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Saudi Arabia mired in the quicksand of the Middle East

Between War in Yemen and War of Succession

Orient XXI > Alain Gresh > 5 January 2017

Two years after his accession to the throne, King Salman faces many challenges.
The pre-emptive intervention in Yemen is bogged down and Saudi Arabia suffers setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. While the economic reforms initiated are much criticized, the questions on his succession remain unanswered.

If there is one thing the diplomats posted to Riyadh agree upon, it is that the Saudi leadership analyses the entire regional situation in terms of “the Iranian menace.”

“They see the hand of Iran everywhere and take seriously the declarations in the Iranian press, bragging about how Iran now controls four Arab capitals—Baghdad, Sanaa, Beirut and Damascus,” one of them explains.

“They are obsessed with Iran,” another chimes in. “They end up forgetting that country is their neighbour and that, however, they may feel about its policies, it’s not going to disappear overnight.” All see this obsession as the main reason for the Saudi intervention in Yemen.

“We had no choice, it was an obligation.” This conviction, voiced by a Saudi diplomat, is shared by most of the officials met in Riyadh.

“As we see it,” he went on, “Yemen is a domestic problem: we need a stable, friendly regime on our doorstep. It’s a matter of national security.” And he reminded us that the population of Yemen is as large as that of Arabia.

A “storm” not that “decisive”

King Salman, Abdallah’s successor, had only just been crowned on January 23, 2015, when, discarding a foreign policy that had until then been quite cautious, not to say conservative, he determined to show the world that the kingdom was prepared to defend its vital interests.

All the more so as the USA no longer seemed a dependable ally judging by their deal with Teheran on the nuclear issue or their passivity in Syria. And so, in March 2015, Riyadh led a coalition of some ten countries on a military expedition aimed at restoring the “legitimate” government in Sanaa, (the tenure of President Hadi had expired) ousted from power by the Houthi rebels and their allies, accused of being manipulated by Teheran.

However, the operation dubbed “Decisive Storm” was anything but “decisive” and shed a harsh light on the limitations of Saudi military (and political) strength.

Despite some ten thousand troops deployed along its border with Yemen, the Kingdom was forced to evacuate a strip of land 200 kilometres long and 20 to 30 wide; 7,000 inhabitants had to leave their villages for fear of Houthi incursions and still today the latter are firing missiles at cities like Jizan where they don’t do much damage, but create a climate of permanent insecurity, at times causing the shutdown of schools and other public institutions.

While the authorities admit to having lost 50 soldiers, the actual figure is said to be over 800, most of the casualties being camouflaged as “accidents.”

Finally, the very serious “blunders” perpetrated by the Saudi air force, including the bombing of a funeral in central Sanaa on October 9, 2016, killing 140, which shocked the world and led the US to suspend the Raytheon Company’s delivery of 16,000 precision munitions to Arabia.

And on December 19, after having denied using them for many months, Riyadh officially announced it would henceforth refrain from employing British cluster bombs. (Nothing refrains this lunatic Kingdom)

The nationalistic euphoria which had united a large share of the Saudi population gradually dwindled as the country found itself bogged down in an endless war, with many civilian casualties. “We are destroying a very poor country,” a young academic deplored. “And it affects us, even if we have no sympathy for Iran.”

And he went on to add: “We are beginning to see the connection between the austerity plans imposed on us and the cost of this war.” According to different sources, this cost is estimated at two, three or even seven billion dollars per month, at a time when the collapse of oil prices has drained the resources of the State.

In an attempt to put this bleak overview into perspective, a Saudi official serves us some data:

“We have captured 80% of the missiles under Houthi control and prevented South Yemen and the rest of the country from falling into their hands.” This is small consolation, a far cry from the original objectives, in particular the winning back of Sanaa.

And so Riyadh is trying to find a way out of this quagmire. But as usual it is much harder to get out of a war than it is to start one. Not only must Arabia take the actions of its enemies into account—at the end of November the Saudi press made much of declarations by the Iranian chief of staff announcing the establishment of naval bases in Syria and Yemen—but many of its allies are developing their own strategies.

