How to End Saudi Arabia’s War of Paranoia – 20 Oct 2016
War pushes Yemen to partition, thwarting peace efforts – 30 Oct 2016
The War in Yemen: Is There an End in Sight?
An article published online by Foreign Policy magazine titled “How to End Saudi Arabia’s War of Paranoia” definitely generated a significant number of discussions on social media, with two very distinct responses two weeks ago. As expected, English speaking southern Yemenis published a number of positive responses invoking their well established narrative of a ‘right to self determination’, and the clear expression of consensus across the south for the return of an independent state. Second, was the response by Yemen experts and avid observers, whose opinions varied from the complete dismissal of Mr. Henderson’s knowledge of Yemen, to questions on the wisdom of such prescriptive opinion. File my response among the latter.
Having spent nearly fourteen years living in and out of Yemen (mostly Sana’a, Taiz and Aden), and having had the opportunity to enjoy the friendship of the late Dr. Abdul Karem al-Iryani, as well as other major political figures in Sana’a, and close relations with a number of Southern Movement (Hirak) leaders in Aden since 2011, I can assure Western audiences that any solution to Yemen’s crises lies far beyond the content of a five-line paragraph. Neither can one summarize interests of Saudi Arabia and the US in Yemen within another six-line paragraph.
It is not precisely accurate to claim that while on his deathbed King Abdulaziz al-Saud told his sons to “Never let Yemen be united”. It is very well documented that the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia “apocryphally told his sons to keep Yemen weak” ( 2, 3, 4), and by this he meant north Yemen, the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen then ruled by the Zaydi Imamate under Al Hamid al-Din. At the time of his death, south Yemen was a British Protectorate (1839-1967), Britain being Al Saud’s ally. King Abdulaziz could not have imagined a united Yemen at a time when Britain had a strong grip on the south, and a failed coup against Al Hamid al-Din in 1948 merely strengthened Imam Ahmed b. Yahya Hamid al-Din’s hold on power in the north. It must be mentioned that both Imam Yahya (1904-1948) and Imam Ahmed (1948-1962) indeed espoused ambitions of a Greater Yemen, from south of the Kaaba to Aden and east to Oman. This, more than anything, might have been the actual fear for Abdualaziz.
Second, no one can credibly claim president Abdo Rabbo Mansor “Hadi, Washington’s and Saudi Arabia’s man, technically controls from his Riyadh hotel suite the majority of Yemen territory”. In March 2016 Gulf media reported Hadi’s government “forces have liberated more than 85 percent of the Yemeni territories”, this was at at time when al-Qeada in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) still controlled the port city of Mukalla, al-Rayyan airport to east, Ghayl Ba Wazir (Hadhramawt), Abyan province and the road from Abyan through Shebwa to Mukalla. AQAP also had a strong presence in central and northern Shebwa province. The catch was in the closing part of the claims, where media reports indicated territory had been liberated “from Houthi militia control and the forces of the ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh”, which did not comprise 85% of Yemen’s territory. Control over the eight southern provinces (Dhale, Lahj, Aden, Abyan, Shebwa, Hadhramawt, Mahara, Soqotra) still lies in hands of various actors, none of which are ‘loyal’ to president Hadi.
Aden is governed by a faction of Hirak from al-Dhale province, who are more loyal to exiled former southern president Ali Salem al-Baydh than to Hadi. Governor Aydarous al-Zubaydi, indeed appointed by Hadi under former Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, is directly supported by the government and military of the UAE, not Saudi Arabia. Abyan is controlled by a number of tribal elements supported by the UAE, and currently in conflict with the government in Aden. Shebwa is no man’s land, where vice president General Ali Muhsin maintains a sphere of influence that does not extend to Hadi. Hirak’s Nasser al-Nouba has been abandoned by Hadi, as has shaykh Ahmed bin Fareed, who fought long battles against Houthis and Saleh loyalists in Shebwa in 2015. Hadhramawt is divided into north and south, where former PM Bahah still exerts significant influence, while UAE controls coastal areas under a very delicate agreement with local tribes that previously gave refuge to AQAP, and government forces under Abdul Rahman al-Halili in the north receive assistance from Saudi Arabia in order to guard oil installations against AQAP elements. Mahara is isolated, and its population have often rejected Hadi’s appointments and other decrees to bring the province into his sphere of influence. Oman maintains strong relations with Mahari leaders as it aims to keep a buffer zone along its western border, but has come under increasing pressure from Gulf actors for its close relations with Iran, and having served as host to Houthi and Saleh’s delegations since 2015. The newly designated province of Soqotra, formerly part of Hadhramawt, has greatly benefited from Hadi’s political balancing, but it is now under de facto UAE oversight. The people and their leaders have rejected unity with any other province and continue to demand full autonomy, even under a proposed Federal system.
