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Yemen’s Houthi-Ahmar sectarian framing

Wherever I read about the recent tragic wars raging in the northern parts of the country; the ‘S’ and ‘Sh’ words have to be mentioned

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

Framing matters. It shapes the way we react to a story. It focuses our attention to some details and distracts us from others. It connects a story to another set of stories, and separates it from others. Framing can make a story relevant or irrelevant. Ideally framing would be made through a serious process of observation and analysis. But more than often it is guided by the interests of those framing or their audiences.

Sometimes writers lack the sophistication to see the complexity of the world, so they select simple frames. Other times politicians see that a certain frame serves their interests more than another. Thus they only hear stories framed in their preferred way.

Sticking to Nonsense

I am saying this because of the ways the conflicts in the Middle East are framed as a Sunni/Shiite conflict. And I keep asking myself; why this insistence on retaining such a superficial way of analyzing the region and its conflicts? Why insisting on reincarnating Huntington’s clash of civilization thesis albeit in a ‘clash of sects’ variety?

Wherever I read about the recent tragic wars raging in the northern parts of the country; the ‘S’ and ‘Sh’ words have to be mentioned

Abdullah Hamidaddin

It is true that there are cases where the actors are explicitly saying this is a sectarian war and where their motives may actually be sectarian.

But those cases are very rare and only exhibited by zealots on either side; hardly a reason to make theories about the whole region.

And then there are cases where I can understand that someone would make a mistake and analyze in Sunni/Shiite terms; such as the conflict in Syria, or the regional competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Harsher opinions

Yet there are cases where I reserve some of my harsher opinions on those who make such a nonsensical analysis. And most of the conflicts in Yemen fall into this category.

Wherever I read about the recent tragic wars raging in the northern parts of the country; the ‘S’ and ‘Sh’ words have to be mentioned. Even in the most obvious situations, where religion is clearly not a factor in the war, let alone sectarianism. Where sectarian affinities cross conflict lines; where many of those fighting don’t identify as Sunni or Shiite… In those situations I can only wonder!

And this mistake is made by all media outlets. Is it their reporters who are biased or misinformed? Or is it their editorial team who does not know enough about Yemen and the region? Or a bit of both? To give an example; here is how one leading news source framed the story as: “Shiite Muslim rebels and Sunni tribesmen agreed a local ceasefire in northern Yemen on Tuesday after clashes between the rivals killed about 60 people there last week, tribal sources said.”

The Houthi-Ahmar Conflict

So what was really happening?

There was a war waging for the past few weeks between the Houthis and the Ahmars. This was a war in the waiting. Or to be more accurate this was another chapter in a conflict that started ten years ago.

If you remember in 2004 a series of wars erupted between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in the Northern regions of Yemen. The Ahmars were in the heart of that war. They supported the government against the Houthis and mobilized some of their followers in the fighting. The motives of the Ahmars were purely political. The Ahmars are the tribal leaders of an important confederation of tribes called Hashid.

Hashid’s territories neighbor the territories where the Houthis were consolidating power. Actually the Houthi areas had been for the past 40 years the Ahmars’ backyard. To make matters worse some of the members of the Ahmars’ confederation were gravitating towards the Houthis and pointing their guns against their traditional leaders.

Also the Houthis emerged from the six rounds of war which the government waged on them stronger. When President Saleh was ousted they were formally recognized as a political power and incorporated into the National Dialogue process. But they had other ambitions. Saleh’s absence left a major power vacuum. It also weakened the State more than it already was. So they stepped up their activity.

Losing control

For the first time in decades the Ahmars felt they were losing control and that a new local power was seriously threatening their very existence. And in Yemen where civil politics is weak, the only option is military politics.

It was a matter of when. And the recent events have been just that: a series of escalations, conflicts, truces, and then escalations again. And they will continue until one side is totally defeated, or until there is a strong government that can force peace and security across Yemen.

This is a summary of a very complex story. I only mentioned two sides here, while there are quite a few actors involved, from inside Yemen and outside. But I did not mention it to detail the events, rather to point to a different framing of the events.

Benefits of Sectarian Framing

But why insist on framing it as Sunni/Shiite? I can think of a couple of reasons.

First: by doing that one can make the connection between the Houthis and Iranians stronger. The Houthis have long been accused of being an Iranian vassal@. The easiest way to support that claim is to insist on the Shiite-ness of the Houthis and their conflicts.

Second: it gives the conflict regional significance. To say that this is a power struggle makes it a very local issue. To say that this is a Sunni/Shiite conflict makes it a part of a larger regional issue. Either way it is wrong. This is a struggle over power. Plain and simple. And it is an obscene distortion of the facts to throw in Sunnism and Shiitesm into the analysis.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.