The United Arab Emirates, who is very active in Yemen with hundreds of soldiers on the ground, distrusts Al-Islah, the Yemenite branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its allegiance to the “legitimate” President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, backed by the Saudis. (They withdrew their armed contingent after suffering dire casualties)

And he in turn refuses to be the “fall guy” of a deal currently being brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry, discussions in which Riyadh seems to place all its hopes of extricating itself from what its adversaries term, with great exaggeration, “a Saudi Vietnam.”

Instability and regional divisions

In the eyes of the new King Salman, the Yemen intervention was only the first step in his country’s reassertion of its role in the regional stage. For the first time since the October 1973 embargo on oil exports during the Israeli-Arab war, the country has detached itself from US tutelage. It tried to hamper the normalisation of Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. The execution by Riyadh of the Saudi Shia leader Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on January 2, 2016, followed by the attack in reprisal on the Saudi embassy in Teheran led to the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Iran. Several Gulf countries followed suit.

“From now on,” a western diplomat explained, “the machinery is well oiled: every incident between the Kingdom and Iran leads to a condemnation before the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), then by the Arab League and finally by the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC). However, we need only glance at the regional situation to gauge the limits of this Saudi offensive.”

In Syria, the fall of Aleppo to the Syrian army with the help of Russian bombers, Iranian advisers and Shia militias from Lebanon and Iraq has strengthened President Assad’s position whereas Riyadh is trying to unseat him.

In Iraq, the efforts to improve relations with the Haider Al-Abadi government, formed in August 2014, have turned sour. The new Saudi ambassador, Thamer Al-Sabhan, appointed in December 2015 after a break in diplomatic relations that went back to the Gulf War (1990-1991), has repeatedly denounced the role of the Shia militia (Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi ) in Iraq, responsible for escalating tensions with the Sunnis, with the result that on August 28, 2016, Baghdad demanded the ambassador be recalled.

“However,” said a Saudi diplomat reassuringly, “we still have relations with Iraq, even if we would like our government to be more incisive. Daesh was fostered by a policy that excluded and ostracised Sunnis. The departure of Maliki—the former prime minister whose confessional policies were favourable to the Shias—was necessary, and yet his influence subsists.”

In Lebanon, after having frozen a gift of 3 billion dollars for the purchase of (French) weaponry—to punish Beirut for failing to sign an Arab League statement accusing the Hezbollah of being a “terrorist” organisation—and after cutting off funding to their ally Saad Al-Hariri—not a very profitable investment for Riyadh—the Saudis withdrew completely from the Lebanese arena.

When General Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, was elected president on October 31, 2016, there showed up in Beirut in quick succession to congratulate him the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif and Bashar Al-Assad’s special envoy Mansour Azzam, whereas the Saudi embassy in Beirut had closed two months earlier. It was not until November 21 that Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, governor of Mecca finally met President Aoun.

On the pediment of the Saudi foreign ministry is inscribed this verse from the Koran: “Oh humankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” An exhortation with which Saudi diplomats have had great difficulty in complying, even with regard to other Sunni countries.

It is not entirely their fault, the region has never been in such turmoil, what with the US withdrawal, the rise of powerful non-state armed groups and the fluctuating alliances in which yesterday’s enemies are today’s allies: three years ago, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were on the brink of war, today they are on much closer terms while during the last few months relations between Cairo and Riyadh have steadily deteriorated.

The United Arab Emirates has failed in their attempts to mediate between the two countries. The visit to Ethiopia in December by one of King Salman’s advisers—followed by that of the Qatari foreign minister—and to that country’s Renaissance dam site on the Upper Nile, may be regarded as a message: for indeed Egypt regards the construction of this dam as prejudicial to its water supply.

And to top it all, the CGC has rejected Egyptian claims that Qatar had a hand in the terrorist attack on a Coptic church in Cairo on December 11, 2016. As was deplored by the Saudi columnist Khalid Al-Dakhil: “The crisis occurs after three years of exchanges, visits and assistance. Which means that there was never any real agreement on regional issues. And yet a threat to one of these countries is a threat to the other as well. The collapse of Egypt would be a major threat to Arabia and vice versa.”

