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The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged yemen
Diary: In Sanaa

A must-read piece on the Houthis by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad:

The Houthis’ supreme military commander, Abu Ali al-Hakem, is a delicate and compact man, one of the original 75 who fought alongside Hussein in the first battle in the mountains of Marran and one of the few who survived. In Sanaa one evening I watched him enter the Houthis’ headquarters accompanied by two gunmen; his arrival caused a flutter among even the most senior apparatchiks. He wore a dark blue coat over a crisp white dishdasha, with a leather pistol holster strapped to his chest. He spoke of his memories of the war, of a day of heavy battle, it was the third or fourth war, he couldn’t remember. The Houthis had lost many men and they were besieged. ‘At dawn the fighting stopped and I decided to take a break. I switched on the TV. I wanted to see what the world was saying about us: the whole world would be speaking of this battle. I flipped through the channels. There was nothing, even from countries we call our friends, nothing in Iranian or Arabic. There was no mention of us. We were alone and there was no one to help us.’ He spoke in the language of good and evil. ‘How can we not win if we have God with us?’ The Houthis – from Abu Ali al-Hakem to the lowliest fighter – all spoke in the same terms, a logic developed after a decade of war and siege in the mountains. They were the pure and all their enemies or those who raised their voice to oppose them – leftists, the media, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadis – were all Daesh, or Isis, or agents of the US and the Saudis. Their enemies in turn portrayed them as an Iranian militia, alongside those of Bashar al-Assad and the Sadrists in Iraq.
The Fight For Yemen, Continued

Welcome to the second installment of contributor Paul Mutter's fascinating history of conflict in Yemen. Here he focuses on Egypt's 1960s intervention, when Nasser and his generals sent thousands of troops to support a coup against the Saudi-backed ruling monarchy there.  

In 1962, shortly before their own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen began, Egyptian advisors who had been stationed there to reform the ruling Imam’s army spoke respectfully of how the locals had managed to defeat all of the Ottoman forces sent to the region in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this respect was absent at the highest levels of command back in Cairo when it launched its own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen. The Nasserists by and large regarded Yemen as a backwater led by a medieval despot and populated by superstitious primitives, much as Western publications did during the 1934 Saudi invasion.

Major General Saladin al-Hadidi, as recounted by Jesse Ferris in Nasser’s Gamble, was so dismissive of the Yemenis he told a colleague who had just returned from North Yemen that given enough whizz-bangs and smoke machines, he could put on such a display as to freeze royalists guerillas in their tracks. Mr. al-Hadidi’s military intelligence directorate could not supply the Egyptian armed forces with accurate maps of the countryside immediately outside of Sana’a. Cairo quite literally did not bother painting an accurate picture of the place it went to war over.

Believing that North Yemen was the weakest link of the Arab monarchies, Egypt’s leaders enthusiastically greeted a September 1962 coup against the country’s hereditary Zaydi leader, Imam al-Badr, by a military faction led by a lower class Zaydi named Abdullah al-Sallal (later “President-Field Marshal” Sallal). Sallal’s co-conspirators styled themselves as “free officers” like those who had deposed Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952, proclaiming an end to slavery and a reign of terror against the Imam’s supporters. As soon as they took over the capital, Gamal Abdel Nasser rushed in arms, advisors, money, and “Free Yemeni” émigrés (one of whom was married to Anwar Sadat’s sister) that had been on standby for just such an occasion. Never mind that al-Badr had been more favorably inclined towards the Egyptians and Soviet bloc than his mentally ill father Ahmed (d. 1962) had been.[1] Or that Nasser himself had let this weakest link, “medieval” monarchy and all, join Cairo in a defense pact in 1958 to spite the Saudis.

Militiamen mark the overthrow of Imam al-Badr; Sallal is on the banner, 1962 - Sana'a (AP)

Militiamen mark the overthrow of Imam al-Badr; Sallal is on the banner, 1962 - Sana'a (AP)

If Egypt did not set the precise date for the coup, it had at least approved the concept of a putsch by Nasserist sympathizers in advance. It is clear that Cairo was well prepared for such a scenario, having been buying up Soviet airplanes to allow them to intervene in Yemen on short notice, broadcasting venomous propaganda, and grooming the “Free Yemenis” to return in triumph.

Nasser was frustrated by failures elsewhere in the Arab world, failures he had come to blame on Saudi Arabia and Britain. Two years earlier, his beloved United Arab Republic had collapsed as the result of a Syrian Army coup that he had been powerless to reverse. So Nasser decided to bring Yemen into his fold and, for good measure, incite a revolt on the Saudi border. The Army, convinced of its superiority despite its poor showing during the 1956 Suez Crisis and embroiled in an internal power struggle among the “Free Officers,” marched alongside the president with blinders on.

Cairo first deployed 100 soldiers, mainly to protect the Soviet and Egyptian advisors already present in the new “Yemen Arab Republic” (YAR). That number soon mushroomed to 5,000 and kept climbing as the counterinsurgency intensified. 55,000 men were deployed in North Yemen by the middle of the decade, possibly upwards of 70,000. Even though the Egyptians, backed by Soviet equipment and pilots, claimed victory after victory, Nasser apparently began looking for an “out” as early as 1963 due to the effects of the war on Egypt’s international image and domestic stability.

Many Yemenis fought against the republicans not to restore the unpopular monarchy, but out of resentment of the Egyptians and to resist the YAR’s efforts to centralize power. When peace eventually did come about – an uneasy one to be sure, punctuated in years to come by coups and small revolts – it was because enough Sunni and Shia tribes felt secure in the new republican system to lay down (but not turn over) their arms.

Egyptian trainer and YAR recruit, date unknown (Wikipedia.fr)

Egyptian trainer and YAR recruit, date unknown (Wikipedia.fr)

The weakest link in North Yemen at first proved to be the Egyptian and YAR armed forces: the former performed poorly against the Imam’s mountain guerillas, while the latter’s formations would often dissolve in mass desertions. “Without scruple but [also] without much skill” was the late Patrick Seale’s assessment of how the air force performed in a 1963 report for the The New Republic. What was supposed to be a showcase for a new Soviet-supplied and trained force turned into a series of costly defeats in the first few years of the conflict, with Seale noting that a little over a year into their intervention, the Egyptians had lost about 10% of the forces committed. Though the army’s performance gradually improved after 1964, the cost of the war adversely affected Nasser’s socialist economic agenda at home. Growing domestic dissent and the humiliating loss of the Sinai to the Israelis made Egypt focus on peace talks and a “Yemenization” of the conflict after 1967. Humiliatingly, Nasser had to ask the Saudis for financial aid at the Khartoum Conference following the Six Days War, even as the conflict in Yemen went on. Though, like President Sisi today, he continued to mock and rant against his Gulf benefactors in private while professing friendship in public.

For one participant, the war never officially began or ended: Britain. For part of the war, a mercenary company composed of British nationals operated among the royalists with “a nod and a wink” from the Prime Minister’s Office back in London and the support of British Aden, which was facing a pro-YAR insurgency during the same period. At one point, this small group organized a rebel maneuver that pinned down thousands of Egyptian troops, and even spirited out an autopsy of a chemical weapons casualty in order to show the world that the Egyptians were using phosgene and mustard gas against civilians, an effort that would be paralleled again in Halabja, Iraq (1988) and Ghouta, Syria (2013) by other parties. Britain also provided the royalists with more direct aid, from help carrying out sabotage to supplies.

The Saudis soon stepped in to help fund these operations, something fiscally depressed Britain was grateful for as it turned its full attention to the pro-YAR insurgents in Aden, who outlasted the British and set up a Marxist government that lasted until 1990 (fortunately for the Saudis, this new “South Yemen” was often on poor terms with Sana’a despite their wartime alliance).

The Saudis did not intervene for love of the Imamate, which they had seriously contemplated dismantling in 1934. During a peace summit, Faisal told the Egyptian president that North Yemen was “a hive of wasps” and admitted he did not much care for Imam al-Badr, grandson of the man he had personally led the Saudi forces against in 1934. But although Ibn Saud had taken a good chunk out of the Imamate at that time, his successors King Saud (d. 1964) and King Faisal (d. 1975), both of whom had served in the 1934 campaign, did not want to see what was left of it go over to Nasser. Not longer after the 1962 coup, Saud set up guerilla training camps in the territories they had won in the 1930s from Imam Yahya for Yemeni royalists.

Even though a republican victory greatly worried the Saudis, they were able to pursue the war without making anything near the commitment Egypt made and benefitted from the fact that the YAR had no coherent ideological program despite its Nasserist bromides. And they achieved more of the political objectives in the end. The fractured royalist camp was a spent force by 1970. After they failed to take Sana’a, the YAR was able to declare victory on the battlefield. The Imams never returned, but as Fred Halliday notes in Arabia Without Sultans, after 1964 the YAR government was filled with old allies of the Imams, and dominated by certain Zaydi tribes who disliked the Egyptians as much the Saudis. Regarded as fence sitters or royalist collaborators, they overthrew Sallal while he was travelling abroad in November 1967.

“The paradox of the Egyptian intervention is that it at once saved and destroyed the YAR,” Halliday noted of the political process in Sana’a after 1964, which he unflatteringly compared to Bonapartism in 19th century France. Saudi Arabia recognized the YAR in 1970, infuriating al-Badr, who decamped from the Kingdom for a life of European exile. He actually outlived every other major figure in the conflict – Saudi, Yemeni, British, Soviet, and Egyptian – dying in London in 1996.
The YAR that came into being as the Egyptians pulled out empowered the sort of corrupt opportunist best exemplified today in the form of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was president of North Yemen from 1978 to 1990, then president of present-day Yemen from 1990 to 2011. Serving as a mere second lieutenant in the YAR armed forces in 1963, his political ascendancy began on the backs of those aforementioned fence sitters and royalist collaborators (and not a little luck, as he has to date avoided countless assassination attempts despite betraying all of his nominal allies and foreign backers on multiple occasions).

