Yemen’s massive protests that began in January 2011 have reignited existing tribal, ideological, and political conflicts; one of these in particular has taken a very worrisome turn: the Houthi rebellion in the Saada governorate along the northern Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia. The rebellion has assumed an increasingly sectarian character and, over the course of the past year, has moved for the first time far beyond Saada.
As the group of Shi‘i Zaydi revivalists known as the Houthi Movement seizes on the uprisings to expand the territory under their control, Salafi activists have stepped up in their opposition.
Armed conflict in Saada began in 2004 when militant members of the Believing Youth (al-Shabab al-Mu’min), an informal advocacy group for Zaydi culture and education, organized protests against the government that eventually spread to Sanaa. Violence broke out when the government attempted to arrest the group’s leader, Hussein Badr al-din al-Houthi, a former MP representing the al-Haqq party and son of Sheikh Badr al-din al-Houthi, a senior Zaydi scholar respected for both for his theology and his skill for resolving disputes among the tribes and clans of the northern provinces. Followers of al-Houthi (later known collectively as Houthis) expressed a mix of socio-economic and identity grievances; they protested underdevelopment in their governorate in addition to the dilution of Zaydi influence, while also accusing the government of tacitly supporting the expansion of Salafi activists in the area. And though government troops killed the founder on September 9, 2004, the rebellion continued.
Although many observers have rushed to describe the conflict as a new manifestation of the old Sunni-Shi‘a split, such an interpretation ignores both doctrinal and cultural practice in Yemen. Zaydism (adhered to by 35 to 40 percent of Yemenis, but overall a very small subset of the global Shi‘i community) is considered closer to the Shafi‘i school of Sunni Islam (followed by a majority of Yemenis) than other branches of Shi‘a. Some adherents of the more common “Twelver” sect of Shi‘a practiced in Iran and elsewhere even refer to it as the fifth school of Sunni jurisprudence.
In addition, it is important to remember that the battle lines cut across sect. During the multiple rounds of military confrontation, a number of Zaydi tribes and clans fought alongside government forces; many government figures (including former President Ali Abdullah Saleh) are even of Zaydi origin, even though they no longer explicitly refer to that identity.
A more accurate analysis of the conflict should recognize that the Zaydi-Shafi‘i distinction overlaps (for the most part, though not perfectly) with tribal cleavages at the center of Yemeni politics, and the sectarian distinction is simultaneously also geographical distinction. Almost all Zaydis belong to north-central highland tribes as do some Shafi‘is, though the latter make up the majority of lowland and urban populations. The overlap of sectarian differences with tribal and regional identities means that sect can always become a factor in rebel recruitment.
This was not lost on Saleh’s regime, which for decades practiced “management through conflict” as the most essential tool of governance in the northern provinces. In the minds of the population in these provinces, the Yemeni state is no more than a “checkpoint state,” which appears along the highway in the form of few soldiers standing next to an empty oil drum, or a “garrison state,” which occasionally patrols the road that links the main districts of provinces. Critics of Saleh’s regime also accused it of manipulating sectarianism among tribes to receive financial and military aid from Riyadh, for which an autonomous Zaydi zone at its borders has always been a nightmare scenario. Saudi Arabia openly entered the fighting in November 2009 with the launch of a major military operation in response to Houthi incursions, raising concerns that such direct involvement would prompt greater Iranian intervention. Thus, the tangled roots of politicized sectarianism lie in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry in the region and Saleh’s politics of manipulation.
But over the past year, the conflict has also taken greater sectarian overtones. The Houthis have long complained of the spread of Salafism in Yemen, but only recently have they begun targeting Salafi religious activities directly. Their attacks and occupation of Salafi mosques have sent shock waves through the loose and non-hierarchical coalition of Salafi networks dispersed across the country. Salafi activism, which emerged in Yemen in the 1980s (imported by Yemeni migrant workers coming back from Saudi Arabia as well the thousands of Yemeni jihadists who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan), does not have a single power base but is instead organized around teaching centers, charity organizations, and mosques.
Confrontations reached dramatically brutal levels when Houthi rebels set siege to the town of Dammaj in Saada in mid-October 2011 and launched attacks on its famous Salafi-run Dar al-Hadith religious institute. The two-month siege prevented basic supplies, including water and food, from entering the town. Dozens of students at the institute, including a number of foreign nationals, were killed.