The attempt to create a broad coalition among Sunni Muslim countries against terrorism, hastily announced on December 15, 2015—some countries had not even been informed Mansur Azzam, was little more than propaganda. Even the plan to transform the CGC into a tighter and more efficient alliance has not only been rejected out of hand by Oman but has met with the reluctance of other members, fearful of Saudi hegemony. From this point of view, the CGC summit held last December in Bahrain in the presence of King Salman, produced no concrete results. And while it is still too early to analyse the significance of Oman joining the anti-terrorist alliance at the end of the year, it does not appear to signal a radical change in the Sultanate’s foreign policy.

In his confrontation with Iran, King Salman can only claim one major success, the establishment of closer ties with Ankara at the end of December 2015. Turkey is a powerful ally, with substantial economic capacities and an army that could weigh heavily in the balance of power with Iran. However, in recent months a rapprochement has occurred with Russia, whereas the two countries were on the brink of war in 2015!

Tensions within the royal family

The results of this policy offer an uneven picture, to say the least, and have sharpened the debate inside the royal family as shown by a strange incident which was the talk of Riyadh. A Saudi daily paper, Al Watan published on its website off-the-record remarks, supposedly made during a meeting of the Gulf countries in Jeddah by the crown prince and Minister of the Interior, Muhammad Bin Nayef —best known by his initials, MBN. They were removed several hours later on the pretext that the site had been hacked and that the paper had never reported any such declarations! Of course no one believed these denials.

What did Prince MBN have to say? “Although we responded to the call for help from the legitimate government of Yemen,” he explained in substance, “our ’Decisive Storm’ operation has lasted longer than we foresaw and got out of hand, in particular because of the failure by other members of the coalition to carry out their tasks.” By inference, he was accusing Egypt of having failed to deploy ground troops.

“In Syria,” he went on, “we wanted to see the regime overthrown with the help of Turkey and the United States,” which did not come about. And in conclusion, he said “we must revise our politics and our calculations” and on these two issues we must make “genuine, agonising concessions” if we do not want the Arab world to become embroiled in endless conflicts.

In a country where arrests of “suspected terrorists” are a daily occurrence—on October 30 a terrorist cell was dismantled that was preparing attacks on government officials and soccer stadiums—, where rewards are now being offered for denunciations of “terrorists”, the crown prince cum minister is primarily concerned by the war against transnational groups like Al-Qaida and ISIS. And he favours political settlements of regional conflicts for fear that their extension will favour such groups.

But this debate over strategy also conceals a power struggle. The crowning of King Salman resulted in the meteoric rise of his son, Mohammad Bin Salman, who is scarcely thirty. First he was appointed defence minister, then vice-crown prince, in other words, third in line of succession to the throne.

“Salman’s ambition,” an Egyptian official interviewed in Cairo observed sarcastically, “is to create a Salmani Arabia to replace Saudi Arabia” . . . and, in other words, get rid of the crown prince. Indeed, the latter has been pushed aside, the war in Yemen and major economic reforms entrusted to MBS, chief promoter of an ambitious development plan, “Vision 2030” launched in April 2016 and meant to reform the economy according to precepts worthy of Margaret Thatcher.

Now this plan, adopted in answer to the fall in oil revenues, has caused steep price rises—especially in water and electricity bills—as well as a general shrinkage of middle-class purchasing power (due to unprecedented wage and bonus cuts for civil servants, the hardest hit being academics and military personnel, who have lost 50% of their income).

In 2016 the economy experienced its first recession since 2009 and the budget deficit was over 85 billion dollars—according to the next budget, it should fall to 53 billion in 2017. As a result of the concentration of power in the hands of the King and his son, decision-making is increasingly opaque and uncertain, much to the chagrin of business men, already thrown off balance by the late payments of the State. Not to speak of the governmental instability marked by the fusions of various administrations and the ministerial merry-go-round (four ministers of education in two years).

As a European diplomat put it, MBN, the crown prince, was wise enough not to be associated with either the war in Yemen or the economic reforms, which have as yet to produce any results. He is beginning to reap the rewards of his patience and has made a comeback on the political stage and in the media.”

All the more so as he had made known his qualms about these policies via the dense news networks which irrigate Saudi society, a mix of familial and tribal connections, but also an intensive use of Twitter—the Kingdom has a penetration rate of 35 to 40%, one of the highest in the world—and of WhatsApp (more secure), while over 90% of the population, has access to the Internet via their cell phones1. In Riyadh, anyone interested knows about the power games while, needless to say, nothing transpires in the media.