 Cairo ultimately suffered between 10,000 and 26,000 KIA to “save” the YAR from the Saudis. Many of the dead were never repatriated to Egypt and still lie in cemeteries in Yemen: a large arch erected by the YAR in 1965 to commemorate the casualties still stands in Sana’a.

At least 200,000 Yemenis also lost their lives during the civil war.

The defeated royalists’ Saudi backers, meanwhile, remained safe from the train wreck unfolding on their southern border for eight years, the YAR’s existence failing to incite revolt inside the Kingdom itself and Egypt taking only the most limited direct action against the Kingdom itself. Indeed, the reformist “Free Princes” of Saudi Arabia who had welcomed the formation of the YAR came to oppose its existence right alongside their more conservative siblings because of the dismissive and insulting way Nasser responded to their overtures.

The Yemen conflict is often referred to as Egypt’s Vietnam, a quagmire that sapped its military force and undermined its leadership in the region. Patrick Seale wrote in The Washington Post in 1964 that the war led to the “the systematic destruction of villages, crops, and waterholes and of a starving and diseased crazed population, crazed by incessant air attacks.” The Red Cross mission to North Yemen at the time corroborated these accounts. The German war correspondent Harold Vocke bitterly observed that “the Egyptian Air Force pursues herdsmen and herds as if they were wild game.” The Egyptian occupiers and YAR forces also resorted to the use of poison gas on civilians. Such incidents help explain why the exact size of the Egyptian deployment (and the casualties it suffered) is still a matter of some dispute among historians. Relevant reports and meeting minutes from the 1960s remain under lock and key in Heliopolis.

Monument for Egyptian Martyrs - 2009, Sana'a (m.abdulkader)

Monument for Egyptian Martyrs - 2009, Sana'a (m.abdulkader)

After the war ended, a conspiracy of silence emerged among the surviving decision makers. A memoir by Mr. al-Hadidi, the Egyptian major general, is one notable exception.

The major general, who originally dismissed the Yemenis as primitives, changed his views. He became a critic of the war’s conduct. In his retirement, he wrote a scathing account of the conflict, Witness to the Yemen War (1984). To show how just far he felt Egypt had fallen from its “anti-imperialist” mission, he recorded in that book that the YAR’s “Administration of Tribal Affairs” was deliberately modeled on Britain’s similarly minded imperial administrations in the region, to the point that his officers were leafing through T. E. Lawrence for insights on “managing” the “natives.”  He also spoke poorly of the army’s morale, and the misuse of the air force to smuggle goods brought in illegally from British Aden back to Egypt.

“Nasser’s Road to Oil Runs Through Yemen,” The New York Times proclaimed in 1966. In fact, it had reached a dead end sometime before then. Though, as was the case with Egypt’s early wartime maps, no one in Cairo could say where, exactly.

[1] Among his many excesses, Fred Halliday writes, Ahmed sacked Sana’a after Yahya’s death, executed the slaves who moved the palace treasury, always kept the army’s best weapons partially disassembled so they could not be turned on him, and shelled British Aden during a 1957 press conference. He suffered from vivid “hallucinations” as well, to the point he had to be isolated in special recovery rooms. 

PostsPaul Mutteryemen, egypt
The fight for Yemen, then and now

This is the first installment of a two-part series by Arabist regular Paul Mutter on the history of conflict in Yemen. With some great quotes from the reporting of the day. 

“Order,” the New-York Tribune opined of Yemen in 1898, “will be supplied from outside,” and with the coming of foreign rule “there will be peace, and the Yemen will no more be the Yemen it has been for forty centuries.” Of course, this proved not to be the case even in the Tribune’s day, as Yemenis successfully threw off Turkish rule during the Arab Revolt (1916-18), pushing aside local collaborators in favor of a reinvigorated monarchy that soon found itself hard-pressed to impose central authority.

That has never been an easy task in Yemen. The 1962-70 civil war was fought between and among all of the tribes of “North Yemen” in large part to decide who would be allowed to wield such authority. The contest between the Houthis and the central government began in 2004 after decades of putsches and protests among the ruling Zaydi Shia clans against the Saleh family, whose patriarch, the 73-year old Ali Abdullah, held the presidency until 2011 and now conspires with his former Houthi enemies to return to power.

Alongside these long-running internal struggles to consolidate power or gain autonomy runs an intersecting line of outsiders’ efforts to impose their will upon Arabia Felix -- “Arabia the Lucky,” a name from antiquity that now seems cruelly ironic in light of Yemen’s perennial humanitarian and environmental crises. Saudi Arabia, the UK, Egypt, Russia, and most recently, the United States and Iran: all have done battle over southern Arabia. Yemen’s political history has been shaped by such interventions, though outsiders rarely got what they wanted. None have brought the sort of “order” the Tribune predicted would follow a benevolent foreign occupation.

The most recent conflict – featuring a coalition of ten Arab states, Iran, the “southern movement” for succession, the Houthis and the Salehs, al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Sunni-led government-in-exile among others – is proof enough of the challenges that lie ahead. But two earlier conflicts also illustrate the pitfalls and failures of interventions.

The first of these conflicts took place in 1934, when the armies of King Ibn Saud of the House of Saud and Imam Yahya of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, or “Imamate,” met one last time to decide who would control what had been the Ottoman Vilayet of Yemen. The territory that Imam Yahya, leader of the Zaydi Shia, had wrested from the Ottomans during the Arab Revolt originally included much of the present-day Saudi provinces of Jizan, Najran, Asir, and Al Bahah. When WWI ended, these were semi-independent emirates trying to avoid getting drawn into either Yahya or Ibn Saud’s spheres of influence. And they were, as now, among the most fertile in the Arabian Peninsula. The terrain, the ports, and the peoples of the region constituted a great prize, especially for the Mutawakkilite Kingdom’s agrarian economy. As an Australian newspaper asked, “Who shall be the Lord of Arabia?”

Yahya was determined it would be him. He envisioned a “Greater Yemen” that included the fertile coastal provinces the Saudis desired and the rest of southern Arabia, then under British colonial rule. The Imam sponsored raiding parties and incited revolt wherever he could from 1918 to 1934: against the House of Saud, against the British, and against any emirs he chose to make an enemy of in the region. The distinction between “Yemenis” and “Saudis” was blurry at that time, so changes in allegiance were common and calculated for maximum personal gain by local leaders. Control of the major cities in the southern Hejaz went back-and-forth as alliances were made and broken over the course of a decade. Yahya had far less success against the British in these endeavors. But for a time, it seemed that the Imam might prevail in his proxy war with the Saudis at least. Defections from the Saudi camp in 1932 emboldened the Imam to take more direct measures, sending his forces into Saudi Arabia proper in 1933. The Christian Science Monitor reported at the outbreak of full-scale hostilities in 1934 that while Ibn Saud “depends mostly on his tribal warriors” and was “poor,” the “immensely rich” Yahya had “10,000 well-trained troops” experienced in desert and mountain warfare. When the Yemenis besieged the city of Najran, which had sided with the Saudis, they expected a quick victory: Yahya had allegedly dismissed Ibn Saud as a “Bedouin” upstart.

Ibn saud

Ibn saud


He underestimated Ibn Saud. This “Bedouin” had many battle-hardened veterans, too. And they were often carrying modern, British-made arms: the Saudis deployed both camelback cavalry and modern armor in Yemen during the conflict. The Saudi king’s logistics were not as primitive as his poor finances suggested, and his ranks had been purged of dissenters following the failure of the Ikwahn Revolt. Finally, a number of local tribes who had at first shown hospitality to Yahya’s men sided with Ibn Saud or refused to take part in the fighting at all. They had come to resent the Imam’s controlling presence at least as much or more than the Saudis’.

Sectarianism did not influence these decisions as much as local leaders’ sense that the Saudis would give them better terms in exchange for allegiance. Yahya was very generous to those he wished to win over (less so to his subjects, many of whom lived in hideous poverty). Such calculations helped decide the Imam’s defeat, just as they have shaped the current fighting in Yemen among the Houthis and other factions. TIME portrayed the conflict as a clash of personalities as much as of territorial ambitions, suggesting that the appeal of the leaders had much to do with the success of their war effort. “[Imam Yahya] is as crafty and penny pinching as strapping Ibn Saud is brave and generous,” the magazine’s correspondent covering the war wrote.[1]

By May 1934, the turning point had come for the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. Ibn Saud’s forces spent the better part of that month driving down towards Sana’a in three columns, which rapidly captured the Imam’s main port and claimed to seize many “European” weapons there. It is unclear just who supplied them. Perhaps they were sent in by the Italians, smuggled in from British Aden, or bought on the black market somewhere. This ambiguity of supply would become another enduring theme of Yemen’s wars in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1962-70 conflict and the current war, rebels and “government” troops alike carry a motley array of arms seized from one another, supplied by their officially declared foreign allies, silent partners abroad, and opportunistic smugglers.

The twenty-something Prince Faisal, later King Faisal, of Saudi Arabia led the advance down the hill-country, and assured foreign correspondents he would rule all of Yemen on behalf of his father (Prince Saud, later King Saud and Faisal’s predecessor, also fought in the war). But the prince found some Yemenis resented the Saudi Wahhabis’ intrusion deep into their lands. They found fewer willing collaborators the closer they got to the capital. And opportunistic deserters began preying on all parties to the conflict, waging a guerilla war against the invaders (while also resorting to banditry against their countermen). The British in Aden and the Italians in Eritrea began to talk of dispatching troops to protect their interests. The Imam meanwhile overruled his son and successor to sue for peace, fearing that he was about to lose his throne to the Saudis like the Hashemite Sharifs of Mecca had in 1925.

But the Saudis, fearing outside intervention by European powers and the costs of a long war in the Zaydis’ heartland, decided they did not want to take the whole of the kingdom after all. Prince Faisal was not allowed to raise the king’s banner over the royal palace. His forces withdrew from the gates of Sana’a and Riyadh concluded the Treaty of Taif on May 20th. Both sides claimed victory , but the Saudis were the ones who took and kept all of Jizan, Najran, Asir, and Al Bahah. The Imam had at least avoided the Sharifs’ fate and was allowed to reoccupy the ports the Saudis had taken over. Yet he was now clearly subordinate to Riyadh. None of his successors ever challenged this state of affairs. The much-reduced kingdom, still ruled by Yahya until his murder in in 1948 at the hands of a rival Zaydi Shia faction, turned inward to consolidate its power. Though much bitterness remained, the House of Saud managed to patch up most of its differences with the Imamate. Some Yemeni tribes who had used the war to restart their separatist agendas fought on until 1939, but found no Saudi support after the Treaty of Taif was signed. The House of Saud strongly backed Yahya’s unstable son Ahmed in the brief civil war that followed Yahya’s assassination, the same Ahmed who in 1934 wanted to fight the Saudis to the bitter end. And in 1962, when Yahya’s grandson, Imam al-Badr, was deposed by a Nasserist “free officers” coup, the House of Saud and the British in Aden resolved to restore the dynasty and drive out the Egyptians and Soviets. That too, did not go as planned, though it went much worse for the Egyptians than it did for the Saudis.

[1] Lest it be said TIME was simply Orientalizing, Yahya had a reputation as a miser among Yemenis, even before the extent of his personal fortune was discovered upon his death in 1948. His “crafty” custom of taking royal hostages to ensure the loyalty of his governors was indeed unpopular, though it did much to head off coups. 

Omar Bashir, Iran's ally, woos GCC over Yemen

Contributor Paul Mutter writes about an overlooked participant in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen: President Omar Bashir's Sudan. The isolated regime has been happy to win some legitimacy through its token participation. Gulf countries meanwhile appear eager to move it out of Iran's sphere of influence. 

Compared with the Emirati and Saudi contributions to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Sudanese contingent is a mere token force. Yet the four Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-24 bombers now operating out of King Khalid Airbase carry weight well in excess of their bomb loads. Khartoum did not send over its ramshackle, barrel-bombing Antonov transports. It sent a full third of its most modern air assets to fly against the Houthis. Many of their victims will probably be civilians, as has been the case back home in the Nuba Mountains since the Su-24s were deployed two years ago, according to Nuba Reports and National Geographic.

Their presence serves little military purpose, given the firepower available to the GCC. Instead, by committing to the campaign, Omar al-Bashir’s clique has once again demonstrated the adaptability that has kept it in power since 1989. Focused on wooing their partner away from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi-led coalition has surely promised the ostracized president military, diplomatic, and economic aid in exchange for his assistance. Already, the Saudis have lifted banking restrictions against Khartoum, imposed in 2014. For the Sudanese regime, which seems to uncover coup plots within its ranks every few months, pours 25% of the national budget into fighting insurgencies it cannot decisively beat, and still cannot cope with the loss of most of its oil fields, such help is quite welcome.

And perhaps more than any material incentives, the prospect of reduced international isolation holds significant appeal, as Sudan holds elections this week that will only serve to confirm the domination of the National Congress Party (NCP) and inflame opposition to Bashir. Low turnout, accusations of voter intimidation, and arrests of activists urging a boycott of the elections have marred what was supposed to be a showcase of support for the NCP’s continued rule. The setbacks and paranoia Bashir increasingly feels are what drive his fulsome paeans to the GCC now. (Back in 2013, when anti-austerity protests shook the capital and other Arab states condemned the subsequent crackdown, the Sudanese leadership griped that Saudis and Emiratis wanted to humiliate Khartoum.)

Sudan’s aging leader has not abandoned his Iranian ally. In a transcript of a meeting held in Khartoum by Bashir’s inner circle, made public online by Dr. Eric Reeves, the president’s inner circle had made clear they do not trust the Gulf States over Iran. Yes, Sudan has been trying to distance itself from Iran for some time, despite its historic military ties to Iran and role in supplying weapons to pro-Iranian movements in the Middle East (including the Houthis in Yemen). But the “break” has never come. It appeared to, in 2014, when Sudan forced Iran – source of nearly a fifth of its total arms imports – to shut down all of its cultural centers in the country in order to please the Gulf States and placate domestic critics. Sudan’s Sunni Islamist movements are no keener on Shiism than any of the Gulf States, of course. Yet Iran understood the symbolism of this move, according to the internal deliberations published by Dr. Reeves. Sudan’s “strategic” posture and dislike of “Shia culture” are understood to be partitioned off from each another by Khartoum and Tehran, which for its part looks the other way when Sudanese Shia are persecuted.

Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, a former foreign minister, opined last September that the Gulf States “want some balance in the relation with Iran” and they must be humored. There is little love for the Gulf States in Sudan (and vice versa), but everyone keeps up appearances. UAE Prime Minister Mohammad al-Maktoum warmly received Bashir at Abu Dhabi's IDEX defense show in February, where Sudanese wares have had a booth reserved for them at IDEX since 2013, in spite of the genocide charges against the government and sanctions on its military-industrial complex.* The UAE does more than just let Khartoum hawk its goods in Abu Dhabi: it is a major development financier in Sudanese agriculture and public works.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia personally received Bashir in March, and granted him an extended audience just as Operation Decisive Storm was getting underway. This invite was a snub not just to Iran, but also to European prosecutors who would very much like to see the Sudanese leader extradited by members of the Arab League. The Kingdom is also a major investor in Sudan: “Our economy relies very much on the Saudi Kingdom in terms of investments and expatriates money transfers,” Dr. Ismail noted. The Saudis do not want to be seen as going too far to support President Bashir though, as they have denied providing US$4 billion in direct loans.

Egypt has been a bit more cautious. President Abdelfattah al-Sisi is willing to clasp hands with  Bashir in public though not too firmly, given the unappealing personality and outstanding disputes Bashir brings to international venues. Even so, Sisi has had to woo Bashir in the ongoing negotiations over the sharing of Nile waters and over Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam – particularly after Sudan appeared to move towards the Ethiopian position in 2013.

“At home and abroad,” The Economist opined in 2014, President Bashir “is running out of friends.” This is still the case at home, yes, but not abroad. Sudan takes this all seriously of course, having risked a breach with Iran (however temporary) and stripped its air force of striking power to cozy up to the GCC and Egypt. Yet within the president’s inner circle, the cynicism and contempt felt towards the Saudis and Emiratis is quite apparent. Generals close to the president reveled at the thought of how they could “mislead the Gulf States by taking open, declared steps and procedures towards improving diplomatic relations with them” during their August 2014 meeting.

The countries buying Bashir’s fleeting support know this is simply a balancing act by a regime buying itself more time to intrigue over the president’s successor and sign more development contracts to skim off of. No one expects a sea change, or reforms, or the Sudanese Su-24s to tip the balance in Yemen. Khartoum’s participation is really little more than a business transaction for everyone involved, with the exception of the people being bombed.

* Considering the poor relations between the UAE and Iran, it is interesting that the Sudanese display always includes a number of weapons derived from Iranian designs.

In Translation: Egypt's double bind in yemen

The crisis in Yemen, coming just as a breakthrough in negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program took place, appears to encompass the entire region's strategic dilemmas. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see it as a direct expansion of Iranian power, via the Houthis, on the Arabian Peninsula, right on their border. Iran sees the Saudi-led offensive as further signs of anti-Shia rhetoric and militarisation of the Gulf region, and confirmed again its ability to extend its perceived infuence throughout the Arab world (whatever the reality of Tehran's support for the Houthis is). The US, which had blithely backed a deeply flawed Saudi-directed transition in Yemen while it focused on counter-terrorism, is caught in the middle of its desire for a deal with Iran and its strong backing of the Saudi offensive. This is nothing to say of Yemen's own internal dynamics: the remarkable rise of the Houthis, the return of the prospect of two distinct Yemens, the opportunism of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh, the irony of the Yemeni Muslim Brothers now finding themselves on the Saudi side (alongside al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). One could go on.

The discussion of Yemen in the Egyptian press, for once, has been more interesting than than the gung-ho jingoism in much of the Gulf media. The Yemen crisis has triggered both anxiety about a repeat of the failed Egyptian intervention in Yemen of the 1960s (itself a precursor of the great defeat of 1967) and a wider discussion of whether Cairo's dependency and debt to Saudi Arabia may not be too costly in the long run. In the piece below, Abdallah al-Senawi – a well-connected Nasserist writer who was very anti-Mubarak but until recently a cheerleader for Sisi – presents Egypt's dilemmas in the Yemen crisis. Most notably, that the choices it faces are limited and likely to be very costly if the crisis cannot quickly be addressed politically.

This translation is possible through the support of our pals at Industry Arabic, which is a really, really good bespoke Arabic translation service. If you have a translation job you need done by professionals, help them continue to help us by trying them out.