Between 2004 and 2010, the conflict was characterized by low-level fighting between the Houthis and the Yemeni military—periodically escalating into more violent bouts. In the last year, however, the Houthis have capitalized on the withdrawal of the army to Sanaa (to strengthen the position of the embattled regime at the capital) by expanding their operations. And while not the first time the movement has tried to expand beyond Saada, this ambitious geographical reach is unprecedented. It now controls the entire Saada governorate as well as a large number of districts in the neighboring governorates: Amran, al-Jawf, and Hajjah. The movement appears to seek access to the small Red Sea port of Midi, which would allow maritime passage to weapons logistical support from Iran.
While the scale of Iran’s involvement remains unclear, recent reports claim Iran is increasing its political outreach and logistical and financial support of the rebellion. Domestically, the Houthis have boycotted the GCC-led transfer-of-power deal signed last November—including February’s presidential referendum. They have also rejected calls by the transitional government, headed by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, to lay down their arms and participate in the political transition. Most recently, they announced they will not take part in the upcoming national dialogue because it has been “imposed by the US and other countries by force.” Unfortunately, there are no positive signs about the future of this conflict; as it becomes less localized and more sectarian, it also threatens to become increasingly internationalized.There's an easier way. In the developing world, buying a car is virtually synonymous with entry into the middle class. In these countries, car ownership separates those with the ability to purchase many other nonessentials from those within the wider population. Car statistics, moreover, are generally reliable and frequently updated, and they include data by automobile type that can be used to further segment the middle class. For this reason, the number of passenger cars in circulation serves as the most reliable gauge we have about the size of a country's middle class.
Applying this measure significantly alters our understanding of the middle class in the developing world. It shows that there are many more affluent people in developing countries than had previously been thought and that about 70 developing countries with a combined population of about 4 billion are near or above the point where car ownership rises very rapidly. This suggests that very large numbers of people will enter the middle class in the coming years, transforming the economies and political systems of the countries they inhabit.
Just What Is the Middle Class, Anyway?
The middle class in the developing world is rising. The only question is how high it will go and how fast it will get there. About 85 percent of the world's people live in developing countries, yet they accounted for only 18 percent of global consumer spending just a decade ago; today, they account for nearly 30 percent. Consumer spending in developing countries has been increasing at about three times the rate in advanced countries, and we're not just seeing a growing demand for necessities, but also for middle-class staples such as meat, toothpaste, cell phones, and air-conditioners.
Measuring the global middle class isn't just an academic exercise -- its growth carries real-world implications. Political scientists are interested in the topic because a large middle class is associated with greater political awareness, desire for more accountable and representative government, and even demand for free markets. Economists and market analysts are mainly interested in the size of the middle class as an indicator of a population's ability to rise from poverty and purchase items that go beyond bare necessities.
But here's the problem: The world has never agreed on a universally accepted definition of what constitutes "middle class." The broadest classification is too low; it suggests the middle class is anyone who is not poor, which according to the World Bank means those who earn an income in excess of $2 a day after adjusting for purchasing power. That level has now been achieved by more than 4 billion of the world's 7 billion people, but while many people earning $2 a day are able to afford a cell phone, their income is far too low to afford amenities such as a regular power supply or clean water.
The narrowest classification defines middle class as individuals with an income close to or above the median income in advanced countries -- roughly $85 a day at U.S. prices. Only about 12 percent of the world's population lives in countries whose average per capita income is higher than that threshold, and only a very tiny minority in developing countries would qualify. This level of income, moreover, exceeds by a factor of seven the income needed to buy a car (around $4,000), not to mention most other big-ticket consumer items, indicating that the definition is far too narrow and too high.
Many other measures have been proposed in between these extremes. The most widely used measure was proposed in 2002 by World Bank economist Branko Milanovic and Hebrew University professor Shlomo Yitzhaki, who counted people with daily incomes between roughly $10 and $50 a day, after adjusted for purchasing-power parity, as middle class. If one uses this definition, there are an estimated 369 million people in the developing G-20 economies -- Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey -- who qualify as "middle class."
Such income-based measures of the middle class suffer from a number of deficiencies, however. First, they are based on infrequently conducted household surveys, which vary enormously in quality. Second, incomes, even when adequately measured, do not directly reflect private consumption. The share of government spending as a proportion of GDP varies greatly across countries, for example, and households in different countries and at different levels of income exhibit very different savings behavior. (Think of poor and high-savings China at one end and the United States, which is rich and has a low savings rate, at the other).