For the moment, the King, although he is over 80, has a firm grip on the reins of power. But is he still in a position to impose his son as his successor? Much will depend on the results of the economic reforms and regional developments but also on the new administration about to take over in Washington on January 21. Everyone in Riyadh is waiting for Donald Trump to take office with mingled hopes and fears.

No one in the circles of power will regret Barack Obama, accused of abandoning Hosni Mubarak to his fate, of being too soft on the Iranians and failing to come through in Syria.

And glossing over his declared Islamophobia and his sympathies for Israel, it is hoped that Donald Trump—with the men he has appointed to carry out US foreign policy—will side with the enemies of the Islamic Republic, the spectre which haunts the Saudi monarchy.

A conversation Before the War in Yemen

The roots of the conflict in Yemen—a discussion between Washington Editor Andrew Cockburn and Sanaa-based political analyst Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, with photographs by Alex Potter.

As Saudi Arabia continues to rain U.S.-supplied bombs and missiles on Yemen, the hapless country has predictably receded from the fruit-fly attention of the U.S. media.

When the Yemeni crisis does receive press, the coverage tends to the superficial. The infinite complexity of the country’s politics is reduced to the postcard-sized summary “Saudi-backed government versus Iranian-backed Houthi rebels”—except when the rubbing-out of one more alleged Al Qaeda bigwig needs to be trumpeted. 

There is of course a lot more to it than that. There always is in Yemeni politics, as I have learned over the years in talking to Sanaa-based political analyst Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani.

Al Iryani comes from a distinguished Yemeni family that has, through several generations, consistently argued for democratic reforms in Yemeni politics.

His uncle is a former prime minister, and his brother was a cabinet minister until 2011.

Al Iryani has used his ringside seat to master the country’s ever-shifting political scene. In particular he has been a close student of the career of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took power in a 1978 coup (he began his rise as literally the only man in his faction of the Yemeni army who could drive a tank), remained president until 2012, and is now fighting desperately to regain control of the country in alliance with the Houthis.

the Houthis are members of the Zaidi sect of Islam that ruled North Yemen for hundreds of years before their monarchy was overthrown in 1962—with whom he has long had a tangled and bloody relationship.

Most of the tribes from Sana’a north to the Saudi border are Zaidis. The Islah party, on the other hand, of which Al Iryani makes frequent mention, is a Saudi-backed Islamist Sunni group.

Al Iryani has also made careful study of Saleh’s distant relative, army strongman Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, whose career Saleh fostered until he came to view Al Ahmar as an over-mighty subject and so sought to undermine him; and Abdul Majeed Al Zindani, the jihadist mentor of Osama bin Laden (among others), whose Iman University, alma mater to many jihadists, including Anwar Al Awlaki, was long supported by Saudi Arabia.

Thanks to the Saudi bomb targeted on a Yemeni army munitions dump in mid-April that leveled much of Al Iryani’s neighborhood, driving him into (temporary, he hopes) exile, I recently had a chance to talk to him in Washington about the current war and the events leading up to it.

How’s your house?

Ruined. Right now I’m homeless. The Saudis are using very large bombs. It’s a war crime to use bunker-buster bombs in the city. When they hit an arms depot right at the edge of the city, they don’t bother to tell people to evacuate the area, although an advance warning would compromise nothing because the depot will not run away, and they’ve been bombing these depots constantly.

Eventually they said everybody has to get out of an area two kilometers from [various military bases around Sana’a].

But most of these bases are within three kilometers of each other. Basically they were being kind enough to ask two-and-a-half million people to evacuate the city. This didn’t make sense, and it’s impossible to do, so they’re giving people no choice but to stay in their homes and die.

How far was your house from the explosion?

About half a mile. The mountain exploded, about a thousand people were killed or injured. Eighty-four died right away, and then more died. 800 or so were taken to hospitals in the area around our neighborhood. Other people were taken to hospitals further away.

Now the people are living under these conditions. All the children I know are traumatized. One child, one of my relatives, goes into a coma every time the bombing starts. He will be scarred for life.

Young children are traumatized but also teenagers; they go into fits of hysteria.

