Bani Saud’s role in the destruction of Yemen is by now well known. Since the start of the Saudi-led invasion in March 2015, at least 60,000 Yemenis have been killed, according to the Associated Press. Over half a million people are estimated to be suffering from cholera as a direct result of the destruction caused by the invasion, and over 10 million Yemeni civilians are either suffering from, or facing the prospect of, imminent starvation.
Yet for all the information that finally has started to seep through the mainstream media and the world’s collective consciousness, the bloody history of Saudi imperialism in Yemen remains largely unexplored.
Far from being a sad one-time event, the Saudi invasion of Yemen in March 2015 was but the latest in a long history of interventionism and aggression by Riyadh against the Yemeni people, a dark history that has been taking place ever since the Saudi kingdom’s inception in 1932.
By that time, the ancient realm of Yemen, ruled by elected Zaydi Imams since 897ce, had already suffered from a long series of invasions by both the Ottomans from the north and British colonialists from overseas. By 1874, most of southern Yemen had been colonized by the British, under the Aden Protectorate.
However, the Yemeni heartland in the north and west, incidentally the areas where the Saudis have consistently failed to make any military headway, were gradually reunited in the early-20th century under the rule of Imam Yahya Muhammad Hamid al-Din. He set out to modernize and stabilize the Yemeni state, and established close relations with other Arab and Muslim states.
However the concept of a united Yemen, refusing to accept foreign influence, was a thorn in the side of the British colonialists, especially since it was seen as a threat to their control over Aden. Efforts to exercise control over the Imamate — for example by British intelligence officer Gilbert Clayton, who was instrumental in the British orchestration of the “Arab Revolt” during World War I and worked as an attaché to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud, repeatedly failed.
Moreover, Bani Saud also had their eyes on Yemen. The country had both a large population and large amounts of fertile soil. The promise of direct access to the Gulf of Aden and thus to the Arabian Sea, together with the extremely strategically located chokepoint of the Bab al-Mandab strait, made Yemen a very precious prize. Bab al-Mandab measures only 19 km in width, and connects the Gulf of Aden (gateway to the Arabian Sea and thus to the Indian Ocean) with the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Secondly, the ancient Yemeni Imamate, with its rich history of coexistence of religious communities and various Islamic schools of thought, was in direct contradiction to the myopic Wahhabi exclusivism that the new Saudi monarchy espoused. The Zaydi madhhab, to which Imam Hamid al-Din belonged and which held that any descendant of the Prophet (pbuh) could be elected to the position of imam, was a grave threat to the absolutist rule of Bani Saud that had erupted from the dark crevices of the Najdi desert. Having already driven the Hashimi clan out of power in the Hijaz, the British-backed self-declared monarchy saw Yemen as an existential threat to its power in the Arabian Peninsula.
A clear example of the reputation of Bani Saud can be found in Imam Hamid al-Din’s reply to ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud’s demands for control over Greater Yemen, “Who is this Bedouin, coming to challenge my family’s 900-year rule?”
In March 1934, the Najdi Bedouins now in control of much of the Arabian Peninsula declared war on Yemen, and advanced on the northern Yemeni border provinces of al-‘Asir, Jizan, Najran, and Baha. With British military support, and backed by Ikhwani (not associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) militias, the Saudi forces advanced all the way to the port city of Hodeydah, forcing Imam Hamid al-Din to cede the four northern territories of Yemen to the Saudi occupiers.
When mainstream media reports on the ongoing conflicts in Najran and Jizan, two areas in which the Yemeni Armed Forces have made significant gains fighting the Saudi invading forces, they often forget to mention that these territories are historical Yemeni lands that have been subjected to forced relocation of entire population groups since the 1930s.
Imam Hamid al-Din was assassinated under highly suspicious circumstances in 1948, after which his son Ahmad ibn Yahya took power. Not bothering with the traditional imam elections, Ahmad turned the country into a de facto monarchy. When he was succeeded by his similarly unelected son Muhammad al-Badr in 1962, a republican revolution broke out.
Saudi Arabia, along with the British and the United States, started sending large amounts of military support to the Royalists, hoping to curry favour with al-Badr and prevent republican sentiment from gaining a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula. In 1967, South Yemen became independent under a Communist-led government, putting even more fear in the hearts of the already terrified Bani-Saud rulers.
However, by 1970 it had become clear to the Saudis that the position of the Yemeni monarchy had become untenable. In a shock decision, Saudi Arabia recognized the Yemeni republic, in exchange for the reintegration of royalist officials into the new government. This made Yemen into the Arabian Peninsula’s first, and so far only, republic.
For the next several decades, Saudi influence increased gradually but significantly. In 1977, Saudi Arabia actively participated in the overthrow and assassination of Yemeni president Ibrahim al-Hamdi, a Pan-Arab Socialist who was negotiating with South Yemen about unification.
Ultimately, in 1978 the increased Saudi influence on Yemeni politics led to the rule of ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, a military strongman of the country until 2012. As WikiLeaks documents have shown, Wahhabi infiltration of Yemen reached alarming proportions under Salih’s rule, with Riyadh bribing government officials and tribal leaders alike to facilitate this goal.
The most influential of these Wahhabi preachers was Muqbil ibn Hadi al-Wadi‘i, a Yemeni who studied in Saudi Arabia under the infamous Saudi cleric ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Baz. In the 1980s, al-Wadi‘i established one of the world’s major Wahhabi training centers, right in the middle of the Yemeni heartland. Al-Wadi‘i enjoyed extensive protection from both Riyadh and Salih, especially due to his fanatical belief that Muslims should always obey their worldly rulers, regardless of how corrupt or removed from Islamic principles they may be. This tenet, which was also central in the philosophy of Ibn Taymiyah, is a direct antithesis of the Islamic command to “command the common good and forbid the evil” (3:104), and a complete denial of the Zaydi school’s command that unjust rulers should always be opposed, even if they are self-professed Muslims.
It was in resistance to all this that Sayyid Husayn al-Huthi founded Ansarullah in 1994. He was martyred in 2004 for making this bold move. From 2004 to 2010, the Salih regime waged six different wars against Ansarullah and by extension the Zaydi population of northern Yemen. Estimates of the number of people massacred run up to 25,000 in these bloody attacks, with direct support from the United States and Saudi Arabia. The bloodiest of these attacks was Operation Scorched Earth in 2010, when the Saudi army directly invaded Yemeni territory, resulting in around 8,000 deaths in just six months’ time.
American diplomats at the time described the Saudi position on Ansarullah as “dangerous and delusional” and expressed the fear that Saudi Arabia “will act irrationally.” This warning has turned out to be true but it has not prevented Washington from consistently supporting the Saudi regime.
The March 2015 Saudi-led invasion of Yemen is nothing new, at least not from the Yemeni perspective. It is a new, more open and extremely bloody chapter in the long and shameful history of the Saudi monarchy’s imperialist ambitions toward the land that was once called Arabia Felix: Blessed Arabia.
Brecht Jonkers specialises in the history of the Muslim East.