Yemen: Religion, Rebellion And Reality


September 2, 2020: The Shia rebels are going broke because it costs a lot of money to maintain a force of several thousand armed men and also pay for the staff of the temporary government the rebels have established in the north. The rebels control access to over a third of the Yemeni population, and foreign aid groups as well as Yemeni suppliers have to pay higher and higher “taxes” to transport anything (food, fuel, medical supplies) to these populations. The money demanded to get past roadblocks is outright bribery, or extortion if you take into account the guns often pointed at travelers to speed up payment. These fees are now a major source of income for the rebels, who now get less cash from Iran, which is also broke. The cash shortage is a major problem for the rebels.


In the southern city of Aden a medical foreign aid group has withdrawn after it assessed the covid19 crises was under control and local medical organizations could handle it. Covid19 turned out to be much less of a problem than the cholera epidemic in Yemen, which has been going on since 2016. So far over a million people have been infected and over 5,000 of those infected died, about half of them children. Naturally Yemenis are more concerned with cholera than with the covid19 pandemic. The rebels are not alarmed at the covid19 threat, which is understandable given the number of diseases still active in rural, and urban, Yemen.

There were no verified covid19 cases in Yemen until mid-April and most were subsequently either in Aden or rebels-held Sanaa. There is still a belief among many Moslems that Allah will protect the faithful. Iran used to believe that but massive covid19 casualties in Iran changed minds. The rebels still deny that there are any covid19 infections in Sanaa but foreign aid and diplomatic officials know better. For most Yemenis covid19 is not considered a major threat. Cholera, malnutrition and much else are more immediate and more lethal threats throughout Yemen. So far Yemen has reported 570 confirmed covid19 deaths. That comes out to 19 dead per million population. Saudi Arabia has 113 dead per million so far, the UAE 39, Iran 257, Egypt 53, Israel 104 and Iraq 176. In Yemen the cholera epidemic has so far killed 167 per million people.

September 1, 2020: In the north (Jawf province) and central Yemen (Marib province) government forces a rebel offensive was broken by heavy use of airstrikes and aerial surveillance. Through most of August rebels kept attacking or trying to and finally had to give up the effort. The Saudis have become more effective at interpreting aerial photos and videos to locate rebel leaders and headquarters. This apparently was the result of greater use of electronic surveillance with UAVs or manned aircraft. This greater success in finding and hitting targets with smart bombs and guided missiles led to a lot more rebel casualties. The number of rebel commanders killed has been particularly damaging. This appears to have resulted in more UAV and ballistic missile attacks against Saudi airbases near the Yemen border. These airbases are where the Saudi warplanes and UAVs operate from. So far none of the rebel air attacks have succeeded.

The government ground units have eliminated rebel forces that had been blocking easy access to Marib. In the first few months of 2020 the rebels took advantage of the Arab coalition manpower shortage. This took place after the UAE withdrew most of its troops earlier in 2020 and a new government in Sudan withdrew the 15,000 mercenaries Saudi Arabia had hired. At this point the coalition was forced to depend more on their airpower advantage until their depleted ground forces could be redistributed. By June this had stopped the Shia advance and in the last few weeks the Shia advance had led to a Shia retreat. The rebels see this as a temporary setback and still believe time is their side as long as the Iranian support continues. Iran understands this as well and is willing to finance the expensive smuggling effort at a reduced level because of the distress it causes the Saudis.

August 31, 2020: While the Shia rebels no longer control the Red Sea port of Hodeida their forces are still close enough to the port to fire on and hit ships trying to enter the port. Today the rebels threatened to fire on a ship carrying refined petroleum products and thus prevented the ship from delivering its cargo. The rebels are using this veto power over port access to try and extract more money from the UN, which now runs the port. Ships entering the port pay user fees and before the rebels were forced to withdraw from the port in May 2019, they considered the port user fees part of their income. The rebels also imposed many other fees on the foreign aid groups and paid for the supplies brought in as well as for moving these items, by truck, to areas where the food and other items were desperately needed.