Everyone that I know knows someone who’s died. They have no water, no electricity, no petrol, no medicines, and soon enough, within a few more weeks, no food. That’s two-and-a-half million people. These are the ones who are lucky enough to be in Sana’a city. It’s really worse in Taiz and Aden and the countryside.

Why is it worse there?

Because the fighting is much worse. In Taiz it’s house to house. The Houthis are responsible for most of the damage in Taiz. The Houthis are an outlaw organization, so we can understand that they will not pay any attention to international law with regards to conduct of a war.

But the coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and operating under some kind of implicit sanction from the United Nations, they are committing war crimes on a daily basis.

How did this start—what led to this disaster?

Let me go back to the beginning when the Zaidi tribes of Yemen split during the 1962–70 Yemeni Royalist-Republican civil war. All of the Zaidi tribes surrounding Sanaa shifted their allegiance to the Republican regime, while the Zaidi tribes round Sadah, in the north, continued to owe allegiance to the Royalists.

Sadah was effectively separated from the rest of North Yemen to the extent that until recently the main currency in use in Sadah was the Saudi riyal. They didn’t mind. They existed without reference to the rest of Yemen, mostly smuggling khat and drugs to Saudi Arabia and buying their goods and food and so on from Saudi Arabia.

Two Yemeni men visit a graveyard and memorial of war martyrs.

Things changed when the Saudis set up a religious center teaching their brand of Islam.

It was established by Muqbil Al Wadie, who had been the second in command of the [Islamic extremist] cell that took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 with the aim of overthrowing the Saudi royal family.

The commander of the cell was killed along with most of his followers, but Al Wadie survived and spent a couple of months in Saudi prison. Then they decided to use him to extend their sectarian influence in Yemen. So they sent him to the Dammaj district of Sadah to establish a Salafi school right in the heartland of Zaidi Yemen.

And that school was seen as an attack on the very existence of the Zaidi sect. There was a reaction by the Zaidis, and in reaction they started a group called the Believing Youth in 1992.

The Believing Youth requested assistance from Iran in the form of books and scholarships, basic things. It was a religious, peaceful movement, not specifically political. The Iranians asked President Saleh if he would allow it, and he encouraged them to support the Believing Youth.

Then in the 1997 elections Saleh was concerned that the Islah—the Sunni political party, which was allied with Ali Mohsen, Saleh’s distant relative, and the Ahmer family, who were powerful tribal leaders—was getting too big in Sadah, so he started supporting Hussein Al Houthi, the founder of the Houthi movement.

Hussein Al Houthi’s brother was elected to parliament, representing the GPC, Saleh’s party, in 1997.

So why did Saleh start fighting the Houthis?

In 2004 Saleh was invited to the G8 meeting at Georgia’s Sea Island in the U.S. as encouragement to go after Al Qaeda in Yemen. He went back and convened his tribal council, his inner circle, and told them that America was pressing for action against Al Qaeda.

Now in Yemen at that time Al Qaeda was largely viewed as an extension of Ali Mohsen’s power, because Mohsen was allied to the Sunni side of Yemeni politics, and Al Qaeda was on the extreme of the Sunnis, so he didn’t want to fight them.

So he suggested, “We should go after those Shia fanatics up in Sadah.” Saleh liked the idea because he wanted to use them as an excuse for not having gone in full force after Al Qaeda, which he didn’t want to do, to avoid clashing with Mohsen and Al Zindani. So they decided to go start a conflict in Sadah.

Then they turned to the Americans and said, “We’d love to go after Al Qaeda, and we promised to do so, and we will do so, but we really have to first [be] rid of those terrorists who are supported by Iran.” So from day one the Houthis were presented as an Iranian client, a terrorist movement, and all of that nonsense. That’s how it started in 2004.

In that first war, Saleh killed Hussein Al Houthi. Then he decided that he had done enough, especially given that Mohsen and Islah and the Sunnis in general redirected the war.

Rather than a war against just the Houthis in particular, it became a war against the elite of the entire Zaidi community, who are known as the Hashemites.

Saleh had a strong alliance with the Hashemites, so he didn’t want to go in that direction. So he had this big gathering of Hashemite leaders, and said, “You are my friends; I married into a Hashemite family; I have no problem with you. Your problem is with the other guy, with Mohsen.” He stopped the war.

