Yemen: Where To Begin


February 5, 2020: Back in Saudi Arabia the government has allowed free discussion about what to do with the situation in Yemen. In other words, the Saudis are seriously considering abandoning Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, the last (in 2012) elected president of Yemen. Hadi presides over a government that controls little actual territory in Yemen.

The Shia and many other Yemenis insist that the 2012 elections to select a successor to unpopular “president-for-life” Ali Abdullah Saleh were unfair. International observers declared the elections fair, at least by Yemeni standards. Saleh was believed to want more amnesty guarantees so he could leave the country without fear of someone prosecuting him. Meanwhile, the Sunni majority in Yemen opposes autonomy or weapons for the Shia up north because those two things have made the Shia tribes a constant source of trouble for centuries. The Sunnis want the man they back (Hadi) recognized as the ruler of all of Yemen. No presidential elections have been held since 2012 and Hadi's term has expired. The situation is worse with the parliament; the last elections were held in 2003. The Arab Coalition and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) has endorsed the use of members elected in 2003. That did not work because the Hadi government was only able to get 138 members (out of 301) to this parliament, so there is not a quorum (the majority of members) present to officially conduct business. Since 2003 some members have died or are trapped in rebel-held areas.  The whereabouts of the others are unknown, unclear or a member does not want to get involved yet. The Hadi government managed to move the Election Commission from Sanaa, making it possible to make plans for new elections, even if people in rebel-held areas will be unable to vote. The problem is that most of the Sunni south is not interested in new elections. They want autonomy and partitioning of Yemen.


Then there is the problem of there not being just one problem (the Shia rebellion) in Yemen. The reality is that there are at least five different wars going on. Ending one or more of these wars will not necessarily stop the others. The many wars include;

The North-South Divide. This one is centuries old and was last “mended” in the 1990s. The possibility of a split has returned because the UAE (United Arab Emirates) has been in charge of security (and aid delivery) in the south since 2015 and has supported the formation of the STC (South Transitional Council). This group is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but are willing to fight and defeat the Islamic terrorists as well as the Shia rebels first. Aidarous al Zubaidi, the STC leader is seen as more popular in the south than Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, the last and current elected president of united Yemen. Hadi has only briefly visited Yemen a few times since 2015 and spends most of his time in the Saudi capital. This is for Hadi’s safety given the number of assassinations going on in Aden (where the Hadi government was moved to in 2015). The Saudis and the UAE do not agree on dividing Yemen once more but for the moment it is more convenient to support the STC and efforts to defeat Iran backed Shia rebels. After that, who knows?

The Shia Tribal Autonomy War. This has been going on forever as well and is all about the traditional autonomy some of the northern Shia tribes long enjoyed but was taken away several times in the last century. The tribes always manage to regain it but this time they are trying to revive an autonomy they lost over fifty years ago and are doing it with the backing of Saudi archenemy Iran. The Shia tribes are persistent because they see themselves on a Mission From God sponsored by Iran.

The Saleh Loyalists. Ali Abdullah Saleh and his clan lost power in 2012 and want it back. Saleh demonstrated that he could not be ignored and sided with the Shia rebels. Saleh ruled Yemen for decades before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings unified his many opponents. Unfortunately, Saleh decided to switch sides in late 2017 and was negotiating a deal with Hadi when the rebels found out and killed him in early December 2017. Tarek Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, the brigadier general nephew of Saleh, united the many pro-Saleh factions who were willing to switch sides. This weakened the Shia rebels, but not fatally so. The Saleh clan is still out there, but not as powerful as it was when the elder Saleh was still alive.

Al Qaeda. Yemen has always been full of Islamic conservatives and radicals and many of those who founded al Qaeda came from Yemen or Yemeni families that had moved to oil-rich neighbors in the last fifty years and prospered economically, but not mellowed theologically. From al Qaeda came AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and in 2013 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). ISIL and AQAP are technically enemies but have established a truce in Yemen while both concentrate on terror attacks. The massive losses ISIL suffered worldwide during 2016-17 caused many surviving members to return to “more moderate” groups like AQAP. Despite that ISIL has been seen surviving and perhaps even gaining strength in Yemen.

The Sunni-Shia War. This one is mainly between Iran (the largest Shia nation) and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab oil states in the Persian Gulf). Iran wants to replace Saudi Arabia as the guardian of the holiest Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina (western Saudi Arabia near the Red Sea). The GCC and Iran are using Yemen as a battlefield and no one likes this. But for Iran it is a cheap way to annoy and demean the Saudis. The Saudis are most at risk here because the Shia rebel “homeland” is a northern Yemen province on the Saudi border. The Saudis cannot afford to have an Iran-backed Shia faction on their southern border.

Other Problems

It’s not just the many conflicts that make Yemen such a mess. There are other, more fundamental problems.

