A handy rule to judge conflicts around the world: If the Saudis are on one side, common decency suggests you take the other.
So it is with Yemen. Most US media depicts Yemen as a typical and naturally Sunni state, which would mean that the Saudis are justified in coming to the aid of its Sunni rulers (who the Saudis helped achieve that rank) against the Shia Houthis, who are suspected of (eeeek!) getting aid from (cue the scary organ music) Iran.
The War Nerd is the only English-speaking person that I know of who is writing at length about the truth behind this – and the truth is that Yemen is, as was much of Saudi Arabia itself up until a few decades ago (and, clandestinely, even today), still heavily Shia despite the worst efforts of its imposed-from-without Sunni government, which the Houthis finally overthrew last year. Here’s a sample from the War Nerd’s latest on this topic, most notably the failure of yet another effort at Saudi-backed cultural imperialism in Yemen:
Dammaj is a little town right in the middle of Saada Province, the heartland of the Shia Houthi movement. And that’s what’s odd about this story, because Dammaj, until recently, was the site of Darul al Hadeeth, one of the biggest Sunni/Salafi religious schools in the Middle East.
“Until recently”—it’s one of those phrases that always means blood and disaster, like “Churchill’s plan for the campaign…” or “You have been accepted for graduate study in our Humanities Program.”
Darul al Hadeeth was always in danger as an outpost of Sunni Salafism planted right in the heart of Zaydi Shia territory. It was founded by a local man, Muqbil al Wadi, who migrated to Najran in Saudi Arabia and converted to Sunni Salafism at a school in Najran founded by Uthayman, one of the biggest 20th century Saudi conservative preachers.
After the Saudis threw him in prison for a few months for suspected involvement in the attack on the Grand Mosque, Wadi came home to Sa’ada in 1979 and started preaching Salafism in Dammaj, a sleepy stream-side village right in the heart of Saada Province. Yep, Saada Province, very heartland of Shi’ite Yemen. Not an easy place to preach Sunni doctrine, especially of the in-yer-face variety Wadi was pushing. This was a brave, if not foolhardy move at micro-level, but at macro-, where we’re all just molecules, it was part of a trend: The Sunni Revival, which might be the biggest historical trend you’re living through, right now.
In fact, the rise and fall of Darul al Hadeeth is really just a small skirmish in the long struggle between the Shia of the southwestern part of the peninsula and the Wahhabi of the Najd. It seems fitting that Wadi was converted from Shi’ism to Sunnah in Najran, because, as I’ve written before, that town has always been front-line for the Sauds’ attempt to change the religion of the Shia of the region.
Most of the kids who swarmed to Dammaj had no idea they were traveling right to the heart of Saada Province, home of the Shia heretics. They were stronger on faith than history. Thanks to a blog called Fear the Dunya, we know a lot about what the Sunni pilgrims who came to Dammaj thought. The blog was put together by a guy calling himself Hassan as Somali. You can hear him preaching on this YouTube video, if you want to get a sense of his voice and style. It’s best in small doses; the whole 36-minute sermon is torture by anybody’s standards, but a few seconds gives you a sense of accent and attitude. He speaks American English fluently, but with an accent; he sounds young, very righteous, very authoritarian, very ordinary. That’s not a bad profile of a Salafist, actually: Young, male, authoritarian, bi-cultural, ordinary in everything else.
And, like a lot of Salafists, good at media. Hassan’s blog, “Fear the Dunya” (“Dunya” means “the Physical World,” or “reality” as unbelievers call it) got a lot of hits, drew a lot of eager pilgrims to Saada Province. He published posts on how to get to Dammaj, what you could expect to pay in rent ($15-30 per month), and a lot of commentary on the Yemen conflict.
The pilgrims memorizing Quranic verses and eating beans in the basement didn’t know it, but Darulal Hadeeth was a sectarian provocation, intended as such from the start. The fact that it endured as long as it did was testimony to Sunni strength at the beginning of the 21st century, but it had to fall eventually.
You can’t say that war started in Yemen in 2004, because it had never really stopped. But “the fighting” definitely stepped it up a few notches that year, as the Houthi militias, recruited from Saada Province itself, started taking their home province back from the Yemeni government and its Saudi ally.
The Houthi out-fought the Government troops easily. By 2009, they had retaken all of Saada Province except the little Sunni outpost of Dammaj, guarded by armed Salafi. The Yemen government, noting that they had a source of eager young Sunni fighters up there, started recruiting students from Darul al Hadeeth. After all, “Taliban” means “students.” And Salafi students are oriented, by their creed, toward action rather than mere bookish solitude.
So when the government needed new soldiers for “Operation Scorched Earth” in 2009, they persuaded hundreds of young students from Darul al Hadeeth to join up. Sixty nine of them died, many more were wounded, and the worst fears of the local Shia were confirmed: They were nursing a nest of Sunni vipers in their Shia bosom.
By 2014, the Houthi were pushing out from Saada, and finally felt strong enough to order all the foreign Salafis out of Dammaj. They were tired of being sniped at, not just literally but verbally, all the time. And it does get tiring, being subjected to that grandiose, repetitious Salafi scolding all the time. So, on January 13, 2014, the soon-to-be-ex government of Mansur Hadi made a deal handing over Saada Province to the Houthi. And for the first time, that included Darul al Hadeeth. Every Salafi inside had to leave, on short notice.
As the Nerd says:
It was as if the sheer power (and money, and guns, of course) of the Sunni revival held Darul al Hadeeth in place against all logic for a third of a century, until the start of the Shia pushback we’re seeing now. And it does give a nice touch of irony to the name that Somali-American gave his blog: “Fear the Dunya.” They were right to fear reality; it caught up with them after all.