Yemen: The Story Behind the Patch

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Controversy erupted when I appeared in a photo wearing a jacket with the logo of Ansarullah on my left sleeve while I was in Beijing, having dinner with friends, before my flight to North Korea.

I wore the patch for its symbolic not literal meaning, because it represents Ansarullah, the Zaydi militia (called, “the Houthis”) currently defending Yemen against armed Saudi aggression, a war that certain Australian institutions profit from by investing in the very arms companies that sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, which last month bombed a school bus killing 29 Yemeni children.

This is the worst humanitarian crisis in decades, but it barely gets the coverage it deserves. What did get covered was a bad translation of the Ansarullah patch I wore that Channel 7 presented as a checklist of five statements that supposedly I agree with. That was never the intention, and I’ve since had the patch removed entirely, and am sorry for the offense I caused by it.

That being said, although it most definitely was not my intention, I accept that the patch may have been seen as being offensive and discriminatory towards people of the Jewish religion. I am – and have always been – genuinely opposed to anti-Semitism (and racism of all forms) and consider it to be a repugnant belief, particularly given the traumatic historic memory inherited by the Jewish community. All racism runs counter to my own deepest personal beliefs.

I wore the patch because it’s the symbol of a national resistance movement fighting to defend their nation, which is what this article is about.

Saudi Arabia claims to be acting on behalf of “President” Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, even though they’ve kept him under house arrest since November last year (until recently when he was flown to the US for medical treatment), a “President” who heads the “officially recognized government of Yemen” on whose behalf the Saudis claim they are imposing this naval blockade, producing three years of mass starvation. If conditions don’t improve then the number of Yemenis on the brink of starvation will jump from 8.4 to 18.4 million by the year’s end, says the UN.

The “President” of Yemen imposed on Yemen by Saudi Arabia until he was overthrown

The “President” of Yemen imposed on Yemen by Saudi Arabia until he was overthrown

To its supporters, the ‘September 21 revolution’, marking the bloodless takeover of Sana’a in 2014 by Ansarullah, which in turn sparked the Saudi-led war in March the following year, represents a rejection of Yemen’s subordination to Saudi interests that had prevailed since the assassination of President Ibrahim al Hamdi in 1977 (North Yemen).

Former Yemeni President Ibrahim al Hamdi (1974-77), assassinated most likely at the behest of Saudi Arabia

Former Yemeni President Ibrahim al Hamdi (1974-77), assassinated most likely at the behest of Saudi Arabia

His modernising reforms threatened the old tribal order, while his insistence on improved relations with then socialist South Yemen eventually led to the open secret that the Saudis masterminded his murder, especially since it paved the way for the 34-year reign of Ali Abdalleh Saleh, during which Saudi influence, especially that of Wahhabism, grew rapidly.

When “Arab Spring” protests called for Saleh’s ouster, the Saudis and the GCC stepped in and proposed that Hadi run in an election with only his name on the ballot, and he won. Saudi arrogance can therefore be summarised as follows, how dare Yemenis reject a President we’ve chosen for them?

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, from 1978 (of North Yemen) to 2012. Saudi influence rose steadily under his rule.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, from 1978 (of North Yemen) to 2012. Saudi influence rose steadily under his rule.

Over a century ago, in the power-vacuum following the collapse of the Ottoman empire after WW1, the Saudis and British planned to divide Yemen between them.

The Saudis, armed by Britain, invaded but were repelled by the Zaydis under Imam Yahya whose fight-back secured the current borders of what was then North Yemen, although they were forced to cede the provinces of Asir, Jizan, and Najran, which today are Saudi provinces, ethnically cleansed of their original Yemeni Zaydi population.

In South Yemen, a Communist movement forced the British out by 1967 to establish the only ever Marxist-Leninist Arab republic, however following the Soviet collapse, the reunification of Yemen intensified the Saudi stranglehold over the country, especially as Yemeni jihadists or “mujahideen” returned from their war against the socialist government of Afghanistan, and turned their guns on Yemeni socialist politicians, sparking the 1994 civil war.

For a millennium the Zaydi Imamate that dominated northern Yemen would rally its people against foreign aggression. The Ottomans threw 80,000 troops at the Zaydis but only 7,000 returned, as they “melted away like salt in water” to quote one humbled Ottoman official. Like the Roman and Byzantine invaders before them, they wanted Yemen’s strategic position as the naval gateway to the trading networks of the Indian Ocean, through which a critical mass of Saudi oil flows today.

Map of when the trade route from Kerala to Yemen was one of the world’s busiest, today that passage is just as important for oil shipments

Map of when the trade route from Kerala to Yemen was one of the world’s busiest, today that passage is just as important for oil shipments

Zaydism’s political disposition is defined in a typically Shia manner by khurruj which implores all Muslims to rebel against corrupt and unjust rulers. They name themselves after Zayd ibn Ali, the (half Indian) great-great-grandson of the prophet Muhammad, whose rebellion in 740CE shook the foundations of the Ummayad dynasty, based in Damascus, that had originally usurped power following the assassination of the Fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, who the Shia hold to have been the prophet’s rightful successor.

When Winston Churchill wrote in 1921 that the Saudi Wahhabis “hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all those who do not share their opinions” he was talking about groups like the rebellious Zaydis.

To counter their long-held influence over Yemen, Saudi schools trained the likes of Muqbil bin Hadi al Wadi'i, called the father of Yemeni Salafism, whose conservatism was so extreme he was even of the view that British colonialism was preferable to South Yemen’s socialist revolution. Little wonder why Churchill as PM in 1953 wrote, “my admiration for [King Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us”, especially given the geopolitical subservience to Anglo power espoused by Riyadh.

Today Ansarullah is the glue holding the bulk of the Yemeni state and army together. They call upon all Yemeni political factions to form a united front against the hundred thousand troops mobilised from all the countries Saudi Arabia bought for their “coalition”. Their message to their people is simple, “to the Houthis, the Islahis [Muslim Brotherhood], to the GPC members [former government] and the Socialists… Yemeni sovereignty is being violated.” As for their message to the House of Saud, that’s best captured by their music.

“May the [Saudi] coalition’s armies

Kneeling before the White House

With their crowns and kingdoms

Know that God’s wrath will visit them!”

Yes, it’s true, the Ansarullah patch that I wore in Beijing includes an Arabic phrase that would reasonably offend, and I regret wearing it, but that doesn’t change the plain reality that Yemenis have every right to defend their country regardless of what banner they’re fighting under. Nonetheless

To dwell on that phrase at a time when the Anglo-Saudi alliance to which Australia belongs, is complicit in an actual genocide misses one common feature in the history of genocides, which is that throughout history, the citizenry of the empires perpetrating them are told to focus on the prejudices, whether real or imagined, of the oppressed nation in question, fighting for their very survival.

 
Jay TharappelComment