‘Not In My Back Yard’


Today there was an announcement  by SABA that the Qatari ruler has underlined the importance of Yemeni unity and we have seen a number of statements  about this over the last six months. I think there is increasing concern about Yemen’s inherent stability and unity. The question is what can and will be done to off set the worst case scenarios in Yemen and what will be done.
I will startI will start by outlining Yemen’s three main challenges in the areas of economics, politics and security. I will then talk about the three distinct security challenges to the Yemeni state which emanate from the southern sectors, from the Saada rebels and from Al Qaeda. I will look at some of the regional dynamics dominating each of these three areas and I will try and look at some of the false narratives that might sit within those regional dynamics where events in Yemen are being caught up in wider regional geopolitics, as they have done in the past.
If you look at the 1962 revolution it became embroiled in much wider regional dynamics including the Saudi stance towards Egypt and Egypt’s ambitions in the region. So there is a precedent there for wider regional interference in Yemen’s internal affairs.
The first most important thing  to say about Yemen’s current situation is the underlying challenge to the state which is economic. Yemen is oil dependent and production is declining. Yemen reached peak oil production in 2002 and at that point was producing oil at the same rate as Saudi Arabia in the late 1940s. The scale of resources available to the Yemeni state has always been small and is now  declining. This has an impact on the state budget and on the informal networks that sit in and around the state structures.  Every week that goes by, depending on the relative position of global oil prices, there is less revenue available.
If  Yemen is able to identify substantial new oil fields then the government will have further money available at its disposal but I think there are a number of factors which are inhibiting extensive exploration and the recent round of tenders for international oil companies to explore in Yemen did not receive the response which was expected.
There is a new venture which is a production and export agreement for a  natural gas and a plant based on the south coast. That revenue will certainly help but it won’t make  up the shortfall in the levels of income that Yemen has been able to expect from oil production.
The second issue is to do with politics and legitimacy. Yemen was the first country on the Arabian peninsula to move towards universal suffrage following unification. A decision was made to introduce democracy and Yemen was seen very much as leader on the Arabian peninsula in terms of democratic freedoms. But parliamentary elections scheduled for April this year were postponed for two years and the current democratic process is essentially on hold, temporarily.
That decision coincided with the announcement that Yemen’s revenue in the first quarter from January to March had fallen by  75 percent on revenues the previous year and I think formally the elections were delayed to resolve constitutional disputes between the opposition parties and the ruling party. But looking ahead the economic situation is going to be potentially more acute in two years time and  it may place resources under greater strain.
The third issue which everybody is most focused on  is the security issue and there are three separate challenges which the Yemeni government is currently confronting. They all have quite complex local and historical origins and they express themselves in very different terms linguistically in terms of identity.
The conflict in the north in Saada near the Saudi border has finally begun to receive much better media attention then we have become accustomed to since the war broke out five years ago. This is an on –off conflict which runs in cycles. After each cycle there are ceasefire negotiations  and a temporary cease fire holds. But each cycle of fighting which breaks out is more intense than the one before.
So we are seeing a kind of compounding process where this is escalating and drawing in increasing number of actors and the conflict is no longer confined to Saada province as it was initially and it is no longer confined to the supporters of the Houthi family who took up arms against the state.

In 2008 there was an outbreak of fighting which reached the outskirts of Saan’a the Yemeni capital and Saleh abruptly called an end to the war saying that the war was over. And that held until this year but the underlying grievances were not resolved.

The latest round of fighting started in August and the operation was dubbed ‘scorched earth’. The President declared in September that the fighting would run for four to five years, whatever it took to defeat the rebels. But in October Saleh declared the war  would be over in days. So there are mixed messages and incoherent rhetoric from the Yemeni government at the moment. This raises questions about  whether the sectors of the Yemeni state are co-operating as a coherent whole. There are a number of actors in the conflict process: there are security forces and there are tribal forces operating with the government forces and against them are members of the Houthi family, a charismatic family based in the Saada region. They have links into Zaidi educational charities and Zaidi consciousness raising organisations and they also have tribal alliances.