The Predicament of Military Intervention in Yemen

Abdullah al-Sennawi, Al-Shorouk, 6 April 2015

Nearly half a century after the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, it is almost certain that another intervention is imminent. Even though the circumstances are fundamentally different today, we cannot disregard the lessons of history or underestimate the dangers posed by military involvement.

In the 1960s, the wagers made were consistent with that era in the choice to support liberation movements and defend Egyptian national security in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. However, this coherence came head on against a ferocious struggle for influence and power in the region, and where there was progress, there were also setbacks.

At the beginning of the military intervention in 1962, Egypt was still reeling from the shock of separation from Syria on September 28, 1961 and the failure of the United Arab Republic unification experiment, which only lasted for around three and a half years. The impact of this enormous rupture was not mitigated by the inspiring success of the revolution in Algeria in July 1962 that involved the sacrifice of one and a half million martyrs -- a revolution that had received Egypt’s full political, military and media backing.

The defeat of the unity project struck a profound blow to Nasser’s vision. Thus, he was not ready to accept the collapse of the Yemeni revolution by counterstrikes from the remnants of Yemen’s monarchist regime and its neighboring allies. Perhaps he also sought to infuse a new spirit in the Pan-Arab movement that he was leading, following the victory in Algeria.

The matter now is different. There are no liberation movements and no intention to move towards a serious change that would transform Yemen from tribe to state. The best argument put forth seeks to save Yemen in order to prevent it from slipping into a civil war that will totally consume it. This is putting politics ahead of the military option.

In the 1960s, political and military estimations projected that the intervention would be limited in the number of boots on the ground as well as temporary in its operation. Its aim was to reinforce the Yemeni revolution. However, it went from a limited engagement to 70,000 soldiers, and from a temporary mission to a five-year war that drained the Egyptian army amid harsh terrain.

The lesson of the past should guide the present. It is difficult to presume that these kinds of wars will be limited—unless you attack and expand operations, those you are fighting will attack you in your strongholds.

Yes indeed, the purposes were noble. Saving an illustrious Arab country from the darkness of the Middle Ages where the simplest modern tools like the electric iron was not heard of and the most basic human rights were not recognized. But this noble act seemed to other actors an opportunity to grind down the Egyptian military in Yemen before grinding it down in Sinai several years later. If we do not calculate every move and evaluate consequences, we would be a people who discards their own historical experience with all it holds of promises and frustrations.

It is clear from the words of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that the decision for military intervention has been taken decisively and the constitutional procedures according to Article 152 of the constitution (Declaration of War and Dispatching Armed Forces in a Combat Mission outside the Borders of the State) have begun. The first step according to the constitution in the event that there is no parliament is “to ask for the opinion of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” which is precisely what happened. The next two steps are “the approval of both the Cabinet and the National Defense Council.” And in effect, the President announced that he is going meet with them for this purpose.

This extraordinary meeting of the Egyptian military command was preceded by one in Riyadh—the very timing of which raises eyebrows—between the chiefs of staff of the armies participating in what is called “Operation Decisive Storm.” Apparently, this meeting was in preparation for intervention on the ground after airstrike operations failed to destroy the capacity of the Houthi forces and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to threaten Aden. If the second capital – Aden – falls now that the first capital of Sanaa has already fallen, then this would mean that any storm or any decisiveness had been defeated even before returning to the negotiation table.

It will certainly not be long before the resumption of negotiations. The international and regional consensus embraced by the United States and the European Union as well as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Iran are all in agreement upon this option. Here the main question is: under which balance of power will the expected negotiations occur and what will be their political contours? No answer has been offered to this question in Egypt that takes into account public wariness and seeks to build a national consensus before sending troops abroad.

To be completely frank, Saudi Arabia is weighing the consequences of a political defeat before the expected negotiations. It is seeking for the military balance on the ground be to its advantage before any political milestone is implemented under the suspended results of the Yemeni national dialogue. It is also seeking legitimatization of an international presence before any recognition of the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, Saudi forces are not qualified for a ground intervention and they know that it is costly and that its effects could expand into its own territory. The Saudis are counting on a new Egyptian military role in Yemen, which would practically lead the other allied forces.

There is semi-confirmed information that Egypt had no involvement to speak of in planning or executing the airstrike operations against the positions and strongholds of the Houthis and President Saleh’s supporters. Moreover, Egypt was notified about these operations only shortly before the strikes were launched in advance of the Sharm el-Sheikh economic summit. At the same time, the United States has managed the airstrike operations by providing logistics and intelligence support and by playing other roles that might be regarded as more central.

It is worth noting that the words of President Sisi did not indicate or mention explicitly at any time that ground forces would be sent or that there is any tendency towards military intervention in Yemen, despite the clear meaning of what lies behind his words. This lack of a direct admission reflects a certain unease regarding the possible consequences and implications, as well as some wariness towards anxious public opinion. He is totally correct in his unease and the reason for caution. He is facing the most dangerous decision since he became president. He is between a rock and a hard place, but he has almost no choice but to choose.

The first choice would be to heed public anxiety and act cautiously by deciding not to send any ground forces to Yemen. However, this choice would cost him the loss of his allies in the Gulf, who, when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, doubled down on Egypt as a counterbalance to the rise of Iran in the Middle East and an insurance policy for the countries of the region. The effects of this possible loss go beyond the Gulf region. It severely diminishes the possibility of a new rise of Egypt in the region within the foreseeable future, at a difficult moment in which the heft of the regional players is being sized up following the great breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear program crisis.

The second choice is for President Sisi to submit to the pressure and arm-twisting beyond what Egyptian national security can handle at a time where a fierce war is already underway against terrorism in Sinai. This choice would lead to a new exhaustion of military forces in the Yemeni quagmire. Indeed, it must be recognized the Houthis constitute one component of Yemeni society, and regardless of the Iranian role in supporting their military rise, they are among the poorest Yemenis and they severely lack any health or education services in the Sa’dah mountains where they hail from. Obviously, the Houthis are not the enemy -- nor is Iran, for that matter. The real enemy is Israel. Confronting the crisis requires that the political possibilities be clearly articulated.

Regional balance is necessary. Confronting any infringement on Arab rights and lands should not be taken lightly, seeing as Arab weakness has become a matter of public and general ridicule. Even so, this requires that Egypt not get involved by any means in sectarian conflicts—which are virtually unknown during its modern history—or in any way engage in an open war against Iran.

In other words, it is not possible for Egypt to isolate itself from the Gulf and refuse its security requirements, lest we act in complete foolishness; nor is involvement in the Yemeni quagmire once again an acceptable option, or we will have learned nothing from history. Before any military action, a political solution is the first priority.

Reporting on Yemen

A Yemeni reporter for the Washington Post talks about a war that is not too close for comfort:

Increasingly, Sanaa is turning into a ghost town. The universities, once bustling with students, have closed. So, too, have many businesses. People are packing their belongings into their pickup trucks and sedans and driving to far-away villages, hoping to avoid the air raids that have turned the mountains surrounding Sanaa into fiery-orange ­volcanoes.
The campaign, with a coalition of Arab nations, is an effort to dislodge Houthi rebels sweeping through Yemen.
The evenings are what alarm me most. That’s when the bombings intensify.
With Sanaa increasingly deprived of electricity, the lack of lighting creates an eerie darkness that is punctuated by the flashes — and explosions that quickly follow — that briefly illuminate my home town.
I’m also increasingly away from my wife. I’ve moved her family into our home because of the air raids. To make room, I’ve been staying at my father’s house, which is across town. I think that the family is safer this way, but all I want is to be home with my wife.
I spend my evenings trying to sleep, but often I can’t. I think about how I’ll report on the following day’s events. Will the Houthis capture the southern port city of Aden? I then inevitably ponder my own mortality. Will my family be killed in the attacks? Will I wake in the morning?


AsidesThe Editorsyemen, war
In Translation: Clinging to power with your teeth

The crack translation team at Industry Arabic brings us this week's installment of our In Translation feature, in which we translate a representative op-ed from the Arab press. This column in the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper by its editor, Ghassan Charbel, blames the conflict in Yemen on former Yemeni president (and erstwhile Saudi ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh's unwillingness to step down and includes quotes from several previous interviews Charbel conducted with Saleh. The introductory paragraphs, on the discourse of false humility and sacrifice of leaders who can't conceive of relinquishing power, apply pretty much to every ruler in the Arab world. 

The General Doesn’t Love the Palace

By Ghassan Charbel, Al-Hayat, 1 April 2015

The master of the palace embarrasses me when he tells me that he does not love the palace and that he awaits impatiently the date of his departure and that he suffers from a tortured conscience with regards to his family, since the concerns of the nation have distracted him from the First Lady and his children. He flabbergasts me when he tell me that he did what was necessary and will allow history to judge, that the decision to depart is final even if the masses cling to the hem of his jacket, and the time has come for him to have time to play with his grandchildren. The master of the palace disconcerts me when he says that power is a torment, and satisfying people an impossible task. He points out the white hair he has gotten from over-taxing himself for the needy and poor, and that he didn’t really intend to run in the last election but the people insisted. It disconcerts me that he says he remains in office based on election results. When he tries to portray the elections as free and fair, my mind immediately jumps to the intelligence chief and the vote-rigging factory in the Interior Ministry.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not a naïve enough journalist to believe all this. This profession has taken me to many capitals and I have interviewed many figures. Politeness forces me to suppress my chuckles so as not to jeopardize future interviews. Sometimes I have felt that the recording device itself will object to the expressions of humility voiced by a ruler who came to power on the back of a tank or the like.

Usually I humor the speaker, as if  saying that we are both from a region where rulers believe that they have no choice but the palace or the grave. And usually the coy response comes that rulers must learn from the experiences of others, and that some days you’re up, and some days you’re down…and if someone else lasted forever in power, you would never get a turn. Sometimes I say that journalists do not find an interesting story in modest people but in those who cling to power with their teeth.

