Farea al-Muslimi is a Yemeni activist turned journalist and now a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. In 2013, Foreign Policy named him in its list of Global Thinkers after Farea’s testimony to the US Senate about the effects of drone warfare in Yemen.
Farea was in the Yemeni capital Sana in April during the Saudi-led aerial bombardment of the city. I spoke with him from Beirut about the brutal war raging in his country between Houthi rebels and their foes, and the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign to stop the Houthis, who have allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Laura Kasinof: Western media often portray the war in Yemen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. How accurate is that?
Farea al-Muslimi: Well, obviously, until very recently it was not accurate at all. However, it is hard recently to eliminate the regional proxy war from what is happening in Yemen. The conflict in Yemen is not rooted in a regional conflict. It exists for domestic reasons and because of domestic actors, but at the same time, it has become a part of a bigger regional war that is not just about Yemen.
Can you elaborate about how it has become a regional conflict?
Yemen has always been seen as the Mexico of the Gulf, the poor country in the region that no one paid much attention to, even its neighbors. That all changed recently when Iran started to increase its influence in the Gulf’s backyard and started to have direct influence with the Houthis more than in the past. For that reason, Saudi Arabia started to freak out and at the same time the Houthis began provoking the Saudis. It has become a conflict between two powers more than before, which has started to have implications for the entire region. Yemen is just the beginning.
How about this idea that sectarianism, Sunni versus Shia, has started to show up in Yemen, since the Houthis are largely Shia, and that sectarianism is a driver of the country’s internal conflict?
OK, so this is true if you speak about the war against Al Qaeda. Before September 21 [when the Houthis took over Sana] the war against Al Qaeda was every Yemeni’s war, from the north to the south, east to west. However, now that the Houthis have begun to fight Al Qaeda, it has started to fuel a sectarian war, in a country that was never sectarian.
There are people in in central and southern Yemen who were effectively at war with Al Qaeda, but as soon as the Houthis showed up, they found themselves in the same camp as Al Qaeda defending against the foreign invasion of the Houthis from the north. For the first time, this started to give Al Qaeda a lot of environment to find support.