The port fees and stolen aid supplies from controlling the largest Yemen port on the Red Sea was a great loss for the rebels. Hodeida is where most of the foreign aid comes in. The government and Arab Coalition finally broke rebel control of the port in late 2018 and negotiated a rebel withdrawal from the city in early 2919. The rebels can only raise the checkpoint fees so high before the traders realize that it would be cheaper to hire smugglers to get the shipments past the rebel toll keepers.

The rebel budget problems mean the fighting is not as widespread. Less money means less cash to buy ammo and fuel from local sources, usually black market. Yemen has long supported a thriving black-market economy for just about anything. Sort of a tradition. But six years of civil war have damaged the underlying economy and the rampant theft of foreign aid has dried up that source of sustenance as well. The rebels are still active but mostly to deliver verbal threats or the occasional missile or UAV attack. Iran cannot send as many missile and UAV components so that the ballistic missiles and UAVs can be assembled and armed locally.

August 30, 2020: In the north the Shia rebels sent an explosives laden UAV towards the Abha airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia. There were no reported explosions at the airport and the Saudis later reported they had shot down the UAV soon after it crossed the border and entered Asir province. Offshore the rebels also tried to use a remotely controlled speedboat loaded with explosives to attack Red Sea shipping. The boat was detected and destroyed.

The Saudi government replaced the general commanding Saudi forces in Yemen. The outgoing general, and four of his close associates, were charged with corruption. It is unclear if this corruption involved Saudi military operations in Yemen. These are believed to cost the Saudis about a billion dollars a month. That adds up for an operation the Saudis have been financing for 64 months so far. The disgraced general is a cousin of the current Saudi leader.

August 28, 2020: Israel and the UAE are apparently planning to establish a joint ELINT (Electronic intelligence) operation on one of the Yemeni Socotra Islands. The main island is in the Gulf of Aden, 380 kilometers south of Yemen and 240 kilometers from the northeast tip of Somalia. The population is 60,000 and the island (and a few much smaller ones) lies within busy shipping lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. In early 2019 the Yemeni government accused the UAE of supporting southern separatists and continuing to expand its military presence and influence in Socotra Island. Yemen accused the UAE of seeking to support Socotra separatists, which were then few in number, to demand more economic links with and investment from the UAE. In early 2018 the UAE withdrew its troops from Socotra after having been there for two weeks. This brief “occupation” angered many Yemenis who felt the UAE was trying to annex Socotra. Saudi Arabia stepped in and agreed to take over the economic development program for Socotra which the Yemeni government saw the UAE turning into an effort to make Socotra economically and politically dependent on the UAE. The UAE has always been more aggressive in this regard. The UAE subsequently used massive economic investments and well-placed bribes to gain control of the Socotra Islands government. The ELINT facility keeps track of Iranian and Yemeni Shia rebel activity around the islands. This involves Iran smuggling weapons and other military gear to the Yemeni rebels.

August 27, 2020: In the northwest an Iranian naval mine was found offshore by the naval blockade force. The rebels are trying to disrupt Red Sea traffic, which is essential for Saudi Arabian imports and even more critical for Egypt. Nearly 20,000 ships a year pass through the Red sea headed for the Suez Canal, which earns Egypt nearly $6 billion a year in transit fees. Naval mines have been put into offshore waters by Shia rebels before but so far none have succeeded in disrupting shipping.

In the north the Shia rebels fired another ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia. This one was aimed at the Saudi military base in Najran province in southwest Saudi Arabia. The Saudis announced that the missile was intercepted and there were no casualties.

August 26, 2020: In the south (Abyan Province) the STC (South Transitional Council) militia broke the July truce and resumed fighting with government forces. The STC is composed of southern tribes that want autonomy but claim they 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 the Iran backed Shia rebels. After that, who knows?

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 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 northern one was mainly Shia while the southern one was largely Sunni Moslem. 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 is 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 throughout the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity as in 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 meager oil exports.

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 over-population, water shortages and Khat. That last item is a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money when smuggles into Saudi Arabia where it is illegal. There is still no government in Yemen willing or able to address these fundamental problems.


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