The Houthis would not have taken over Sanaa and besieged the president there and then pursued him to Aden if Field Marshall Ali Abdullah Saleh had not put most of the Yemeni army at their disposal. It reeks of revenge. Saleh left the presidential palace burned and injured – when he reached Saudi Arabia after the explosion that targeted him, he could do nothing more than blink his eyes. He felt as if he had been kicked out of his house, where he should have stayed until he passed the palace down to his son Ahmed.

Journalists may forget facts, but computers are petty enough to remember. Yesterday I went back to three interviews with Saleh.

In 2006:

Q: Do rulers retire in the Arab world?

A: Of course.

Q: You don’t think that the title “former president” would be hard for you to bear?

A: Why would it be hard? The best title I hear now in Lebanon is “former president.” Why can’t we be like our brothers in Lebanon?

Q: Doesn’t the idea bother you?

A: Not at all, to the contrary.

In 2009:

Q: There’s talk of a possible agreement for you to serve another term?

A: I abide by the constitution. As far as I’m concerned, I will not run. I will not accept to be nominated by anyone.

Q: Why?

A: You have time and you use up your youth and use up your experiences over thirty years. If God grants me health, I will finish the remaining constitutional period. God willing, Yemen will produce many men like Ali Abdullah Saleh to take the place of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Q: You don’t want to hold on to power?

A: No, no.

Q: Is it tiring to be president in Yemen?

A: I always say that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes.

In 2010:

Q: You said last year that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes: did the snakes wake up now?

A: If you want to change the expression, you could say vipers.

Q: Aren’t you scared of the vipers’ sting?

A: The snakes have grown up and become vipers. Me and my people, God willing, are able to deal with them and tame them. We’re not afraid.

Q: Is it possible that there will come a day when we see you allow someone else in the presidential palace?

A: (Laughs) A Yemeni president, of course.

Before bidding farewell, Ali Abdullah Saleh said that he would like to play with his grandchildren. Would that he would do so.

The war in Yemen (in 1963)

Patrick Seale reported for The New Republic on the war in Yemen in 1963, which saw Egypt intervening to prop up a new republican regime, against the monarchy supported by Saudi Arabia and Jordan. 

President Nasser's armed intervention in Yemen is the most ambitious and dangerous foreign adventure of his career. It has brought him to the brink of war with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and provides American diplomacy in the Middle East with possibly its greatest challenge since Suez. By recognizing, in December, the republican regime of Marshal Sallal--Nasser's protege in Yemen--the United States has clashed with her British ally and has taken sides in the inter-Arab struggle for power. Why did Washington do it, and what are the military facts?
For the last three months, an Egyptian expeditionary force--put at between 12,000 and 15,000--has been fighting a savage guerrilla war in north and east Yemen against tribes loyal to the Imamate who will not accept the republican couip d'etat by which Sallal overthrew the royalist government. These Egyptian forces--Nasser's crack combat units--were trained for desert not for mountain warfare. Their expensive equipment, their Soviet-built tanks, armored personnel carriers and Ilyushin jet bombers, are not ideally suited for operations in the crazy maze of narrow defiles and boulder-strewn mountains of northern Yemen.
A main road in these parts is a barely discernible single-file, pencil-line camel track linking two waterholes across a moon-landscape of black surging rock threaded by pale dry watercourses. Clumps of white thorn, dry as tinder, spring into flame at the touch of a match to warm the night marches. In this terrain, the slow-moving Nile Valley peasant has proved a poor match for the barefoot, elusive tribesmen armed only with rifle and jambiya--the vast, curved, razor-sharp dagger which every male Yemeni wears in his belt.
But quite apart from individual fighting qualities, it was evident (at least to this correspondent from conversations with Egyptian prisoners) that whereas the Egyptians seem uncertain why they are there, the Yemeni tribes are fighting a foreign invader in the name of Islam and of their traditional way of life and form of government--and are enjoying opportunities for loot on a scale probably unparalleled since the incense caravans of Sheba. I met a man who had acquired 80 Egyptian blankets; another had a couple of hundred cans of excellent Egyptian beans; children were dressed in rags of parachute silk and every royalist camp was littered with captured weapons, bazooka bombs, boxes of grenades and Egyptian cigarettes.


"We dream of drones" says Yemeni boy, who is then killed by drone
A 13-year-old boy killed in Yemen last month by a CIA drone strike had told the Guardian just months earlier that he lived in constant fear of the “death machines” in the sky that had already killed his father and brother.
“I see them every day and we are scared of them,” said Mohammed Tuaiman, speaking from al-Zur village in Marib province, where he died two weeks ago.
[...]
Much of Mohammed’s life was spent living in fear of drone strikes. In 2011 an unmanned combat drone killed his father and teenage brother as they were out herding the family’s camels.
The drone that would kill Mohammed struck on 26 January in Hareeb, about an hour from his home. The drone hit the car carrying the teenager, his brother-in-law Abdullah Khalid al-Zindani and a third man.
“[...]
Several anonymous US government officials told Reuters that the strike had been carried out by the CIA and had killed “three men believed to be al-Qaida militants”. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last month.
[...]
Maqdad said the family had been wrongly associated with al-Qaida, and family members strongly deny that Mohammed was involved in any al-Qaida or anti-Houthi fighting. “He wasn’t a member of al-Qaida. He was a kid.”
[...]
When the Guardian interviewed Mohammed last September, he spoke of his anger towards the US government for killing his father. “They tell us that these drones come from bases in Saudi Arabia and also from bases in the Yemeni seas and America sends them to kill terrorists, but they always kill innocent people. But we don’t know why they are killing us. In their eyes, we don’t deserve to live like people in the rest of the world and we don’t have feelings or emotions or cry or feel pain like all the other humans around the world.”
AsidesUrsula Lindseyyemen, drones
"The US doesn't really have a policy on Yemen"

Brian Whitaker, writing in The Guardian :

Viewed from Washington, Yemen is not a real place where people are demanding social justice and democracy so much as a theatre of operations in Saudi Arabia's backyard, veteran Yemen-watcher Sheila Carapico told a conference in January.

In fact, she added, the US doesn't really have a policy on Yemen. What it has instead is a longstanding commitment to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates), coupled with an anti-terrorism policy in which Yemen is treated as an extension of the Afghan/Pakistani theatre. The result, she said, is "pretty much the antithesis" of what Yemenis were aspiring to when they set about overthrowing President Saleh in 2011.

Yemen: Quitting Qat
Ahmed Bilal

Ahmed Bilal

Yemen has recently become the focus of increased media attention as a result of the proxy war there being fought between the US, Saudi Arabia, the government of Yemen and multiple tribal and Islamist insurrections. But in an environmentally marginal country such as Yemen, the popularity of the narcotic qat ranks high among the country’s difficulties. Heavy qat use not only consumes its users’ teeth and income, but also constitutes the lion’s share of Yemeni’s agricultural water usage. This is a serious problem in a country where water poverty is endemic and population growth is high: “[a]lmost 45% of all water in Yemen is used to cultivate a plant that feeds no one, in a country where almost half of the population is food insecure,” notes The Guardian. Demand for water is expected to exceed supply by the early 2020s, and due to Yemen’s poverty and geography, building desalinization plants is impractical.[1]

Local activists have frequently targeted the widespread use of qat, but their impact has been limited. Qat is not only exceedingly popular, but “one in every seven working Yemeni is employed in producing and distributing qat”. Its economic importance to both poor and wealthy, and the social status that chewing it confers on users, have made official attempts to limit its consumption extremely unpopular in the past. Government officials in the hinterlands are also uprooting qat trees and promoting cultivation of other cash crops.

In the past few years, however, grassroots energies have been revitalized, with activists focusing on organizing “qat-free” events, media campaigns and getting merchants to stop selling the leaf.

We interviewed Hind Aleryani, who is attempting to expand her weekly silent protests and other efforts to persuade users, farmers and vendors to abandon the crop in favor of other ones:

What would the exact process be in replacing qat with other crops, such as coffee and olives?

In the district of Haraz , they are replacing qat with coffee and almonds, the northern [region] of Haraz will be qat-free in three months. There is a firm that is buying the almond and selling it outside Yemen. The farmers there said that they are gaining more money now, they plant almond. There is a law that has a long-term strategy (to be implemented over the next 20 years) that would give the farmers alternative crops and uproot 10% of all qat trees [annually]. Besides banning the chemicals farmers are applying to qat trees to make it grow the whole year (the trees must be specially treated to produce leaves all year round) and protesting for bans on qat use by government officials, many of whom use it during work hours.

Does qat present an obstruction to Yemeni women entering the labor force?

Yes. And not only that, but [addicted] mothers are not taking care of their kids; they spend the morning sleeping and wake up in the noon because they are chewing qat the whole night and suffer insomnia from it. Women meet together to chew qat just as the men do. Kids are either in the streets or – increasingly – chewing leaves with a parent. It’s a sad reality.

Because the drug is a staple of social life, and has become a part of professional life too, do people risk being socially excluded and their own career advancement if they don’t use the drug?

Yes. We have tried bringing those who’ve quit it together and introducing them to others who don’t chew. We will try to work with the cafés in Yemen and entertainment venues to gather people and give them discounts if they do not chew the leaves at these establishments.

How does qat affect overall health in the country, particularly dental health?