Mohsen then found a way to restart it. I think that’s when Saleh decided, let this war in Sadah be the way to get rid of Mohsen. So the war continued from 2004 to early 2010. The reason was because Saleh was sending arms to the Houthis to degrade the forces of his army commander, Ali Mohsen.

A young girl visits the martyrs cemetery, which is dedicated to the men who died protecting Hussein Al Houthi.

Didn’t the Americans say, “Our enemy here is Al Qaeda, and our enemy is coming out of places like Dammaj.”?

Well, we were saying that, but the problem was Saleh was intimately involved in promoting and manipulating Al Qaeda to extort money, both military assistance and actual hard cash, from Saudi Arabia and from the Americans.

I usually say that Al Qaeda was in 3 factions. The biggest faction was working for Saleh and for government institutions, homeland security, political security, military intelligence. The second faction was working for Ali Mohsen and Islah and Al Zindani. And the third faction, a tiny small faction, was actually working for Osama Bin Ladin and Zawahiri. It’s still the case until today.

You mentioned the relationship between the Houthis and Iran. What exactly has been the relationship?

There is credible evidence that [the Houthis] have received certain high tech communication equipment, targeting equipment and stuff like that. But the weapons they use are actually from the Yemeni army. We know how it got there.

We know when Saleh sent them the antitank missiles. Most of the support from Iran is actually in training and political support. There are 5 thousand Houthi students studying in Iran today.

That is in addition to a large number of military trainees in southern Lebanon and in Iran. This is documented; it’s very credible. The Iranians tried their best in 2008 to convince the Yemeni government that they are not involved to the extent that the foreign minister of Iran offered to come to Sanaa to discuss the claims of the Yemeni government that they were supporting Houthis and answer any questions that may have arisen inadvertently by Iranian behavior. The Yemenis refused to receive him.

This tells you that the Yemeni government didn’t really have any evidence that they could present to him.

However, the continuous claims by the Yemeni government and the Saudi government that the Iranians were substantially involved in the conflict in Sadah became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the negotiations just before the Houthis took Sana’a last year it became clear that they were in close coordination with the Iranians.

Here is an example of that: One night, the negotiating team of the Houthis and the negotiating team of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi drafted an agreement to be discussed by both sides and to be agreed and signed the following morning. In the morning, before the Houthis came back to the negotiating table, the Omanis sent a copy of the agreement from Muscat to President Hadi, telling him the Iranians had agreed to support this agreement.

Now, the government side did not send the agreement to Iran. So the Houthis sent the agreement to the Iranians for their approval. The Iranians shared that with the Omanis, not intending to have that come back to the Yemeni government.

A few days before that the guy with the title of head of the Yemeni operating theater of the revolutionary guards in Iran sent a letter to President Hadi promising him that the Houthis will not take over Sana’a. Then he went into a lot of operational details. “We will accept this, and we will not accept that” and so on. It was as if he was actually running the campaign. It was officially delivered by the Iranian embassy to the president.

So by the time Sana’a was taken over, the Iranian involvement was clear.

However, I still argue that it is Not a patron-client relationship. The Houthis have their own domestic agenda, they rely very much on Iranian support, but they are not doing Iranian bidding.

The Houthis are Not as connected to Iran as Hezbollah in Lebanon because they are not the same sect; they are a different sect, close but not the same sect. Zaidis do not consider Ayatollah Khamanei [the Iranian supreme leader] to be their religious leader. There is no Iranian authority over the Zaidis of Yemen.

What was the role of the Saudis in the 2004–2010 wars against the Houthis?

At that time Saudi Arabia had a weak leadership. King Abdullah was not only weak but also in conflict with his powerful brothers of the Sudairi faction, leading to paralysis of the state on various issues of national security.

So Saudi policy toward Yemen up to 2009 was really rudderless and reactive. Then, in 2009 they were sucked into the war by Saleh. You know how Saleh is manipulative, a great tactician really. He managed to suck them in so that he could extort money, and he managed to extort several billion dollars in the name of fighting the “Iranian threat” in Sadah.

Within the Saudi regime there are 2 key factions, and maybe more beyond that, but two main factions, and at some point in the 2009 Saudi involvement in the war in Yemen, one faction was trying to use that war in competition with the other faction.