Failed State

The Saudis have no problem with Yemen fragmenting. Many Yemenis insist that the country is not "becoming" a failed state because modern Yemen has always been a failed state. The problems of tribalism, religious radicalism and corruption make it impossible for Yemen to function as a country.

The continued popularity of dividing the country in two is partly about what little oil Yemen has, as it is in the south and that’s where the Sunni separatists are. Islamic terrorists (mainly AQAP) are also in the south and willing to help the separatists. Most southerners just want peace and some prosperity. But there are enough devoted separatists in the south to provide sanctuaries and support for Islamic terrorists. Most southerners realize that a new (separatist run) government in the south would be as corrupt as the one they have now and the ones Yemen has had for thousands of years. As a result of all this and the two years of fighting, it is more difficult to bring foreign aid into the south, which needs it the most, because AQAP believes such aid, even though most is from Moslem countries, is tainted and should be prevented.

The basic problem is that too many Yemenis don’t want to be Yemenis. The country was a patchwork of independent tribes and cities when the English East India Company took control of some Yemeni ports in the 1830s and 40s to support ships going from Britain to India. The Ottoman Turks still controlled most of northern Yemen until 1918 (when the Ottoman Empire collapsed). Britain took over from the Ottomans and established the borders of modern Yemen. But Yemen was still not a unified country. When the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again.

The corruption and lack of unity are related to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa (northeast Africa) region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city-states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming (or a little of both). This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity (kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship.) Yemen is still all about the tribes. The national government is a bunch of guys who deal with foreigners and try to maintain peace among the tribes. Controlling the national government is a source of much wealth, as officials can steal part of the foreign aid and taxes (mostly on imports or royalties from oil).

This lack of nationalism means a lack of cooperation or willingness to act in the public interest. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crises is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of overpopulation, water shortages and Khat. The last item is a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal.

There is little willingness to cooperate. Feuding, fighting and blaming others for the mess are the preferred methods for dealing with the problems. Before oil was discovered in Arabia nearly a century ago Yemen had long been the most powerful and populous part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with regular rains (thanks to the annual monsoon). Most of the oil deposits were at the north end of the Persian Gulf and Yemen lost out there. Yemenis had long despised the less affluent Arabians to the north, but since oil arrived the Yemenis have become despised and they did not take it well. Resentment, envy and a sense of entitlement have combined with the lack of unity to produce Yemen that is a nation in name only. Few others in the region have much sympathy for the Yemenis who are seen as the main cause of their own problems and the main obstacle to solving them. Since that is all you have to work with it is no wonder that Yemen came to be such a perennial disaster area.

The concept of a unified Yemen was largely created by Cold War politics and how Britain handled a threat to their seaborne trade in the early 19th century. That was when Britain took control of Aden. This was partly to shut down the many pirates operating out of there, and increasingly going after British ships traveling between Asia (India, Southeast Asia and China) and Britain. Only Aden was needed but the British made deals with the tribes that occupied most of the southern Yemen coast and had long depended on Aden and other southern ports for supplies and such. Britain made Aden and the smaller southern ports more prosperous with new trading opportunities and provided more benefits for the interior tribes. Most importantly the tribes still had their autonomy, as well as British protection from outsiders. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and over the next few decades larger, more efficient, steam-powered metal vessels supplanted and replaced wooden sailing ships. That meant a lot more trade moving past and Aden and South Yemen became more prosperous.

When the British left in the early 1960s, as part of the widespread abandonment of colonies by European nations, there was some unrest and fighting in the newly independent South Yemen. This was because Aden was much less religious and traditional with a better-educated population and it was no surprise that Aden and some other South Yemen cities were dominated by local communists. From 1970 until the fall of European communism in 1989, South Yemen was a communist state, subsidized by the Soviet Union, and the only one in the Arab world.

Most of that enthusiasm for communism was centered in Aden and its suburbs. This is where most of the South Yemen population lived and where an even larger proportion of its GDP came from. A few other coastal cities had the same type of population and political attitudes, giving the urban population control of politics as well as the economy. The tribal minority, out in the desert and semi-desert inland areas was much more religious and traditional. But over the centuries the urban and tribal populations had learned to get along and respect each other’s customs.

It was different in northern Yemen, where the urban population was not as dominant and the tribal population was economically better off and about as religious and conservative as their southern counterparts. The problem was the northern and southern tribes saw each other as “foreigners”. This is a common situation in tribal cultures, which includes the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet even then there was some enthusiasm for a united Yemen in the north and south.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union (and European communism) in 1991, the Russian subsidies stopped and unification was suddenly much more appealing. After a few years of haggling, and occasional fighting, Yemen was united by 1994. At that point, there were still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and two Yemens was the way to go. That is no longer the case, not with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOs and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is.

There is resistance to admitting that Yemen is a failed state, one of those areas (like Somalia and Afghanistan) that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with their neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem.