The average adult eating three meals a day chews food for approximately one and half hours of that day. In Yemen, though, many qat users chew on the leaves for seven hours a day! This has detrimental effects on the jaw and the teeth, not including the fact that the processing chemicals in qat can cause gum and esophageal cancers. I made an appointment with a dentist in Yemen who is going to show me some of his worst cases and we will make a video about it [to raise awareness].

How would your campaign curve consumer demand?

So far we are working firstly on awareness (visiting schools and hosting press conferences), and we hold a silent protest every week at a qat shops for awareness. Secondly, we are working on giving alternatives to the farmers who want to uproot qat trees. And we are also giving the youth alternatives to sitting around and chewing. We are changing the society by doing qat-free weddings, which we believe is developing into a trend. Every other day I see someone writing on Facebook that he will quit qat, which makes me very happy. Some of them are well-known writers, politicians or people who work in media.

As qat requires a certain level of freshness, qat growers must be in Yemen and the capital it generates therefore stays in the country. Can you describe how the capital fits in to the Yemeni economy, and who benefits most from the industry?

Those who benefit most from qat are actually VIP figures in Yemen: tribal leaders, and MPs (who are also tribes leaders). In 1972 Prime Minister Mohsin Al-Aini thought about uprooting qat trees en masse, and this was the reason he had to step down!

How much of household income is spent on qat? How does this affect overall nutritional consumption in Yemeni households?

Yemenis on average are spending US$4 on qat daily [when the average weekly income is US$14]. Addicts prefer buying qat to spending money on buying food or clothes or taking their kids to school. Many end up borrowing money to fund their habit. At one qat vendor’s stall, people were leaving their cell phones as collateral because they couldn’t afford to pay for their daily purchases.


  1. Most Yemenis must make do with 100–140 m^3 of water per annum, or less than 10% of the per capita average enjoyed by their neighbors.  ↩

InterviewsGuestyemen, qat, drugs
A New Green Zone in Sanaa

A New Green Zone in Sanaa | Middle East Research and Information Project

Noted Yemen expert Sheila Carapico writes of the Sheraton Sanaa's new management, the State Department:

The managerial acquisition of the Sheraton campus formally more than doubles the ostensibly diplomatic presence of the US Embassy on the outskirts of Sanaa. In a time when water is running out, electricity fails daily, Finnish tourists are abducted by armed thugs in the city center and kidnappings are no longer a lark, German democracy brokers need armed escorts, students of Arabic no longer study in Yemen, humanitarian organizations register alarm over catastrophic malnutrition, academic researchers have been tarred by pseudo-scholars hunting AQAP, no one quite knows the location of supposed US military bases in and around Yemen (the Seychelles, Ethiopia, inside the country?), and the aspirations of pro-democracy forces remain to be addressed, COM needs a facility adjoining the Embassy grounds -- itself already a spacious fortified complex of barriers, set-backs, reception areas, offices, sports facilities, the ambassador’s residence, dormitories, high-tech security and ecologically improbable lawns -- to accommodate American consultants and experts.

On one level, the State Department’s leasing of the Sheraton property across the street from the Embassy compound merely regularizes a reality whereby more advisers earning hazard pay increments than tourists braving instability are venturing to Sanaa. On another level, the long-term leasing of a property designed and maintained for expatriate luxury and safety signifies the opening of a new American Green Zone in the Arabian Peninsula. This, in turn, is a major step toward a full-fledged US imperial presence in Arabia. It is bound to be fraught with hazards.

Read the whole thing for her thoughts on Rules of Engagement as a second-rate but eerily prescient movie.

Counterterrorism Calculus in Yemen Shortchanging Political Solutions

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator Jr., seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day.

Correction: This post was mistakenly attributed to Issandr El Amrani when first published. It was actually written by Paul Mutter — apologies.

The Washington Post, stating what ought to be obvious about the US “secret war” in Yemen:

In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda

Since January, as many as 21 missile attacks have targeted suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, reflecting a sharp shift in a secret war carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that had focused on Pakistan.

But as in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s capabilities, an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Presumably, the CIA would disagree that this sort of approach is undermining US counterterrorism efforts - even though it it is said that it deeply disturbs the White House when “errors” like this occur:

On December 17 [2009], the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.

Or rather, we believe it deeply disturbs the White House, since as the Daily Kos diarist Jesselyn Radack notes, the White House “can neither confirm nor deny” the air war in Yemen and invokes a black ops non-disclosure rule to keep the books closed.

But the US is not “involved in some domestic conflict,” of course. Why? Because President Obama himself said so:

“We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland—that’s where the real priority is.”

This distinction is patently absurd — and, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce noted, awfully like what JFK talked up in cabinet meetings about Vietnam. What is going in Yemen is first and foremost a domestic conflict, and by taking a side in that conflict — alongside the Saudi-backed government in Sana’a, against AQAP and the Ansar al-Shariah — we have involved ourselves in a domestic conflict — perhaps even deeper than the CIA will admit. I would be inclined to just dismiss this statement as a “he kept us out of war” promise in campaign mode, if it weren’t for the fact that so many reports out of Yemen — including leaked State Department cables — illustrate that the US really is so fixated on al Qaeda it seems to disregard any suggestions that it’s air war is destabilizing the country, and that all the “collateral damage” is helping anti-government Islamists in southern Yemen make greater inroads towards Sana’a, and more willing to cut deals with al Qaeda cells “in order to place themselves in a better bargaining position with the central government.” Some of those likely involved in the US war effort seem to understand this, but the present policy does not seem to reflect their qualifiers on the composition of the anti-government forces. These qualifiers are not unlike the distinction between the Taliban and the original al Qaeda organization — i.e., that the Taliban emerged independently in the 1990s from al Qaeda and ran Mullah Omar ran his own war effort while maintaining a special relationship with bin Laden’s lieutenants and, in particular, the “55th Arab Brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance, which, while linked to al Qaeda, was a distinct entity.

Yemen watcher Gregory Johnsen notes that AQAP, formerly the refuge of several dozen hardline Saudi clerics and thugs, has greatly expanded to take in hundreds of members from neighboring Somalia, and more importantly, many Yemenis as well. The now Yemeni-heavy AQAP would therefore have several units composed of foreign fighters and sympathetic Yemenis — in effect, “international brigades”[1] — serving among (loosely) aligned anti-government tribal militias in Yemen like the Ansar al-Shariah. But even so, AQAP is not the same as Ansar al-Shariah, a view seemingly accepted even by members of the Beltway’s inner circle of counterterrorism:

“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year, many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology,” [National Security Council spokesman Tommy] Vietor said. “The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”

The danger in this reading, therefore, is that the US’ actions, by generating sympathy for AQAP, will blur the line between mainly tribal actors (especially Ansar al-Shariah) and AQAP by popularizing the latter among Yemeni Islamists — which could help AQAP build up its networks and resources to the point where it actually does succeed in one of its plots against US targets… or, against “softer” Saudi ones. And then the chips would be down for whichever administration is sitting in the White House at the time.

But the main American diplomatic concern — one shared by the Yemeni military, whose airforce does not have the capacity to carry out “signature strikes” — is apparently that the US not be too closely associated with the drone strikes. The secondary concern, that there are underlying ethnic and economic tensions in Yemen which require addressing to keep the country from turning into another Afghanistan, is simply secondary. In part, this is because the central Yemeni government, despite its dependent on US largesse, really has no desire to help US observers go around the country to better report back to Washington on the civil strife. All the practical issues — and there are many — of doing so aside, the central government really has no real desire to enable this because such a survey of the country would probably make it very clear just how divided society is and how many tribes are so resentful towards the government in Sana’a (the US’s limited historical interest in Yemen certainly helps keep things in the dark). Given the choice of adding more drones to the aerial armada or recruiting civil society monitors, the White House is, from its past record, certainly going to chose the tech over the people because identifying the larger problems does not immediately produce deliverables — i.e., the AQAP body count. That fixation, Johnsen believes, is helping to blur distinctions between AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah.

The head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center (CTC), one of the key behind-the-scenes players in all this (only those “in the loop” know his name) — embodies these discrepancies quite well, it seems: “We’re killing these sons of bitches[2] faster than they can grow them,” he reportedly said in 2011 regarding the “signature strikes” program implemented in Pakistan and now practiced in Yemen (and possibly Somalia too) under the designation “terrorist-attack-disruption strikes” (TADS). And yet the “sons of bitches” quote comes from a man who has also reportedly conceded to his close associates that “this is not a war you’re going to be able to kill your way out of.”

Unfortunately, it appears to be precisely what the US is trying to do in Yemen.

Note: We’ll follow this post up with a detailed breakdown of the forthcoming PBS Frontline documentary on Yemen from one of our contributors.


  1. To be clear, my analogy is based on seeing a similarity in an order of battle - foreign fighters in units fighting alongside a homeland “liberation” movement — not that the “original” al Qaeda is somehow running the show with AQAP, or Ansar al-Shariah.  ↩

  2. It’s not clear if he meant actual militants, or any male capable of bearing arms in the target zone, since the White House’s casualty assessments rely on the assumption that all males capable of bearing arms in the target zone are “militants” unless proven otherwise.  ↩

How the north-south relationship in Yemen is changing

This piece was contributed by Bilal Ahmed, a student and activist completing his senior year at Rutgers University who has spent time in Yemen. This piece was primarily written during his stay in Tahrir Square, Egypt. As always with guest contributors, their opinions are their own.

There are flags hanging in many buildings in the southern Yemeni city of Aden. These flags, in addition to the standard Yemeni red, white, and black, contain a light blue triangle with a red star within it. They are seen everywhere, from tea shops, to private homes, to the crowds of protestors that have been marching on Aden’s streets for the past year.