Not only is the south not under Hadi’s control, but the people publicly reject his legitimacy. The population of southern Yemen boycotted the one-man election in February 2012 that legitimized Hadi’s term as transitional president. That was nearly five million people. Also, replacing Khaled Bahah, who served as both Prime Minister and Vice President, in 2016 fueled opposition to Hadi in the south, especially since his successors as Prime Minister, Ahmed Bin Dagher, and Vice President, Ali Muhsin, are highly unpopular and were instantly rejected as part of the northern regime that oppressed the south since 1994. Bin Dagher was a member of Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and Ali Muhsin was part of the ruling triumvirate with Saleh since 1978.
While much of the population in southern Yemen is grateful to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for training and weapons provided to elements that expelled Houthis from Aden and other southern provinces, people already fear the consequences from a resurgence of Salafi elements empowered by the Coalition since April 2015. Many also fear the infighting among Hirak factions will open spaces for extremists to rise in the ranks and take power with support from the UAE or Saudi Arabia in order to prevent further security deterioration, such as in Aden and Hadhramawt. The more liberal segments of the population see no difference between Salafi elements and AQAP.
Lastly, Ali Abdullah Saleh has been a thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side, but let’s not forget that it was Saudi Arabia who supported Saleh’s presidency since 1978. To keep the animosity in context, we need to expand on Henderson’s account. Saleh, his family and majority of the GPC have been long time admirers of Saddam Hussein, without being Baathist in ideology. Saleh refused to join the coalition against Saddam in 1990, this led to Saudi Arabia forcing thousands of Yemeni laborers out of the Kingdom, causing a devastating economic crisis. Saleh’s move, and Saddam’s eventual defeat, greatly damaged relations with the entire GCC. Then in 2004, when president George W. Bush invited Saleh to the G8 summit in Georgia, with the Big Boys, King Abdulaziz’s deathbed warning began to resonate once again among the Royal family. Saudi Arabia perceived Saleh’s moves, since getting on board the War on Terror, as an attempt to detach from their sphere of influence, decades of patronage. Saleh definitely strengthened his hand at home vis-à-vis his closest rivals, although the repercussions went beyond increased tension with Al Saud. Houthis and Sunni extremists capitalized on Saleh’s shift to the US, and events have since taken their casualties.
Saleh’s relationship with the UAE is far different than with Saudi Arabia. As the UAE government listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, it also listed Houthis as terrorists. Saleh’s eldest son and heir apparent, Ahmed, served as Ambassador to Abu Dhabi under president Hadi, he is no longer ambassador but remains in the UAE, some claim under house arrest. The UAE has not been a great friend to Hirak either. Emirati officials had been staunch supporters of PM Bahah until his replacement, and remain strong allies of Aden’s current governor, but the UAE has yet to commit to secession. In fact, simply serving as the patron of southern liberation does not yet signal a willingness, or capacity to become a patron to an independent southern state.
US hold and wait
Henderson’s views on US policy also lead to mixed opinions. On the one hand, yes Saudi Arabia is the ‘awkward’ ally since the 1980s. It is also correct to point out this war has much to do with Saudi anxiety over the Iran nuclear deal. Yet, there is no doubt the Obama administration is very much aware of the devastating failure of the Saudi campaign (along with its coalition allies) in Yemen. The fact the Obama administration has distanced itself from president Hadi since the presidents met briefly on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in 2012, and then at the White House in 2013, says a lot about diminishing confidence in Hadi.
