23 Jan 2015

The Confused Person's Guide to Understanding Yemen

‘What the hell is exactly happening in Yemen?’ is now one of the most urgent geopolitical questions in the Middle East. Sadly, few people are qualified or knowledgeable enough to answer this pressing question. Most experts agree that most experts can’t give you a straight answer. The reality is Yemen is a complex place that is very hard to understand for outsiders, and even more so for insiders. Indeed most of the people asking what is happening in Yemen are Yemenis themselves.

Now, I am not an expert on Yemen but being Lebanese I am an expert at not knowing what is happening in my country, which gives me a valuable insight into the situation in Yemen. Not one to shy away from difficult challenges, I have compiled this essential primer on Yemen that will help you understand its politics and prepare you for what will happen there next. (Experts also agree that anything is possible there next, which narrows it down a bit.)

The first thing to understand is that Yemen is an ancient land, as the Yemenis themselves always remind you. It is thought that Yemen existed when the Earth was first created, and there’s strong evidence to suggest that it was the location of the Garden of Eden because Eden and Aden sound a bit similar, especially in English. This helps explain why Yemenis think they are a cut above the rest.

Until 1990, Yemen used to be divided into two states, North Yemen and South Yemen, until leaders in both countries realised they could merge the two countries and save on stationery costs. This however created deep resentments, much like when a couple move in together and have to consolidate their belongings and get used to sleeping in the same room with someone who insists on keeping the windows open even in winter. Such unreasonable behaviour I have never seen before. But I digress.

This deep resentment continued to simmer and boil for the past 25 years, as deep resentments have a habit of doing. We can’t understand what is happening now in Yemen without understanding that this deep resentment has something to do with it, although most experts agree they’re not quite sure what exactly. It is not inappropriate however to suggest that division is a possibility now, particularly if we caveat it with ambiguous references. For example, one can say: ‘the south might push for independence but not unless it has good reasons to do that’.

To complicate matters further, Yemen is not religiously homogenous, which always spices things up in Middle Eastern countries, particularly for external observers looking for convenient categorisations. About two-thirds of Yemenis are Sunni while the other third is Shia. They are however Zaidi Shias unlike the Shias of Iran who are Twelver, but it’s best to lump them all together because it simplifies things immensely.

Yemen is also host to a thriving al-Qaeda community, who are the Houthis’ biggest enemy in Yemen. The Houthis are Zaidis which explains their hatred of al-Qaeda, as if anyone needed a reason to hate al-Qaeda. The two groups are so opposed to each other that the only thing they can agree on is that they both hate America and the Jews, but not necessarily in that order.

The Houthis’ slogan, incidentally, is “Death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam”, which in the words of Tony Blair shows ‘a lack of commitment to the values of tolerance and diversity’, if Tony Blair were to comment on the slogan. It also shows that they are dickheads, but this shouldn’t cloud our judgment of them.

As is generally known, Yemenis consume the stimulant drug Qat in huge quantities. What is less known is that Sunnis refer to it is as Qat, while Shias refer to it as Qit. Children of mixed marriages call it Qit-Qat. On a related note, Yemen is the birthplace of coffee, which we are all hugely grateful for, but it does suggest that Yemenis have a thing for stimulants. As one 19th century anthropologist put it ‘is it any wonder that these people are so jumpy?’

The traditional Yemeni dagger, the Janbiya is also an essential item to understand the political dynamics in Yemen. All Yemeni males wear this item, but here again Sunni Janbiyas curve to the left while Shia Janbiyas curve to the right. However, if you’re standing in front of a mirror it could be a bit confusing.

When the leader of the Houthis gave a speech on television this week, his Janbiya was held in the upright position, which experts agree was a sign of confrontation. In Yemeni culture a dagger is seen as symbol of aggression because it is a phallic symbol. Had he worn it at an angle, or even horizontally, we could have expected his willingness to negotiate. As it stands, the situation looks very dangerous indeed.

So what is in store for Yemen now that the President, the Vice President, the Prime Minister, the Parliament and one third-grade teacher in the north of the country have all resigned? The absence of any political authority in a Middle Eastern country can best be understood through metaphors about the dangers of political vacuums. One can say for example ‘Yemen is facing the abyss’ or ‘staring into the void’ or ‘on the precipice of disintegration’. These phrases, while they don’t actually tell you anything, do convey an appropriate sense of impending doom.

The one thing that we can be certain of now is that Yemen is at a crossroads. In addition to these internal complications, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been both anxious to open another arena for their passive-aggressive regional contest, and Yemen appears to be their choice of venue. To sound wise, suggest that the decline in the price of oil has something do with it, but say you’re not quite sure what. Be prepared for sightings of Iran’s notorious and shadowy General Qasem Soleimani, and don’t hesitate to say ‘Bandar’ at appropriate moments and nod your head knowingly. And keep an eye on the Janbiyas.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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