These are the flags of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, colloquially known as “South Yemen.” The PDRY was an avowedly Stalinist-Marxist single-party state, though its classification as such is a matter of debate. More significant than Marxism in the history of South Yemen was the state’s mobilization of dormant nationalism among South Yemenis.

“North Yemen” extends from the Saudi Arabian border to the de facto border between North and South signed by the Ottoman and British Empires in 1905. South Yemeni nationalism is rooted in the different histories that birthed the two former states, with North Yemen initially ruled by Imamates and finally an autocratic Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) “President” in Ali Abdullah Saleh.

South Yemen has an entirely different past that must be understood in the wake of its growing geopolitical focus.

The two histories diverge in the 19th century, when British East India Company forces seized control of Aden in 1832 and established it as a coaling station for British ships traveling to and from colonial India. British holdings in South Yemen expanded beyond the city over the following decades, spurred on by a desire to reduce pirate attacks and gain a stronger strategic base for reinforcing the Suez Canal.

The British, mainly extending their administrative control through local monarchs in an approach similar to that undertaken in the Persian Gulf, finally reorganized South Yemen in 1937 as an independent crown colony.

South Yemen’s encounter with foreign imperialists is markedly different from that of North Yemen, which was mainly in conflict with its own monarchs after its 1917 independence and Egyptian-Saudi Arabian proxy war.

Although violence in North Yemen had a significant effect on events within South Yemen, an insistence of South Yemeni “modernity” would prevail over the following decades. The attitude began as a minor characteristic that would accentuate significantly during later years. However, the bleeding of serious anti-royalist action into South Yemen points to both nations being united in their hatred of the old ‘Order’ in spite of this. Escalating tensions between royalists and anti-monarchists challenged the narrative of North Yemen as broadly “traditionalist”.

South Yemenis felt emotionally connected to a North issuing many allegedly “Southern” demands, which established links of solidarity among the two colonial states. This phenomenon of prejudices being challenged by revolutionary facts would continue to define the North/South dynamic.

South Yemenis, already mobilizing against British rule due to political strife and economic stagnation, were now seen as a major threat. Fearing another serious revolt against a colonial European power, the British Empire reorganized South Yemen into a series of protectorate states known as the Federation of South Arabia on 4 April 1962. The British scheduled South Yemen’s independence for 1968, hoping that a government of allied royalists would protect its remaining interests in the region.

The plan was marked by ambivalence towards the wishes of South Yemenis, valuing notions of “stability” in the face of the broad existential chaos of “instability.” Instability was defined by parties opposed to colonial interests and allies in the Arabian Peninsula just as terrorism is rhetorically exploited in present day. South Yemenis reacted to the plan with disdain, as many correctly recognized it as an attempt to continue exploitation of the colony through independence.

Their distress was quickly mobilized into organized insurrection, culminating in the 1963 formation of anti-British military factions such as the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Frontier for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen. The speed and effectiveness of this organization was highly affected by violence in North Yemen, once again reinforcing ties between the two states. British forces responded by declaring the Aden Emergency, a period of intense violence between South Yemeni paramilitary forces and the British colonial presence with allied support within South Yemen.

The success of these initiatives were pronounced in the early withdrawal of British forces and the People’s Republic of South Yemen’s independence on 30 November 1967. The national consciousness began to revolve around using violent mechanisms to forcibly remove the exploitation of the old Order. This removal was pronounced in an assertion of South Yemeni interests through opposition to the control of sultans, emirs, and other royalist entities.

Royalists and monarchs were seen as an exploitative influence that needed to be combatted, as they prevented wider political and economic participation by South Yemenis. Marxism became a mechanism for instigating this removal just as Islamism in later decades, though in reality the eventual state was Stalinist. Marxist (Stalinist) wings of the NLF gained control of the country and renamed it the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) on 1 December 1970.

Dormant anti-royalist sentiment became attached to PDRY nationalism, with a strong sense of distinction from the renamed Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) reemerging after the 1978 election of the North Yemeni strongman Saleh. As the PDRY exported a Marxist-inspired ideology of anti-monarchism to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, cosmopolitan pedagogies became attached to Southern nationalism.

While the PDRY’s status as “Marxist” is a matter of debate, there is certainly a direct line between its revolutionary anti-monarchical stances and the current popularity of federalized democracy in South Yemen. South Yemenis, particularly in Aden, express a strong desire for their interests to be represented in the greater Yemeni state through federalized democratic structures. The influence of leftist democratic ideas during the PDRY’s lifespan certainly contributed to this phenomenon.

Interestingly, these ideologies required South Yemenis to be defined in opposition to an external force. The PDRY began to echo colonial behaviors, as its progressive behaviors needed to be seen in opposition to counterrevolutionary patterns elsewhere. Although Saudi Arabia and the predominantly monarchist GCC often filled this role, the increasingly autocratic YAR began to increasingly dominate this dynamic. The ‘civilized’ South Yemen began to be seen in opposition to the ‘uncivilized’ North Yemen, and slurs such as ‘savages’ entered the South Yemeni lexicon.

As a result, the YAR and PDRY entered their 1990 unification with significant caution on the part of South Yemenis. Although dialogue between the two states was consistent despite periods of strain, many South Yemenis were wary of a YAR that seemed oppressive and autocratic. The mood in 1990 was one of nervousness as many felt as though their interests would not be represented in the greater Yemeni state. However, the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union prevented South Yemen from being a viable entity, leaving South Yemenis no choice. The Republic of Yemen was formed on 22 May 1990.

South Yemenis immediately noted an exploitative relationship between North and South emerging in the new state. Saleh implemented counterrevolutionary policies throughout the South, particularly in agriculture. Previously nationalized land was seized and distributed to exploitative landlords and sultans. Tribalism and fundamentalism exploded as a response to this retreat of the state from public life. These groups and ideologies filled a void created by the decline of a planned economy in the South. This is mainly because Saleh, after his 1978 ascendancy to power, had precariously balanced himself on a loosely cohesive tribal state with neither central power nor infrastructure. Saleh attempted to integrate South Yemen into this dynamic, which greatly alienated the new provinces.

Fearing permanent marginalization in the new Yemeni state, South Yemenis reorganized their political structures. The 1993 Yemeni national elections reflect this divide, with South Yemen predominantly voting for Yemen Socialist Party candidates.

Tensions culminated in the the 1994 Yemeni Civil War that was marked by brutal violence as Saleh preserved his authority over the Southern states.

The war is remembered with intense bitterness in South Yemen today, as it was seen as the last chance for the Southern states to protect their sovereignty and pride in exercising core interests. South Yemenis will today argue that in the fallout of the war, Saleh intensified his ‘oppression’ of the South as a form of collective punishment. There is certainly record of many South Yemeni leaders being driven from their positions in favor of North Yemenis, and the profits of dwindling oil reserves being centralized in Saleh’s inner-circle. Animosity became rampant against the construct of North Yemenis as tribal, anachronistic, and vicious.

The independence movement was forced underground, but the aspects of distress in unmet political and economic requirements still dominated the national consciousness. Demands for renewed independence quickly became the main politicization of this distress. Increased numbers of South Yemenis supporting the initiative as the structures of Saleh’s Yemen proved inaccessible into the 2000’s.

The current Southern liberation movement began in 2007, when small protests were spearheaded by disenfranchised military officers forced into retirement. The Society of Retired Military Officers demanded reinstatement and guaranteed pensions, quickly gaining the support of lawyers, journalists, academics, and other sections of South Yemeni society. Most South Yemeni activists, in a prelude to the 2011 Yemeni Uprising, distanced themselves from violent methods and continued to advocate for peaceful social change.

South Yemeni tribes found themselves in an especially intriguing position. While many tribes traditionally strayed away from government affairs in the interest of self-autonomy, others expected to gain government services and access to its infrastructure. Saleh’s strategy of balancing himself precariously among a cocktail of allied, ambivalent, and hostile tribes failed to sufficiently address these needs. Yemeni tribes began to embrace a new strategy in the late 1990’s of using human collateral in order to goad these needs from Sana’a. Kidnappings of foreign tourists became more common, with tribes surrendering their hostages after receiving access to government services.

South Yemeni tribes were given a unique opportunity to hold collateral after policing efforts in Saudi Arabia pushed Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia into the South. Al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia merged with Al-Qaida in Yemen to form the now infamous group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). International pressure on Sana’a and domestic concerns regarding the group caused a drive to alleviate AQAP’s influence as quickly as possible.

Tribes began to associate themselves with AQAP in order to place themselves in a better bargaining position with the central government. As AQAP began to launch higher profile attacks into 2010, most notably with “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmatallab, the label became even more effective a bargaining chip. A desperate Sana’a would increasingly acquiesce to the demands of individual tribes in order to regain their allegiances. The strategy appeared to be working, especially since a stagnated Southern liberation movement was making little success against an ‘anti-modern’ North. However, it has backfired since then as AQAP gains have been used to make Saleh’s power structure appear indispensable to international interests during the 2011 Yemeni Uprising.

The 2011 Yemeni Uprising has been crucially impacted by events in South Yemen. Saleh recognized that linking the uprising to chaos was essential in securing international support for his political base. He therefore withdrew military and policing forces from the South in order to reassign them to crackdowns in North Yemeni cities such as Sana’a, Ta’iz, and Ib. The result was that Islamist militants, rhetorically linked to AQAP, seized control of large portions of the Southern provinces.