Hirak leaders have also been neglected by the Obama administration. Leaders like Ali Salem al-Baydh and Haydar al-Attas (who currently serves as special advisor to Hadi) have not gone beyond brief, backroom contacts with US personnel, while Ali Nasser has relied heavily on a couple of supporters briefing junior level American diplomats abroad. Between February 2012 and May 2014, US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein visited Aden a few times, never meeting Hirak leaders there. Qasim Askar, head of Hirak’s faction under al-Baydh, as well as Fadhi Hassan Baoum, and even February 16 youth leaders often expressed their willingness to meet with the ambassador, and always found obstacles. It is assumed that meetings with one Hirak leader/faction, and not others, would signal unintended bias toward a party involved in a protracted conflict over leadership in south Yemen. Furthermore, throughout 2013 the US embassy remained at the margins of the debate over a proposed federal system, it did not fund activities to discuss the proposal, and only engaged the proposal through a special visit to Washington by Yemenis that included then Secretary General of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and current ambassador to the US Dr. Ahmed bin Mubarak. The US has made it abundantly clear, in my opinion, that it is not entertaining the federal proposal or the two state solution.
Everything points to more of the same under a possible Clinton administration. First, it is clear Saudi and American interests in Yemen do not overlap well. The new ruling generation in Saudi Arabia aims to impose a political and security order that reestablishes a monopoly over Yemen’s future. The Kingdom lost its grip on Yemen in 2011, and policies under King Salman significantly depart from King Abdullah’s (d 2015) approach. On the other hand, the US is not interested in managing the affairs of another Arab country. Just as with Saleh, between 2002 and 2006, America’s approach in Yemen depends on cooperation, which Hadi committed to out of self interest in order to strengthen his own survival. Yet, a number of insiders have made it clear that America’s confidence level was always low, and never long term. In addition, just as the US can never return to Saleh, it cannot possibly rely on a government led by Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, or a government that includes two US Specially Designated Global Terrorists as advisor to the president and provincial governor in al-Baydha.
With regard to the last two paragraphs in Henderson’s piece, where analysis leads to policy prescription, it reflects a deeply misinformed approach to Yemen. While it is accurate to say a new power sharing equation is inevitable, in order to move the peace process forward as US Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out, Henderson’s comments miss a huge problem, which ‘north’? …which south? In fact, Henderson is again absolutely wrong in his account of who control what territory. The number of tribes allied to either Houthi rebels of Ali Abdullah Saleh is far greater than any elements loyal to Hadi, and that amounts to large swaths of territory directly under the Houthi/Saleh alliance (an obstacle to peace negotiations). The south also has a population of more than five million, not three million.
Advice on the partition of Yemen does not comply with Abdulaziz’s advice in the 1950s, nor does it provide a ‘clear logic’ that satisfies any actor involved in the conflict. It is true that president Hadi may prefer to simply rule the south, as he has often expressed disdain for the northern tribesman, but this doesn’t mean he would be welcomed with open arms, as consequence of his role in the 1986 conflict, his role as Minister of Defense during the 1994 civil war and his role as Vice President under Saleh from 1994 to 2012. Never mind the fact that he cloned Hirak in 2012 in order to assure a ‘southern contingency’ participated in the Dialogue Conference while ALL Hirak factions announced their boycott, apart from the people blaming Hadi for ‘crimes’ committed by the Islah-led governments in Aden and elsewhere against Hirak from March 2012 to February 2015. Very few observers regard partition as a ‘the best choice’, or a logical outcome. Southerners may enthusiastically argue for self determination, but have yet to present a united front that prevents the fracturing of south Yemen into six autonomous entities ( Amb. Bodine has described this as potential six failed states). As previously mentioned, it is yet unclear if indeed the UAE believes the two state solution fits its interests, specially as it has yet to fully commit to a role as primary patron to the south.
Lastly, while the US has committed a number of deadly mistakes over the years, the Obama administration has more than ‘occasionally’ succeeded in striking AQAP beyond the targeted assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011. Over the past twelve months alone the US has successfully targeted the upper echelons of AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia. The leadership of the global terrorist organization has been reduced to a highly decentralized organization led by junior level operatives on the run, finding no safe refuge after being expelled from Mukalla this year. Success has come from well cultivated cooperation with a number of actors, including the UAE government, but to a lesser extent Hadi’s government. Assumptions on Deputy Crown prince Mohammed’s willingness to consider partition any time soon are also a bit ill-informed, since he has rejected advice from a large number of Hadhrami Yemenis residing in Saudi Arabia, many of whom are well respected economic actors in the Kingdom. If a two state solution was in line with Saudi interests in Yemen, Khaled Bahah would still be Prime Minister, and Hadhramawt would have rid itself of AQAP terrorists.