Since the outbreak of the conflict there have been a number of allegations about outside actors involved. Among those who are claimed to be involved with the Houthi are the Iranians and Hezbaollah.  At the beginning of the Saada conflict allegations were made against Yemeni Jews and against Al Qaeda for being in alliance with the Houthi forces. In the last few weeks the Yemeni government claimed to have seized five Iranians arms traffickers on a boat in the Red Sea about to deliver weapons to the Houthi forces and also supposed to be trainers for the Houthi forces.

The Houthi claim that the Yemenis are in cohorts with the Saudi forces  and that they are also working with salafi volunteers and Al Qaeda mercenaries who are supporting the Yemeni forces. In the last few days the Houthis have claimed that the Yemeni government has been using a Saudi military base to attack them in their own area.

So it is an extremely complex picture. There has been an effective media blackout in the region with no international journalists allowed into the combat zone and very few Yemeni journalists allowed to report from the area.

Since this outbreak of fighting in August we have seen a number of international media organisations Al Jazeera English, the BBC and  The Guardian  which have reported on this conflict and we have seen pictures from the refugee camps which is a departure from the previous rounds of fighting.

There is a real trading of insults linked into regional interests and I don’t claim to be an expert on the doctrinal distinctions between the Zaidi Shias and the Ithnashri Shias but from what I understand  there is a dispute in the line of Shia succession between the Zaidis and the Ithnashiris which stops at the 5th imam. They part company at the 5th imam.

I have never seen any hard and  fast evidence presented about Iranian government support for the Houthi rebels. I invite anybody who has that information to come forward and share it with me. There are allegations that members of the Houthi family have converted from Zaidi Shism to Ithnashiri Shi’ism and members of the Houthi family studied in Qom in Iran and have an affinity with the Iranian branch of Shia Islam. Again if anybody present would like to venture an opinion on this I would be very glad. It is part of the allegations about the reasons for the conflict and the misperceptions that exist around it.

It is important to state that there are sectarian tensions inside Saada. This can’t be classified as a Shia minority revolt against a Sunni government as some international journalists have claimed recently. The Zaidis and the Houthi family  complain that they can’t worship freely, they are not allowed to worship in their own mosques, they can’t study in their madrasas and they don’t have enough freedom of expression in terms of religion and culture. They claim that the government is supporting a network of salafi madrasas inside Saada province. The salafi madrasas began from the 1980s with Saudi support and some promotion of the salafi institutions inside Saada during the 1990s. It is a delicate religious balance in that region but it doesn’t map to a rebel group against a central government,  in the way that reporters would like. It is a simple handle for reporters to hold on to. It doesn’t actually work clearly in this context.

There is a very fine line between  the composition of the Yemeni aristocracy that existed before the revolution and have come to replace the group since the revolution which hinges around the distinction of being a sayyid. Saleh himself comes from a Zaidi background originally but he doesn’t come from a sayyid family which is a descendant of a prophet.  The Imam who ruled Yemen before the 1962 revolution was always a sayyid. And those who have taken up arms against the state are sayyid. So there is the discourse around the Saada conflict which involved allegations that the Houthis want to establish the original Yemeni immamate and this debate gets more and more complex. This is another one of the discourses which sits in and around the Saada conflict.

To boil it down to what is actually happening on the ground at the moment there are 150, 000 displaced people who are fleeing the conflict inside Saada and Amran province. The UK and the US government have both pledged million dollars sums and  promised to provide humanitarian assistance and the UN has launched an emergency appeal to try and support the refugees needs.

In this round of the conflict the Houthis have got more sophisticated in spreading their own message. There are videos on U tube which are circulating among people who have a connection with them. They are quite graphic and in a recent interview with one of the Houthi spokespeople  claimed that the Yemeni government was behaving akin to the Israeli government in its assault against the Palestinians in Gaza. So the debate has been polarised.

I will move on now to the conflict in the south which is quite distinct. The southerners are predominantly Sunni-Shafi, which is distinct from the religious and ethnic group in the north. The discontent in the south started in 2007 when retired officers from the disbanded southern army demanded higher pension payments.

