What’s happening in Saudi Arabia and Yemen (and what it means for us)

Yemen Saudi coup government
(Illustration by Sarah Glidden)

Two major shifts in government on the Arabian Peninsula last week signal increasing instability and long-term impacts for the U.S.

Here’s what happened:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died on Friday after almost 10 years on the throne. Leadership was passed to his more conservative brother, King Salman, 79.

The Saudi government is an absolute monarchy influenced by the ultraconservative Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam. Nonetheless, they’ve been a close ally to the U.S. and a key strategic partner in anti-terrorism campaigns across the Middle East.

“These religious beliefs are fused with a family that maintains absolute power and through the benefits that they get from the oil industry, being as profitable as its been, they kind of buy their way into not having to democratize,” said Dr. Arbella Bet-Shlimon, Assistant Professor in the UW History Department and Jackson School of International Studies.

The Saudis monarchs have maintained control through strong religious beliefs and oil wealth, but the younger generation is starting to buck that system.

“They technically live by Islamic law, but its more complicated that that. The young Saudis are modern. They use technology, they’re educated, and they want to live in the modern world,” said Dr. Jawed Zouari, a Ph.D in History of the Middle East and current professor of Political Science at Seattle Central College.

King Abdullah was remembered by some as a reformer, making moves towards freedom of expression and more rights for women. But King Salam is known to be much more conservative.

“King Salam’s policies will be more stringent. He will probably be tougher on the Shia, tougher on the young Saudis who are rallying for rights and for freedom of expression,” Zouari said.

Saudi Arabia is home the major Muslim holy sites as well as some of the world's largest oil reserves. (Photo by Omar Chatriwala / Al Jazeera English)
Saudi Arabia is home the major Muslim holy sites as well as some of the world’s largest oil reserves. (Photo by Omar Chatriwala / Al Jazeera English)

A young Saudi blogger was recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes for speaking out against the influence of religion in his country. He was hospitalized after the first 50 lashes — but the punishment is set to continue once he recovers. A number of other young people have been imprisoned recently on similar charges.

The U.S. government obviously holds freedom of expression as a core value, but they remain strong allies of Saudi Arabia — at least in part because they have some of the world’s largest oil reserves.

There was another major upheaval just to the south of Saudi Arabia, in the much poorer country of Yemen.

The Houthis, a Shia minority group that has been gaining political power and followers since 2004, overthrew the Yemeni government. U.S. ally, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, signed a peace treaty with the Houthis and resigned the presidency.

So far it’s unclear what U.S. relations will be with the new Houthi government, but Saudi Arabia has stopped all aid payments that they have been giving to Yemen. The majority of Saudis are Sunni, while the Houthis are part of a Shia minority.

“The stability of Yemen is very important to Saudi Arabia. Saudis invest heavily in Yemen in order to support the government. They have a lot of strategic interest but also cultural interest because of historical and cultural links,” said Robert Burrowes, Professor Emeritus with a specialty in Yemen studies at the University of Washington Jackson School of International Studies. “They are trying to undermine the Houthi minority but they’re actually undermining the entire Yemeni population.”

Burrowes believes that the Houthis were able to take control not because of their strength as a group, but because the country as a whole was very weak.

“There is no state in Yemen. There is no sovereign power that’s able to assert control over all major parts of society. It’s really is something like anarchy,” Burrowes explained.

The U.S. is concerned with Yemen because it’s been a hub for Al Qaeda activity.

“The U.S. is convinced that of all the spin offs of the Al Qaeda, the Yemeni branch in the Arabian Peninsula is the one that has demonstrated interest in striking at the western powers and especially at the United States,” Burrowes said.

The Houthis, however, are not affiliated with the Al Qaeda.

“They are very strongly opposed to [Al Qaeda], if only because of the Sunni-Shia divide. Ideologically, religiously, they are very different groups,” Shlimon said.

So the Houthis are anti- Al Qaeda. However, they also dislike Americans and denounce the imperial influence of the western on their region. There is a long history of anti-imperialism that is directed towards the United States and Europe in the Arab world in general and in Yemen in particular.

Now deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi visits the Pentagon 2013. (Photo by Glenn Fawcett via Flickr)
Now deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi visits the Pentagon 2013. (Photo by Glenn Fawcett via Flickr)

The former Yemeni president had been supportive of American activity, and cooperated with U.S. drone strikes against Al Qaeda. The problem was, they didn’t always hit their target.

“Sometimes they’d take out the Al-Qaeda. Sometimes they’d take out schools, and families. They recently hit a wedding party and killed 25 people,” Burrowes said.

Shlimon explained that the Houthis will probably not support American policy in the way the former president did because they see that as a violation of their sovereignty.

So what does this new regime in Yemen mean for America? No one is sure. Americans rightfully fear Al Qaeda activity in Yemen, but with the lack of control in the government it remains to be seen if the threat will strengthen or wane in the future.

Shlimon suggests that Americans should take a more nuanced approach the region, and focus on the well being of the country as a whole.

“We need to go beyond a simplistic assessment of the way the government looks at it, beyond oil and al Qaeda. If the conflict in Yemen gets any more unstable we could end up with yet another proxy war situation, not unlike what has happened in Iraq and Syria. Every time this happens, it destabilizes the entire region and it produces profound suffering for the people in that country,” Shlimon said.

So should Americans look beyond our immediate interests in the oil industry and our fear of terrorist activity?

“The Middle East is often portrayed as these cinder blocks and barbed wire,” Shlimon said, “But that’s not what it looks like at all. There are people in the streets, there are little kids carrying balloon animals and cotton candy, it’s a vibrant busy place. It’s often portrayed as a warzone but that’s not what this region really looks like. Even where there is civil war and conflict going on, there is also life.”

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