By Akbar Ahmed
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) long held the Yemeni tribes in the highest regard: He reportedly called the Yemenis “the best people on the face of the earth.” They “are tender hearted and more delicate of soul. Iman (belief) and wisdom are of the Yemenis.”
In contrast, according to Imam al-Bukhari, he said of Yemen’s northern neighbors: “In that place (Najd) are earthquakes and seditions, and in that place shall rise the devil’s horn.'”
It is those very neighbors that are presently giving great grief to the people of Yemen. The people who were so thrilled to hear the revelations of the Prophet that they converted to Islam in the course of one day, now face genocide by fellow Muslims.
Yemen has suffered from a civil war for the last two years which has torn the nation apart: some 9,000 have been killed, 50,000 injured and more than 2 million children are malnourished and face starvation. Now it faces catastrophe. In the past few days, in response to a missile launched by Houthi rebel forces against Riyadh on November 5, Saudi Arabia, which has played a significant role in the civil war supporting forces loyal to President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, blocked all entry into Yemen’s air, sea, and land ports, claiming this will block Iran from supplying the Houthis with weaponry. Aid provisions are now largely blocked from entering the country. As the crisis crescendos, 7 million people are now facing famine conditions.
Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, has warned that if the Saudi blockade is not lifted, “It will be the largest famine the world has seen for many decades with millions of victims.” Doctors in Sanaa told Al Jazeera that hundreds “will die within the next week” as a result of this blockade. Yemenis are dying from diabetes, cancer, and other treatable illnesses simply because there’s no medication. Even chlorine tablets, which help combat the nation’s rampant cholera epidemic afflicting some 900,000, have been blocked. As of November 9, one border crossing and the Port of Aden, held by government forces, have been reopened, but aid agencies maintain that unless the Saudis open other ports of entry into Yemen, they will not be able to provide sufficient aid to a suffering population.
This recent Saudi-driven crisis is happening in the shadows of reforms sweeping the kingdom. The young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has pledged a number of transformations for the kingdom, permitting women to drive, welcoming new technological innovations, and promoting ‘a more moderate Islam.’ This young ruler seems to have America’s backing as well, with President Trump expressing his support for his rule. It is vital that the Crown Prince understands the past experiences of outside forces interfering in northern Yemen. It is crucial for any leader or power dealing with the Houthis to understand their Zaydi tribal heritage. First and foremost, these tribes are fiercely independent. Long isolated, the tribes can be prickly towards outsiders, and they are defined by a code of honor and spirit of egalitarianism. They are also led on a communal level by tribal elders and their councils. Even under the Zaydi Imamate, which lasted for a millennium and brought Islam to a number of tribal communities in present-day northern Yemen, the strength of the imams waxed and waned in accordance with their ability to effectively maneuver the tribal system. The imams, in order to be elected, needed to be selected by the religious establishment and hold sayyed status. Much like Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union and Vietnam was for the United States, Yemen has been a graveyard for powers past. The Zaydi Imamate was ultimately toppled in 1962 by forces loyal to Nasser, but by the end of Egypt’s incursion into the region in 1967, after 20,000 Egyptian troops had been killed, Egypt was forced to pull out, and the conflict would eventually be known as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam.’ The present-day Houthi rebels, who emerged in the 1990s, see themselves as the revival of the Zaydi Imamate.
The Houthis have felt besieged throughout the post 9/11 “War on Terror” as President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with the backing of US aid, went after the Houthis even invading their region militarily in 2004. Despite the government’s aggressive military campaign, by the end of the decade, Houthi forces managed to bring government forces to a standstill in the north and even came within 20 miles of the capital, Sanaa. The Saudis would do well not to underestimate this proud and resolute people. I urge Prince Mohammed bin Salman to illustrate his ‘moderate Islam’ by ending the blockade of Yemen and allowing food and medical aid to reach the suffering millions. After all, the two most frequently uttered names of God in the Quran are Rahman and Rahim, or the Compassionate and Merciful. The Prince must understand that, as he and his family are the proud keepers of the two holiest places in Islam, Mecca and Medina, it is his Islamic duty to implement the compassion and kindness that the Quran and the Prophet, a ‘mercy unto mankind,’ enjoined on all Muslims everywhere.
The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar