The crisis in Arabia Felix

While emphasis is given in the news to the Sunni fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS), other major developments are going unnoticed by the international media. In the midst of rising tension resulting from Sunni and Shiite conflict in Syria and Iraq, with the Sunnis seeking to reduce the Shiite influence in Iraq and Syria, the reverse geopolitical process took place a few days ago in Yemen, namely the advance and capture the capital Sana’a by Shiite Houthis. This development is comparable in geopolitical importance to the declaration of the Islamic State caliphate.

The Shiite Houthi tribe who adhere to the Five Shiite Imams (descendants of the Prophet of Islam, Zaidis, or Fivers) differ from the majority of Shiite Jafaris (Twelvers) who believe in the Twelve Imams and the Ismailis (Seveners) who believe in the Seven Imams. Houthis control the northwestern part of Yemen and the border with Saudi Arabia. They are the main geopolitical force of the Yemeni Zaidi Shiite doctrine, who in total make up almost half the population of 23 million Yemenis with the other half being Sunni Shafi’i.

During the Arab Spring, Yemen’s Houthis and Sunni liberals ousted pro-Western President Ali Abdullah Saleh and increased their influence, including through increased participation in the community and greater autonomy in the north. However the new moderate president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, does not seem to be dealing with the growing influence of Houthi politicians in Yemen. Mismanagement and the lack of Houthi representation in power are some of the criticisms aimed at the administration of Hadi, who is walking a tightrope between the Houthis in the north and al-Qaida in the south.

The ongoing crisis in Yemen due to the takeover of much of the government by the Houthis is a phenomenal development that transcends the events of 2012, when Saudi Arabia fought against the Houthis on its southern borders. Saudi Arabia and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf support Hadi’s fragile pro-Western government and apparently the intelligence and security forces were taken by surprise in a fashion similar to the surprise of Shiite Iraq at the rise of the ISIS forces. It is obvious that the Houthis’ movement is destined to evolve into a revolution with unpredictable developments for the stability of the Arabian Peninsula. So there are now two open Sunni-Shiite fronts: the Sunni advance in Syria and Iraq and the Shiite march in Yemen. Apparently, geopolitical instability is spreading with disastrous consequences for everyone.

*Evangelos Venetis is the head of the Middle East Research Project of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).

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