Up until 2009, the Yemeni file had been held by Prince Sultan, minister of defense. When he got sick and went off to die, the file had been transferred to Interior Minister Prince Nayef on the grounds that Yemen was becoming an internal security threat, so the Ministry of Interior, which controls the counterterrorism forces, were granted authority to deal with Yemen.

But Khalid Bin Sultan, son of Prince Sultan and deputy defense minister, wanted to restore his faction’s authority over the Yemen file, so he was anxious to get into a war, rather than just counterterrorist activity, the proper domain of the Ministry of Interior.

Yemeni boys raise their hands eagerly to answer a question in class. Their classroom in the Houthi-controlled area of Sa'ada is better supplied than most schools in Sana'a.

Did he get his chance?

In 2009 three hundred Houthis, at most, crossed into Saudi territory. Saleh drew them into it. By this time the lineup had changed. Ali Mohsen, the army commander, was supporting the Houthis, covertly, while Saleh was attacking them.

Saleh plan of using the Houthis to degrade Mohsen’s forces had worked; they were really worn down. Now he decided that it would be politically useful to put down the Houthis. So he attacked the Houthis with the Republican Guard forces that he controlled directly.

Mohsen meanwhile, to get at Saleh, effectively handed over a lot of bases, full of weapons, to the Houthis to use against Saleh. Meanwhile Saleh obtained the permission of King Abdullah to allow the Yemeni army to cross into Saudi Arabia and attack the Houthis from the rear. The Houthis responded by invading Saudi Arabia.

Khalid Bin Sultan immediately declared the whole region of southern Saudi Arabia to be a “killing zone’”—his words. He declared a general mobilization of the armed forces of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to confront those three hundred infiltrators. There was fighting for several months.

The Saudis carpet-bombed the entire border zone. When Khalid Bin Sultan declared southern Saudi Arabia to be a war zone he effectively banned the Ministry of Interior from the region. And so the counterterrorist forces who were properly trained to deal with this kind of security threat were not allowed to come in, and as a result the army couldn’t really sweep the infiltrators out of the border zone, and the Houthis came out victorious.

Because of 2009, the Saudis invested a couple of hundred billion dollars to strengthen and improve their armed forces. All the major investment in Saudi military preparedness was triggered by the 2009 war against the Houthis. That’s when they bought all those weapons from the Americans and the French and everyone.

What’s the lineup of forces now in Yemen?

Unfortunately it’s very skewed in favor of the coalition of Saleh, who controls a large part of the Yemeni army, and the Houthis. Together they control most of Yemeni government forces and institutions. They are in effective control of the state in Sana’a and most governorates [provinces]. Mukalla, an important port on the southern coast, is controlled by AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula].

And the Saudis are not bombing Mukalla, and they’re allowing food in. Have they traditionally been on good terms with AQAP?

Of course. Until maybe a few years after 9/11 they were still coordinating the bulk of financing of Abdul Majid Al Zindani [Osama Bin Laden’s spiritual mentor, on the U.S. terrorist list] and Iman University. But eventually they parted ways; the Saudis conducted a major campaign against AQAP in their territory. The strategy was to push the AQAP members out of Saudi Arabia and into Yemen. So they established a dragnet clearly open in one end, and they just pushed them into Yemen. It was very convenient for them. As part of the campaign they also severed direct relations with AQAP.

But if you look at individual people who moved out into the AQAP camps, first stop was Al Iman, second was Dammaj, and off to terrorist training camps. So these places that had been Saudi funded, that was the terrorist railroad.

True, Iman University did not lose their support until the Arab Spring, when Al Zindani came out openly against Saudi Arabia, on the side of Qatar and against Saudi Arabia. Because that was how the Arab Spring mobilization took place, Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. I did ask the chairman of the university. He said the university was continuing to get [Saudi] support until 2011. And then after that, they had to downscale the accommodation and food and stipends and everything for the students. Dammaj I think continued to receive assistance. So maybe the educational institutions were kept on the Saudi payroll, but the jihadis and people who are directly involved in terrorist activity were no longer connected directly to the Saudis. They might have been connected indirectly through intermediaries. Al Zindani definitely continued to have good relations with the Saudis until the Arab Spring.

Saleh was so close to the Americans, so close to the Saudis, CIA director Brennan would call him up late at night; they had a relationship. Now he’s in an alliance with the Houthis, and the Americans are working with the Saudis to target him. What happened there?

