Shi’a against Sunni…or Iranian against Arab? And Memories of Yemen

Much of the columnist pontifications on the Middle East mess these days from the Western gurus of Islamic and Arab knowledge have been proclaiming the beginning of an all-out war between the two main sects of Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’a.  In my experience, as vitally important as religious identification is to the Muslim individual, his blood identity always trumps it.  That is to say the identity of being an Arab is stronger that his Shi’a or Sunni affiliation.  This may seem out-of-sync with current conflicts raging in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.  Nevertheless, as time and these conflicts play out the blood conflict will surmount religious ones.

The oft-heard opinion that Iraq has become an Iranian colony is stupid.  Yes, the Iraqi  Shi’a government is beholden to the Shi’a Iranians for the simple reason that for decades the only friends the Iraqi Shi’a had were the Iranians.  When the Sunni Arab world was looking the other way as Saddam murdered thousands of Shi’a, the Iranians were sympathetic and granted asylum to Iraqis who had no other place to go.  After the vacuum created by the U.S. invasion and precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, the Iranians stepped in.  As the totally inept Iraqi army with a corrupt leadership fell apart before the onslaught of the ISIL, the U.S. offered only token training support and pin  prick air attacks.  As one sees on Iraqi social media, they ask why the Americans should complain about Iranian intervention when they (the Americans) offer only marginal assistance.  So there is no doubt that Iranian influence is very strong, especially in the south of Iraq, where a visitor is, for example, overwhelmed with the prevalence of Khomenei posters, rather than those of Iraqi Shi’a cleric, Al-Sistani.  Moreover the Iranian rial is often used in Basra rather than Iraqi dinaars.  Sometimes signs are in Farsi rather than Arabic.  Nevertheless, it has to be remembered that the Iraqi army with about a 75% percentage of Shi’a Iraqis fought against Sh i’a Iranians for eight years and suffered, by far, the greatest percentage of casualties.  Fear of Saddamist retribution was no doubt a factor, but by no means all of it.  Likewise, on the other side, the Arabs of Khuzistan stayed loyal to the Iranian  regime despite the Saddamist miscalculation that the Iranian Arabs would flock to the Iraqi side. They did not.  Similarly, Assad’s regime could not have survived supported only by a small Alawite population.  Obviously the Bashir Assad regime has the support of a significant part of the Sunni population as well.

In Yemen the Houthi successes are being credited to Iranian support, but again there is simply no way the Shi’a Houthis could be penetrating so deeply into conservative Sunni areas without significant elements of the Sunni population assisting, or at least not resisting.  From my experience and visits there, all Yemenis are armed and ready to fight against anyone invading their territory.  So as elsewhere, the seemingly Shi’a Sunni conflict is far more nuanced than assumed by so many in the West.  From my study and one visit in 1969 in which my wife and I traveled all over western Iran there is a certain  evident superiority attitude among the Iranians that is summarized by an old Farsi proverb, that “dogs drink ice water in Tehran while Arabs eat lizards in the desert.”  I think this will  come through clearly among the Iranian trainers working with the Arabs. Arabs always refer to the Iranians as genetically duplicitous.  So the Persians or Iranians will be welcomed in the Arab world as long as they are useful to whatever Arab local movement they are supporting…but not a day longer.

Speaking of Yemen….this is the reflection part of my blog…I vividly remember my visit there in 1989.  A number of pictures stand out in my mind. One was the chewing of Qat by everyone.  Those who know about these things told me is was like drinking 40 cups of coffee.  It is an energy booster and most Yemenis are addicted to it, creating many problems in Yemeni society.  For starters it takes up a good part of the Yemeni’s day.  Pickup trucks roll in around noon and the Yemenis gather around and start chewing, all the while smoking cigarettes, and drinking strong coffee.  Many hours are wasted doing not much of anything but chewing Qat.

