Arabia Infelix: ‘Unfortunate’ Yemen

What you know about the Middle East’s latest hotspot is probably wrong.

George Kenney

Jonathan Landay and an Afghan soldier at the Afghan National Army base in the Jalez Valley in Wardak Province.

For those flummoxed by the Middle East’s latest perceived hot spot, James Spencer offers a rare blend of knowledge and experience. The director of research and analysis at the British firm Scymitar Consulting, and a retired infantry officer in the British Army, he has extensive experience in all aspects of low-intensity conflict and the wider Middle East/​Islamic Africa region as both a practitioner and an analyst. He holds degrees in both Arabic and international relations and has studied and lived in Yemen. He is a member of the British Yemeni Society.

There are conflicting views of what is happening in Yemen. Armchair strategists go on about the Shi’a-Sunni divide and the Northern rebels, but former U.S. Ambassador Edmund J. Hull argues that this is not important. Is he right?

He’s entirely right. The Shi’a in Yemen are called Zaydis. They’re not like the Iraqi Shi’a or the Iranian Shi’a. They are very conservative, with a small c, very traditional and sort of dour. I compare them to Highland Scotsmen. The fascinating thing about them is that like the Highlanders, there is not that much money to be made in the Highlands, in the mountains. So many of the second sons take up either a trade or soldiering – being soldiers all around the world. And so you have a lot of Yemenis who have lived abroad, and they have a fairly worldly view. 

The rough dividing line between the Sunnis and the Shi’a is a geographic overlap zone. In the Northern Highlands, which is very mountainous and challenging terrain, the tribes have been able to defend their areas from time immemorial without any great difficulty even against some very strong external forces. The Southern Uplands are far softer and more gentle slopes and far harder to defend, which means they were more open to conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam. 

So there’s fighting in the North, which has generated a couple hundred thousand refugees?

Yes, huge numbers and in the middle of the winter. It might be Arabia, but some of the mountains go up to about five, six thousand feet and it’s not fun sleeping out in those conditions. It gets very cold.

And what is the fighting about? 

What they’re called in the general press is the Huthis. They actually called themselves Believing Youth (al-Shabab al-Mu’minin), which is easy to confuse with the Shabab in Somalia, so we tend to call them the Huthis, after the family leading the rebellion. Depending on whom you believe, and there are any number of different reasons: they claim they are being oppressed by the government, which is bearing down on the Shi’a. That is pretty much the Iranian line too. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, We see global implications from the war in Yemen and the ongoing efforts by al Qaeda in Yemen to use it as a base for terrorists attacks far beyond the region.” I’m not sure what war she is talking about. 

I would guess that she was talking about the global war on terrorism, since that is the only war that makes sense.

So al Qaeda plays a rather minimal role in the North. Is that correct?

Yes, to a great extent. The area is very broken terrain, and there’s a lot of smuggling going in to Saudi Arabia. So in the North, al Qaeda’s main presence will be transiting through. The Huthis are Shi’a, and the Sunni al Qaeda are, by and large, fairly vitriolic against all Shi’a. The two don’t normally mix.

The insurrection in the North, the Huthi insurrection, has nothing to do with al Qaeda. It is a political problem that has effectively become a local war. The Yemenis and the tribes are heavily armed. And it has spun out of control. Almost certainly the best solution will come through the Yemeni tradition of religious and or tribal notables calling a truce, working out what the problem is, and coming to a solution that suits both sides. 

Assuming you’re right and the Yemenis can sort out the conflicts in the North and the South, once we have the al Qaeda factor, then the West is going to want to give aid to President Ali Abdullah Saleh for fighting al Qaeda. And he’s going to have an interest in making sure that al Qaeda remains a problem in order to keep the aid coming. Is that an unreasonable analysis?