Remaining army units, who defied orders to withdraw due to their allegiances to the South during the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, were completely overwhelmed. Ultimately, militants posted a high-profile victory in the provincial capital of Zinjibar, which permanently altered perception of the uprising. Obama Administration officials especially, who previously had trouble settling on a policy towards the revolutionary movements, pointed at Zinjibar as proof of the AQAP victories that would allegedly result from a successful Yemeni Revolution. The recent attack on the city of Lawdar has reinforced these concerns, even if realities of the assault place an Islamist takeover in doubt. As a result, the United States reacted to this narrative with attacks in South Yemen that rose significantly during the Arab Spring. The most notable case of this is the 30 September 2011 assassination of AQAP leader Anwar al-Awlaki, in addition to dozens of other attacks.

Saleh has successfully exploited the South in order to preserve power for himself as honorary President and his close associates in the new government of Abd-al Rab Mansur al-Hadi. These parties have successfully argued itself to be an essential part of the War on Terrorism, securing crucial international support and severely isolating ongoing revolutionary activity in Yemen. Al-Hadi’s tensions with Saleh, such as his firing of close Saleh allies in the country, do not challenge this reality.

However, the 2011 Yemeni Uprising has been a crucial argument against calls for independence. The South Yemeni national consciousness relied on a flawed mental construct of North Yemeni savagery in order to advocate for total independence. However, the willingness of North Yemeni protestors to martyr themselves for a federalized democracy in Yemen has completely challenged this narrative.

Just as anti-royalist sentiment during the North Yemeni Civil War shifted the perception of the North away from anti-modernity, pro-democratic movements are once again active in the same fashion. It is difficult for a South Yemeni to call a North Yemeni “savage” when they are challenging the same autocratic tendencies as Southern liberation movements. New bonds of solidarity are forming in spite of the bitterness that arose in the fallout of the 1994 Yemeni Civil War. These bonds present an opportunity to ease secessionist attitudes through a truly revolutionary rearrangement of Yemeni power structures and popular access to them.

Despite this, South Yemenis have proven themselves more than willing to mobilize for their interests if necessary. The main challenge facing the government of al-Hadi is whether or not it can represent these interests while quelling growing violence in the South. This requires broad reform throughout Yemeni institutions without exception to Saleh’s associates. Whether or not al-Hadi is able to implement this reform is be a crucial speculation in the coming years.

DispatchesGuestyemen
Yemen: Can AQAP mount an insurgency?

This post was co-authored by the editor of the recently released report "A False Foundation? AQAP, Tribes, and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen", Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, and the author of the same report. For reasons of security and to facilitate future research in the region the author's name has been withheld from the report. Gabriel is an associate at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and an instructor in the Department of Social Sciences.

On 15 January a member of a United Nations team was kidnapped from an upscale neighborhood in Yemen’s capital.  He was reportedly taken to the eastern governorate of Marib and held for more than a week by heavily-armed tribesmen who demanded the release of their relatives held on suspicion of supporting al-Qa`ida. The day of the abduction, word spread of militants from an alleged al-Qa`ida affiliate, Ansar al-Sharia`a, overrunning a city just 80 miles south of Sana’a.  A week later, footage of an alleged commander of the group, a tribal sheikh and brother in law of Anwar al-`Awlaqi named Tariq al-Dhahab, was posted on YouTube.  The clips seem to show Ansar al-Sharia`a fighters in control of the city’s mosque, enjoying support from some local residents, and for the first time on video, soliciting oaths of allegiance from young men on behalf of al-Qa`ida’s leaders in Yemen and Pakistan. (Click here for videos)

Both events have been interpreted as the latest evidence of Yemen’s imminent collapse, an outcome especially troubling for the United States. Whereas the Arab Spring has spurred varying degrees of optimism regarding political developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and even Libya, Yemen appears headed in the opposite direction. The prospect of al-Qa`ida inspired militants moving to fill the void left by a faltering central government makes a bad situation that much worse. AQAP is not alone in taking advantage of the chaos. Across the country the Yemeni government is ceding ground to a variety of sub state actors. These include Southern Secessionists in the former PDRY (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), Houthi insurgents in the North, and since May of 2011 in Abyan and perhaps Baydah governorates, al-Qa`ida’s local offshoot, al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Shar`ia. 

Given the grim picture, bleak predications about Yemen’s future are inevitable. But they represent only part of the story.  The abduction of the UN official or seizure of Rada’a while troubling, are not proof of Yemen’s “failure” – much less victory for AQAP.  While these events might be conclusive evidence of collapse in a country with a history of a strong, centralized government, Yemen has never neatly matched up with Weberian concepts of sovereignty. To make sense of where Yemen is going, events must be evaluated using Yemeni metrics rather than ahistorical assumptions about territorial control taken from the West, or other Arab countries for that matter.

The recent kidnapping of Gert Danielsen is a useful example.  Although the Norwegian was rushed to an area long considered beyond the writ of the Yemeni government, his safety and ultimately his return to the capital was ensured precisely by the norms and social organizations long accused of weakening the Yemeni state: tribesmen and customary law. This conclusion may seem contradictory to those who presume that safety and stability are exclusively the purview of the central state. But given President Saleh’s departure and the political gridlock in the capital, governance does not end at Marib’s borders.  Accepted methods of dispute resolution were enacted immediately following news of the kidnapping.  A delegation of sheikhs from `Abeeda, ironically one of the tribes most frequently accused supporting al-Qa`ida, headed mediation efforts with the kidnappers, and within days an agreement was struck that returned Gert to Sana’a.

Ansar al-Shari`a’s takeover of Rada’a is also telling.  The week long ordeal seemed to confirm suspicions that al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula had once again diversified its operations. No longer content with simply attacking security forces, the group or its affiliates appeared to be seizing territory and administering social services in a strategic shift that is typically associated with insurgent movements, not small terrorist groups.  Though AQAP has only vaguely in described its exact role in these developments – save for an unusual online question and answer session last April – Ansar al-Shari`a’s recent actions are much less circumspect.  The group has reportedly raised al-Qa`ida’s banner and screened AQAP media in areas in which it retains a presence. Its media wing (al-Madad) has used a series of newsletter to “preview” upcoming AQAP releases in addition to spreading news of its own activities. (click here for access to all of al-Madad’s recent releases from Aaron Zelin’s jihadology blog)

To be sure, links exist between these groups.  Based on the newsletters alone there is evidence to suggest coordination between members of the media wings of both groups.  Yet, overlapping manpower and interests hardly constitutes a formal alliance. Even if the two groups are coordinating their activities, a loose alliance with semi independent groups also has its downsides for AQAP.  According to our report:

The growth of sympathetic movements certainly bolsters al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula‘s presence in Yemen. Yet the rise of jihadists who display none of the characteristics that have sustained AQAP‘s resilience does not. An Ansar al-Shari`a accused of kidnapping children, beheading civil leaders and imposing Taliban-like shows of justice does not strengthen the integrity of the AQAP brand. Regardless of the veracity of the claims—few of which have been definitively proven—a nominal al-Qa`ida ally that is thus far incapable of matching its sponsor‘s skill for messaging or disciplined use of violence dilutes the integrity of perhaps AQAP‘s most valued asset, the credibility of its name.

More importantly, even if al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula was behind the capture of Rada`a, and `Azzan, Houta, Ja`ar, and Zinjubar before it, such an embrace of insurgency may in fact be the surest route to the group’s defeat in Yemen.  Unlike the Houthis who have been fighting since 2004, AQAP’s background is in terror not insurgency.  Furthermore Yemen is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan.  Attempts by AQAP to highlight a limited U.S. military presence in the country notwithstanding, there is no foreign military occupying Yemen.  In Rada’a, the nearest thing to an “occupying” force was likely Ansar al-Shari`a itself. 

Even if AQAP could potentially evolve into a deft practitioner of insurgency in the future, such a transformation will involve significant organizational tradeoffs.  Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula has thus far proven successful in Yemen thanks to a cadre of leaders who have imposed unusual discipline on the group, balancing competing constituents while pursuing local, regional, and more recently international agendas.  However, the principles that help to explain AQAP’s success as a small, leader-centric group will not predispose them for success in insurgency.  Disciplining a tightly bound group focused on terrorist attacks and assassinations is one thing; keeping a hodgepodge of "insurgents" in check and on message is another. A larger AQAP means a broader movement, one less under the direct control of the Yemeni leaders who have guided the organization for more than five years.  As we noted in our report last October:

While organizational flattening will improve internal security, decentralization can be expected to erode AQAP‘s ability to discipline the use of its narrative and violence. Greater distance between the group’s talented founding commanders and newer cells and sympathizers leaves a swelling cohort animated by the rhetoric of al-Qa`ida’s ideology but less restrained by the foresight of AQAP’s leadership. Regulating the behavior of members who are loosely tied to the group’s command will pose a serious risk to AQAP’s coherence of behavior and message.

Such dangers are rendered more likely with the continued rise of Ansar al-Shari`a.  As the Rada`a case indicates, while liberating communities from corrupt security forces may generate local support, imposing governance on existing and accepted forms of social organization, including tribal law (to which al-Qa`ida’s ideology is fundamentally opposed) does not.  Ansar al-Shari’a’s success has come in part because they are directing their efforts against Yemen’s highly unpopular security forces, in areas where their presence has long been resented, and where turmoil in Sana’a makes it difficult for Yemeni soldiers to stay and fight.  Yemen’s tribal units share none of these disadvantages. 

A confrontation with Yemen’s tribes would force AQAP or Ansar al-Shar’ia to fight levies of tribal fighters on their home territory, in regions where they represent the most legitimate governing force, and where tribal notions of honor and prestige will propel them to defend their land, unlike an average 18 year old conscript in the Yemeni military.  Rather than success against Yemen’s security forces, carefully observing how Ansar al-Shar`ia and AQAP engage with local and tribal communities, at least in the short run, is probably the best barometer for evaluating the group moving forward.