Political violence really escalated quite sharply in April and May this year following the decision to postpone parliamentary elections but I don’t think there were any explicit headline claims made of connections between the two events. What we saw during  April and May were a number of fatalities and arrests and  actions against journalists writing about the conflict in the south.

There were attacks on government security forces and there were attacks against demonstrators in the south. The protesters began calling openly for independence from the regime in Sana’a. I think it was at that  point that the register among the media and policy makers started to go up.  We saw a wave of regional   support for  Yemen’s unity. People began to pay attention to the fact that something was happening in Yemen.

The southerners were complaining that  President Saleh has backtracked on the original unity agreement that was brokered by the former socialist regime and the northern government at the time of unification in 1990. They also complained that the northerners are running the country in their own interests.

The leadership of the southern movement is quite disparate : it is a collection of tribal sheikhs, military leaders, civic officers and former leftist  politicians who were involved in the Marxist government prior to unification who are currently living in exile. It is an untested coalition which is based around  perceptions of Southern marginalisation by the north and it seems to be seeking to unite around a coherent agenda. I think  it is wrong to  frame this as a re-run of 1994. The regional environment is quite different now, the personalities involved  have different positions. It is much more tied into the central challenges which Yemen faces outlined briefly at the beginning.

The south has gone quite quiet since early this summer. There are still small incidents, but the scale of unrest has certainly tampered down. You may hear conspiracy theories that Saleh is a master of divide and rule and making sure that there is only one bush fire burning at one time.

The southerners themselves say they have pulled back from the brink because they don’t have the stamina for a fight and early suggestions about a national dialogue that would involve members of the southern movement seems to have stalled. I  am not sure that there is a comprehensive national dialogue taking place. There are probably talks and concessions being negotiated behind the scenes. Certainly the government’s ability to manage these two separate conflicts, if they both break out at the same time, is in question.

The third main challenge is the presence of terrorism  and Al Qaeda inspired groups inside Yemen who go back to the Cole attack in 2000 and to the Limburg bombing of 2002. There were concerns in Yemen around the time of 9/11 that Yemen was a haven for terrorism and whether or not the Yemeni government had the problem under control.

Months after 9/11 President Salah was very keen to stress to the United States that Yemen was on side and there was scope for co-operation between the US military and the Yemeni state. There was a US drone strike against the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen and a crackdown inside Yemen. There were some successes at that stage. In  2006  there was a jail break . Twenty three convicted terrorists and suspected terrorists tunnelled their way out of a  security institution in Sana’a. That enabled key figures within the Al Qaeda movement to re-establish their network in Yemen. Within six months, just days before the US presidential elections, Yemen saw its first dual suicide attack in the form of car bombs against two of the main oil installations which would have really created economic havoc for Yemen if the had succeeded.

Since then there has been a gradual escalation of events involving terrorists in Yemen. There is an academic in Princeton who is an authority on Al Qaeda movements in Yemen and he argues that the US government and the Yemeni government have taken their eye off the ball in Yemen since early successes at the beginning of this decade.

But events in Yemen are not taking place in a void and to an extent Yemen is suffering from security successes elsewhere in the region. The growth of Al Qaeda in Yemen as a resurgent organisation coincides with a crackdown inside Saudi Arabia which has effectively seen Al Qaeda inside the kingdom jailed or annihilated and the figures who are still at large have drained off to Yemen.

It also coincides with the improved security environment inside Iraq and there were certainly a number of Yemenis fighting. So there will have been a draining of Yemenis from Iraq returning home. There have also been reports over the last few months that the crackdown inside Afghanistan and Pakistan is also creating a drainoff to Yemen.

