Rumors about Yemen’s Houthis cause panic in Saudi’s southern region

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Yemeni tribesmen attend a tribal meeting held by Houthi rebels in Sanaa, Yemen on October 31, 2014. Anadolu Agency/Mohammed Hamoud

By: Abha-Sara al-Mushafi

Published Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Saudi Arabia and Yemen share a strong relationship, mainly in terms of social bonds between the residents of southern Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen. Politics aside, the intertwined regions impact the daily lives of ordinary citizens on both sides of the border, meaning that these people are the first to suffer from any potential disputes that arise between the two neighbors.

Abha, Saudi Arabia – To the south of Saudi Arabia lies the region of Najran, which hosts some of the region’s Shia Ismaili tribes. Assir is located to the southwest, with the vital city of Abha situated on top of the Sarawat mountain range, and both are linked by rugged and curved paths. Abha was built in the mountains a long time ago, just like Aqaba Dolh that recently had its road paved.

These pathways and roads continue downward, reaching the Tihamah plains near the Arabian pennisula’s western coastal area and extends to a vital region known as al-Darab, a small village historically known for its hospitality to travelers, and renowned for being a stopping point and a crossroad for those wishing to travel south to Yemen.

A traveler heading to Yemen must pass through a number of villages, which over time had transformed into towns and small cities, like Bish and Sabya, all the way to the port city of Jizan, the economic hub of the south, located one hour away from the Haradah border point, and therefore is considered an important gateway into Yemen.
The description above suggests that the natural ties between southern Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen are not restricted to merely neighboring lands and districts that follow two distinguished governments. Rather, the regions impact all aspects of life, including social norms and the traditions prevailing in the area, which are quite different from the customs in other parts of Saudi Arabia.

In addition, the people of Jizan in the southmost point of Saudi Arabia, have a history of intermarrying Yemenis, surpassing social ties with Saudi residents of the Sarawat mountains or the elevated regions of Assir in the south.

Taking into consideration the demographic nature of the region that extends from the south of Saudi Arabia to the north of Yemen, mostly hosting the al-Hakmi and al-Adarissa tribes, among others, it is normal to see similar rituals, social practices, traditions, and even shared dialects between Yemen and the Saudi Jizan region. In effect, this reflects what can be considered a unified cultural identity.

One cannot ignore the constant migrations across the border crossings between the two regions, including arms trafficking and illegal entry of Yemeni and African laborers through the south into Saudi Arabia.

Ever since the war between the Saudi army and the Houthis erupted in 2009, residents of southern Saudi Arabia have constantly been concerned about the prospects of new violent clashes.

Their fears quickly spread amongst the population, buttressed by many exaggerations and false information about Ansar Allah’s [the military wing of Yemen’s Houthi movement] strength and repressive acts.

Ansar Allah was depicted as if it sought to impose hegemony over Saudi Arabia’s south, while regular citizens were not informed about the true nature of the Houthi movement in Yemen. Hence, the mere mentioning of the word “Houthi” was enough to manifest the belief that a warlord was approaching or a saboteur was seeking to take over the entire country and displace its people.

This drove many residents out of their homes in the border region of Jizan, as Saudi authorities attempted to distance them from any potential clashes in the area.
Panic soon spread amongst citizens living across the borders, all the way to the mountain tops, as rumors and fabricated stories circulated about Houthis, mainly depicting them as some form of a modern day bogeymen.

In addition, people’s obliviousness to the political details further exacerbated the situation, especially as the educated elite in Saudi Arabia started propagating political analysis in the press that suggested that “Safavid Iran” was and continues to support the Houthi “Shia” insurgency in Yemen.

Although such news and rumors faded away a few months ago, the crisis was reignited following Ansar Allah’s recent takeover of the Yemeni cities of Sana’a and Hudaydah.

Saudis living in the Assir Mountains now share stories of “Yemeni Houthis practicing trade in the mountains of the Soda region near Abha,” expressing their concerns about “a Houthi plan to control villages and cities in southern Saudi.”

Certainly, sectarianism is playing a leading role in kindling these fears, particularly since Houthis are commonly presented as “Shia monsters” seeking to “humiliate Sunnis.”

Many in Saudi Arabia’s south today are fearful about a Houthi expansion into the territory.

They are quite aware about the close links between southern Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen, and that what happens in the latter naturally will highly impact their lives, and others are greatly concerned about stories swirling that tell of criminal activity by foreigners sneaking through the Yemeni borders, harassing and attacking homes along the Assir mountain range.

The people of the south know very little about Yemeni politics and do not really understand the Saudi political approach toward Yemen. All they know is that a threat has emerged in Yemen.

In the end, it appears that all this mobilization against the Houthis and the spread of rumors against them have succeeded in spreading panic in southern Saudi Arabia.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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