Everything Is For Sale

Yemen has long been recognized as one of the most corrupt places on the planet. The extent of this corruption can be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. For 2019 Yemen ranked 177th out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 176th in 2018. Corruption is measured annually in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Yemen score is 15 (versus 14 in 2018) compared to 71 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 60 (64) for Israel, 69 (75) for the United States, 26 (27) for Nigeria, 44 (43) for South Africa, 20 (18) for Iraq, 39 (40) for Turkey, 53 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 30 (30) for Ukraine, 45 (44) for Belarus, 58 (60) for Poland, 80 (81) Germany, 65 (61) for Taiwan, 39 (40) for Turkey, 41 (40) for India, 28 (28) for Russia, 57 (54) for South Korea, 41 (39) for China, 14 (17) for North Korea, 37 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 40 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 29 (33) for the Maldives, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 26 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 29 (30) for Burma, and 28 (28) for Lebanon.

Yemen’s corruption score has changed for the worse since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution when it was 23.

February 1, 2020: The UN confirmed that the Shia rebels appear to be using Iranian made assault rifles and other infantry weapons. In the past, Iran sent the Shia rebels weapons made elsewhere (Russia, China, Pakistan) that were widely available on the black market. That cost a little extra but given the financial problems Iran has been having since 2017, it is not surprising that they decided to save some foreign currency and send scrubbed (unmarked) Iranian made weapons, UAVs and other equipment. Another UN investigation confirmed that the September 2019 UAV/cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in northeast Saudi Arabia had come from Iran, not Shia rebels in northwest Yemen. Like earlier investigations, the UN researchers examined the debris of the explosives carrying UAVs and cruise missiles and identified them as Iranian made and models that did not have the range or accuracy to carry out an attack so distant from northwest Yemen.

January 30, 2020: The Shia rebels claim to have launched 36 long-range rockets at oil and military targets in southwest Saudi Arabia (Jizan, Asir and Najran provinces) during the last week. No missile damage was reported in those provinces and the Saudis reported that their anti-missile systems did intercept some rockets fired from Yemen in that period.

January 29, 2020: In the south (Bayda province), an American UAV missile attack killed AQAP leader (since mid-2015) Qasim al Raymi. No confirmation yet.

January 28, 2020: In the north, outside the rebel occupied capital Saana, an Iranian ballistic missile being prepared for firing exploded on its launcher. Several Iranian and Shia rebel missile experts were killed. The missile was apparently aimed at targets in southwestern Saudi Arabia.

January 25, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province), Shia rebels were forced from the high ground outside Saana that had enabled them to accurately launch unguided rockets at Coalition bases in the area.

January 19, 2020: Over the past 30 days Sudan has continued to withdraw its military forces from Yemen. As of January 15, only 657 Sudanese soldiers remained in Yemen. On December 1, 2019, Sudan had around 5,000 soldiers in Yemen serving with the Saudi-led coalition. In 2015 the recently deposed Sudan president (dictator) Omar al Bashir ordered the Sudanese military to send 15,000 troops and a small air force detachment to Yemen to serve with the Saudi-led anti-Iran coalition. In April 2019, the month Bashir was removed from power, Sudan still deployed 15,000 military personnel in Yemen. In late 2019 the new civilian prime minister vowed to end Sudan’s military engagement in Yemen.

January 18, 2020: In central Yemen (Marib province), Shia rebels fired several rockets an Arab Coalition base and some of the rockets hit a mosque packed with Sunni civilians and soldiers attending weekly services. About a hundred people in the mosque were killed. Shia and Sunni zealots do this sort of thing to each other. This attack ended the ceasefire negotiated in November. The ceasefire was sporadic from the start but major attacks like this mosque massacre were absent, until now. The Saudis had reduced their airstrikes by about 80 percent during the ceasefire and this attack brought forth more airstrikes.

January 15, 2020: In Egypt, about a hundred kilometers north of the Sudan border, the military opened its largest base on the Red Sea coast. The Barnis base covers 62 hectares (155 acres) and includes docks for ships as well as an airbase, hospital and hardened shelters for warplanes. The base will make it easier to monitor the Red Sea and patrol the Yemeni coast, where Iran-backed Shia rebels are threatening to disrupt Red Sea traffic. This traffic includes nearly 20,000 ships a year headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees.

January 14, 2020: In the south (Abyan Province), government troops moved to neighboring Shabwah province in compliance with the peace deal made between the Hadi government and the separatist STC (Southern Transitional Council).

January 9, 2020: It has now been revealed that at the same time Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in Iraq the Americans attempted and failed, to carry out a similar attack on Abdul Reza Shahlai, the senior Quds officer in Yemen. Iranians support for the Shia rebels has been keeping the Yemeni civil war going. Shahlai has long been a known terrorist planner for Quds and currently has a $15 million reward offered, by the U.S., for information on where he that leads to his capture or death.


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