I think the guy overplayed his hand. The negotiations are imbalanced between Saleh and the Americans, Saleh and the Saudis, because Saleh has his entire thinking focused on how to extort as much as possible from these two countries, while they were actually thinking about a whole range of things, fighting terrorism, development and their other concerns, so he managed to use AQAP, and he actually harbored them and provided them protection and safe houses in Sanaa. (Beyond Saleh, The Saudi and US policies are siding with the extremist terrorist of Al Qaeda in Yemen)

He provided them with safe houses in Sanaa?!

Yeah, at the same time as he is declaring that he is going to go to all-out war against AQAP.

I heard this from people who are intimately close to the process, including some people who are directly involved. So he kept extorting money and aid from these two countries. Eventually I think he was exposed.

Now he tried to make a deal with the Saudis, and the Saudis said there will be no deals. He sent his son to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef a few weeks ago, and basically Mohammed Bin Nayef listened to him while he said, “We will sever our relations from the Houthis, and we will eliminate them; we have 50,000 fighters. And in return sanctions against my father will be lifted, his money will be released, and I become president.” And Mohammed Bin Nayef said to him, “The meeting is over.” They are done trying to make a deal with [Saleh], because he has broken every deal he had with them. (So why the Saudi are targeting civilians?)

I always heard that he kept a lot of his money in cash, in shrink-wrapped hundred dollar bills in his basement. What has happened to that?

When one of his houses was bombed three weeks ago, there was talk about hundreds of millions being looted by his guards, neighbors, Houthis, etc. There’s no way of knowing. But I know people who he’s taken down to the basement to show them the money to keep them loyal to him.

Has the Saudi bombing campaign had much effect on the Houthis?

It’s really hard to quantify this. But the fact that the resistance to Houthi domination is now holding territory is definitely because of the Saudi bombing campaign.

If there was no Saudi involvement the Houthis-Saleh coalition would have controlled the whole country two months ago. They would have been able to take over Aden. There was no resistance in Taiz.

So the Saudis did have an impact in reducing the military capabilities of this coalition, and I think eventually they will force it to abandon its campaign to dominate. They have already agreed to go back to the negotiating table to reach an agreement on power sharing.

However, I have serious worries that the Saudis are not going to stop there. Some of the narrative coming out of Saudi Arabia is that they will exterminate the Houthis. (Those Saudi Wahhabis are a steady trend in exterminating their supposed enemies. Not this time around)

It’s very dangerous, because right now the reason we are having this conflict, the reason the peaceful transition (when Saleh was overthrown in 2011) was derailed in Yemen, was because of an imbalance of power between the Houthi-Saleh coalition and the rest of the factions.

To restore the peaceful transition we have to restore the balance. If the Saudis go for the destruction of the Houthis as a military force, then they will create the same imbalance vis-à-vis the other side, which is the Islah tribal Sunni coalition. Which means we will continue to have a military conflict.

It’s not civil war yet, in the sense that people are not killing each other because of their identity. They’re still fighting over nominally political issues, although the underlying polarization is around identity lines.  (It turned out to become a National war against the Saudi monarchy)

So I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis. The Houthis must remain as a counterbalance to the others. That’s the ideal situation that we can come out with.

With no water, no food, will there be a Yemen left to have a political settlement?

This goes beyond my worst fears in the past two years. But I think that Yemen is quite resilient; we can’t destroy Yemen. If we stop the fighting before we get past a certain threshold point where the conflict becomes outright sectarian conflict, that’s when I will lose hope completely.

Yemeni tribesmen chew khat, a mild stimulant leaf used daily by many people in Yemen.

Is the khat still getting through?

Allahu akbar, thank god our khat supply was never interrupted in the worst of fighting. Moderate prices, no problem. The new de facto president is a khat dealer, the chief negotiator of the Houthis is a khat dealer. Some of the top commanders are khat dealers. Clearly there’s one thing they can do well, supplying khat to the entire nation.

Insightful interview on Yemen

The roots of the conflict in Yemen—a discussion between Washington Editor Andrew Cockburn and Sana’a-based political analyst Abdul-Ghani Al-Iryani, with…




June 2022

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