yemen map It is a stimulant and after a couple of hours of being made excitable and talkative (the Yemeni sociability revolves around Qat) they begin to come down off their high and become very irritable.  Perhaps this explains a bit of their proclivity for violence.  Secondly, Qat is a very “thirsty” plant and uses an inordinate amount of water to cultivate, water that Yemen does not have.  Thirdly, it is a cash crop and the miserably poor Yemeni farmers grow it rather than food products and the great coffee they used to be famous for.  The Yemeni “government” (usually a bad joke) has sometimes made rather feeble efforts to curtail its use but to no avail. Slide29

Another memory of mine is the love of Yemenis for weapons, especially their rifles, mostly AKA-47’s, but an assortment of every small arm in the world.  Yemenis were not allowed to carry weapons inside the capital city of San’aa (this was when they still had a government whose writ extended only a few miles outside the city).  But all male Yemenis wore a Qanjar, a curved knife, some being very elaborate.  I went a few miles outside the city for some shooting and I remember the “InshaAllah” attitude toward safety exhibited by the   Yemenis shooting in all directions with the rounds ricocheting off the rock formations. Slide26 I also remember being taken to an arms market only a few miles outside Sana. Virtually every small arms weapon in the world was being sold, including quite a few M-16s, machine guns, grenades, rocket propelled grenades ( RPGs) of every make, and even some small mortars.  Most were of Chinese manufacture.  The American NCO’s working with the Yemenis admired their combative spirit and willingness to face danger.  They got along very well with the Yemenis; Saudis did not.

Their mission in Yemen was huge and Saudi officials were everywhere,  usually acting in an  overbearing manner.  The Yemenis viewed the Saudis as soft and effete.  One facet of their uneasy relationship that is often overlooked is the Saudi province of Asir in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia. It  is inhabited by people similar in tradition and culture to the Yemenis of the north and the Saudis are always afraid the Yemenis may claim it.  There was always the fear that the better Yemeni soldiers and a population   similar in size to that of  Saudi Arabia would always be a threat.  The Saudis simultaneously look down on the Yemenis  but at the same time are  scared witless by them.. Slide25 Yemenis are more reserved than most Arabs and harder to get to know, but the American soldiers who worked with them liked them and said that once one got to know them they were very friendly and more loyal to friends than many in the Arab world.  The marriage of South Yemen to North Yemen was a shotgun wedding and the cultures of the two states were (and are) very different. The once bustling port of Aden under British control since the early 1800’s was cosmopolitan with a large indian population.  The enforced integration of the Yemens  came about as a result of the North Yemenis overruning the south in  a war. But it was not long to last.  In 1994 the war was renewed.  It began in a motor park, where tank units of  both the South and North Yemenis (the armies were never integrated) were  parked.  The tanks began shooting at each other at point blank range, and the rebellion spread from there to most of the country.  The South Yemenis, who at one time were the most dedicated communist country in the Middle East, even using female soldiers, were  nevertheless supported by Saudi Arabia to  ensure that Yemen stayed in two pieces and weak.  Unfortunately the North won and the beer halls and alcohol distilleries of Aden  were smashed and Yemen once again became one unhappy nation.  An astute observer of the Yemeni scene once wrote that, “Yemen is tribes and tribes are Yemen.”  He is right.



Picture  below is of myself and an American officer traveling with me.  We were surrounded by students from South Yemen, who for first time were visiting the recently  soon to be unified Yemen.  It officially happened in 1990 when Ali Saleh, president for life, assumed control.  The students seemed thrilled to see Americans and apparently were surprised to see we did not have pitchforks and horns as they were endoctrinated in the  former Communist South Yemen.  I have many anecdotes to explain life in Yemen but I will save those for another time. Suffice it to say that at this time any outside nation allowing itself to become embroiled in a Yemeni civil war is in deep trouble. yemen with so yemenis

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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3 Responses to Shi’a against Sunni…or Iranian against Arab? And Memories of Yemen

  1. says:

    Very interesting article, Tex. You never see any of this in the Drive-By’s babbling.   Dave.

  2. Connie Piper says:

    I work with International students who are wonderful allies to us in their respective countries. I have only met one from Yemen in the 4 years that I have had this job. I truly wish we would get more of these wonderful students.

    • Tex says:

      Thanks Connie always apprecoate your encouragement and the cultural views you get from your the International students

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