggedly battling uneven odds the Houthis (Zaidis who derive their name from their leader Abdul Malik al Houthi) are improving by the day as warriors, fighting for their ancient land, and their faith, which in these four years has by association with the Iranians, been more firmed up with Shias. The Saudis have thrown into the battle money and mercenaries even from such far off places as Colombia and Peru. After the attack on Abqaiq, Aramco, Houthi armed forces duly claimed responsibility: “This operation came after an accurate intelligence operation and advance monitoring and cooperation of honorable and free men within the Kingdom.”
Phrase “within the Kingdom” will give Riyadh sleepless nights for months to come.
(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)