I will mention in a  minute the suicide attack on the Saudi interior minister which was launched by a Saudi who was based in Yemen. In his martyrdom video the man who was responsible for the attack is wearing a Pakistani head dress which feeds into the idea that there is an increasing connection between Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Yemen can now be described as a centre of gravity for al-Qaeda inside the Arabian peninsula. Many of the Saudi men who were interned in Guatanamo went through the Saudi rehabilitation programme and after their graduation from the programme there has been a change in the tactics deployed by Al Qaeda inspired terrorists inside Yemen. Since January there has been a merger between Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia in Yemen to produce a single transnational organisation which is Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula. The commander is a Yemeni and the deputy commander is a Saudi national who is a former Guantanamo  inmate. The new organisation has proven its attention to strike both within Yemen and within Saudi Arabia. This year we have seen the first pedestrian attack inside Yemen which was carried out on South Korean tourists in the spring.

There was a follow up attack when the Korean delegation of the bereaved arrived to take their relatives remains home. They were driving to Sana’a International Airport and a pedestrian suicide bomber passed the convoy. Yemen has never seen pedestrian suicide attacks before and it has never seen such sophisticated, co-ordinated attacks over a period of a few days.

.Correction: Saudi authorities raided a cave which they claimed was being used by an al-Qaeda cell. Nine Western hostages were seized inside Saada which is the site of the conflict. There were three women who were found dead shortly after the seizure and six people are still missing. There is no formal claim for this incident but it is certainly a new form of violence inside Yemen which is not consistent with previous attacks and kidnappings.

We have seen the attack on Prince Mohammed bin Naif, the Saudi Interior Minister  which was launched from inside Yemen. There was a recent shoot outside near the Saudi border with a number of Al Qaeda figures some of whom were dressed as women. Today there was an attack on a number of Yemeni security officers near the Saudi border.

It is fair to say that Al Qaeda is last on the list inside Yemen as an internal concern but it preoccupies the West when they look at the issues swirling about inside Yemen. Al Qaeda has never had a base in an Arabic speaking country before and it will certainly profit from growing instability in Yemen if the government finds itself under increasing strain. Western policy makers are concerned about the prospect of Al Qaeda establishing a safe haven, however you might wish to describe that, on the holy peninsula.

In July General Petraus went to Yemen to encourage Salah to be more aggressive against Al Qaeda and Obama wrote a  letter to President Salah underlying that Yemen’s security was vital to the region and to American interests.

But there are clearly policy challenges between short term priorities and long term goals of creating a strong legitimate government that reflects the priorities of the Yemeni people. The time frame for Yemen is getting shorter because of the baseline issue of oil revenues and some of the policy prescriptions have very long time frames for delivering results.

In terms of the region again there are some long term options available and GCC membership clearly stands out there but it is not  something that will deliver results in the short term. There is concern about access for Yemenis to join the GCC labour market as a way of trying to generate revenue and employment inside Yemen and there is also a really strong drive that has been going  on since 2007 to increase Gulf investment in Yemen and to kick  start the private sector and diversify Yemen’s economy away from reliance on oil in order to offset the challenge to  Yemeni state revenue. There have been some challenges, there have been some encouraging signs, there have been some headline deals and  real estate projects but there has not been sustained investment. 

The Saudis have recently signed a contract with a French defense company to build  a border fence running along the full extent of the Yemeni border. There are already significant numbers of Yemenis and African migrants crossing along the mountain border. If the idea of increased migration conditions in Yemen become more extreme it will be worrying to members of the GGC.

Finally on Guantanamo. There are 100 Yemenis still in Guantanamo. They make up the majority national group. There have been ongoing negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Americans over the repatriation conditions for the Yemeni nationals but the Americans are reluctant to release the Yemeni nationals to the Yemeni government and they have been pushing the Saudis to accept the Yemeni nationals into their own  rehabilitation programme. But the Saudis appear reluctant, for a number of reasons, to take on this responsibility.  That illustrates that Yemen is a Saudi problem and Saudi may play a significant role in Yemen going forward.

But Yemeni – Saudi history is complex and the contemporary transnational relationship between Saudi and Yemen is also complex, involving trade, religion and family ties.

The regional states can play a really strong important role in Yemen going forward. It remains to be seen how events in Yemen unfold and how players within the region choose to respond.

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