No. It makes sense entirely from a Yemeni point of view. Yemen is a desperately poor country with limited resources of oil, which are running out, with a huge population, and with its water giving out. You will hear two reasons for the water shortage. One is that it’s massively used to irrigate a narcotic called qat. And the other is that if, as Yemen has, you’ve just doubled your population, they tend to drink and wash and use water.

It’s a desperate challenge. Saleh told the New York Times last year that being the president was like dancing with snakes. You take a wrong step, and you’ll get bitten. 

I hope that the international community will be both generous and sensible enough to realize that aid needs to continue going to Yemen to fund employment opportunities and develop the country, because otherwise we face a lot of very angry and heavily armed men who have nothing else to lose. 

Well, things are going downhill in Yemen, but does that really impact us?

It’s two-fold. We will probably see a huge outflow of people. They won’t be terrorists. They’ll be tribesmen. The tribesman will have guns, but that’s mostly for show and a little bit for self-defense. But those people will need to go somewhere and somewhere where there’s water. The entire Middle East is having huge problems with fresh water. So that will be an issue – trying to cope with several million Yemenis needing a place to go where they can drink. 

So nobody knows where the Yemeni refugees will go?

No. There are not the boats to go south and west into Africa, nor is the water there. So the chances are they would either go north or northeast. And I should imagine that the Omanis and the Saudis are rather nervous at the prospect.

Yes, the Saudis in particular. Would they also be worried that U.S. interference in Yemen might cause a political upheaval?

Potentially. If you remember, al Qaeda, or rather Osama bin Laden, effectively split with the House of Saud over the presence of foreign troops in the land of the two holy shrines.

And for more troops to come in would be inviting trouble from terrorists. The Yemenis are also, like the Scots, incredibly nationalistic people, who would object to foreign intervention in their country.

If we start going in to Yemen, inevitably we will kill a child, and it will almost certainly be the most beautiful young girl, and that picture will be flashed around every Internet site, it will be on the front page of all the newspapers, it will be in Al Jazeera and so on and so forth. 

It seems the more likely outcome is that Yemen does not solve its problems and continues to deteriorate. Is that catastrophic from our point of view?

From the West’s point of view, possibly not. Al Qaeda already has havens in the broken country where the government is less strong than it might be. And finding one or two armed men in a population of armed men is very difficult for the government. So in terms of the threat from al Qaeda, there is less risk. In terms of the rest of the Middle East, if there is a huge emigration of Yemenis? That is a major threat. 

How should we constructively give aid to Yemen?

Money has been known as the grease that oils the wheels of society for a very long time. There is the most amazing correlation in all sorts of conflicts between gainful employment and a fall-off in terrorism, and to a great extent that comes from She Who Must Be Obeyed. If the man of the house isn’t putting food on table, because he’s out doing terrorist operations, she’s often upset, because her children are upset. Never underestimate the power of Muslim women and Arab women. They wield immense authority within the house. So in that sense what we need to do is get employment into Yemen. 

We’ve done it in Iraq, we’re trying it in Afghanistan, possibly – according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates – to some success. It’s time to try it in the other areas of the Middle East where we’ve got problems.

If there’s no water, you could provide all kinds of development but no one will be able to live there.

There are things we can do with that as well. A lot of the irrigation is by flood irrigation and that is very inefficient.

The dam system for capturing rainfall is ineffective also, can it be fixed?

It was the most fantastic water harvesting system but during the 70s it fell into disrepair and as a result doesn’t work. Yemen’s old name is, Arabia Felix – Fortunate Arabia. And it’s fortunate because it catches the monsoons, twice a year. And they get lots and lots of water, which traditionally has allowed them to have rain-fed agriculture. If we can get the dam system up and running again then that will improve the chances of water being able to support a population.

This exchange was adapted from a podcast interview on Elec​tricPol​i​tics​.com.

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George Kenney, a former career U.S. foreign service officer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. policy toward the Yugoslav conflict. He is now a writer in Washington, and host and producer of the podcast Electric Politics.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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