Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Yemen and History: Middle East civil war by the usual rules?

   There's about to be another civil war in the Middle East.

   This time in Yemen.

   Don't expect 24/7 news coverage of this war either. I mean, who really gives a shit about Yemen anyway? Nobody. Yemen has no significant oil, gold or diamonds which means they're safe from anybody caring what goes down in their tribal desert shit hole at the ass end of Arabia. Yemen doesn't even benefit from a useful bit of strategic geography where someone might want to park an aircraft carrier or stash a secret rendition site. And after Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria, Western nations and their media are pretty much burned out on the Middle East by this stage of 2011. Even the Chinese, who are busy recycling their US treasury notes on an African buying spree, don't seem much interested in this desolate chunk of Middle East real estate.

   Desolate places are still no guarantee that foreign governments won't take an interest in your little corner of the world. But the tiny puddle of oil that Yemen's economy is currently running on is expected to be sucked dry by 2017. They do have significant natural gas deposits but so do a lot of other places less knee deep in shit and there's currently a glut of methane on the world market right now, which, unlike global oil production, hasn't already peaked. Yemen's gas just isn't worth the hassle for the global corporate elite since outside the capital, Sana'a, the country is a medieval feudal hellhole where the idea of law and order is some shitty Islamic Sharia version of justice where it's cool to bang twelve year olds and stealing an apple is worth a left hand.

   Yemen is really just a wayward chunk of Africa but the strategic energy chess game being played out worldwide right now means that global power players lump Yemen into the wider narrative of the Middle East. Energy and resource wars are gonna be big this century. That'd normally mean Yemen would get ignored. But Yemen just happens to make up the southern border of the real energy prize a few hundred miles north. The Saudi oil state is what makes Yemen's civil war interesting. Their shitty little war might actually matter in the grand scheme of things if it manages to spill over into the Saudi oil prize. Of course, the Saudi monarchs will do everything to make sure this doesn't happen just like they did in Bahrain; nobody gave a shit there when they sent tanks to slap around the Shia majority in that country just to warn their own Shia not to get any fancy ideas about 'democracy'. Truth is, the Saudis see democratic contagion everywhere and fear its spread into their medieval petro kingdom.

  The reason the US cares about Yemen and bothers to deploy CIA, special forces and Predator drones and toss some cash at the Yemeni authorities is yet again the threat of 'terror'. All that barren wasteland combined with illiterate Islamic tribesmen scares the shit out of politicians in the US who see every empty bit of desert in the Middle East as a haven for al-Qaeda. The current Yemeni leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh (more on him later), likes to play the 'al-Qaeda card' whenever things are going bad for him politically so he can extort some extra cash and weaponry out of a jittery US. The 21st century has truly marked the death of 'American badassery'. At least the WWII McAuliffe kind of badass that scribbled "nuts" on a note to the Wehrmacht at Bastogne. That type of Yank badass is long dead when you consider the pussies who run the US today get scared shitless by a group of Iron Age tribal desert dwellers who shit in outhouses and do that monkey bar training thing the news networks play everytime they want you to be scared of bad guys in some foreign desert. When was the last time fools like that got to challenge an empire anyway? Probably not since a bunch of testicle waving Germanic forest men sacked Rome in 410.

   For a desolate place, Yemen sure has some interesting history.

   This is mainly due to the fact that Yemen wasn't always such a desolate place. It was once home to a whole bunch of ancient civilisations that controlled lucrative trade and spice routes. Yemen's history stretches back to the 12th century BCE when it was a wealthy place, so much so that Roman historian Ptolemy referred to it as "Arabia Felix" (Happy Arabia) in the second century AD. The kingdom made a fortune exporting spices and aromatics to the Mediterranean, India and Mesopotamia when sweet smelling stuff like that could make bad food taste good and dead bodies smell less rank, qualities greatly prized by just about every culture in antiquity. Unlike today, agriculture flourished in Yemen due to an advanced irrigation system that included water tunnels through mountains and the impressive 'dam of Ma'rib', built 700 years before the Romans nailed Christ to a bunch of two by fours.

   After centuries of prosperity, around 600 AD, a serial bigamist and itinerant sheep herder started a religion that spread across Arabia and soon Yemen became one more province in the growing Islamic empire. Hardcore religion brought with it all the usual strife and soon the once proud kingdom became the tribal desert shithole of battling local Imams that it still is today. All those irrigation tunnels and dams were reduced to dust as the locals killed each other over whose version of 'what happens after you're dead' was the correct one. Religion tends to have that effect on people. It justifies war and makes killing profitable. Not least because those who die in battle get hoodwinked into believing that they don't really die. They go to a 'better place'. Yemen proved no less susceptible to this mind virus as anywhere else on this sad planet.

   The Ottomans swept into this divided land in the 1500s and conquered it easily. But for the next 400 years the Ottomans didn't seem much interested in the place, it being a constant war zone of unruly battling tribes and power hungry holy men. The Turks just couldn't figure out what to do with their bit of desert so they elected to retain control of a few coastal territories they thought might be useful to park some ships in if shit ever hit the fan on the southern flank of their empire.

   Next came the British.

   We're talking mid 19th century British here, you know, the ones who were pretty damn good at playing the empire game. To them, Yemen's geography had become strategically interesting, especially for the British East India Company, the prototype of the modern corpo war outfit, a Victorian Halliburton if you will; so the British nabbed the port of Aden just so it could provide a coaling station for ships on route to the jewel in their crown, India. The British around this time had perfected the semi private model of empire building where you invade with the minimum number of state supplied Redcoats to kill enough natives to first establish the colony and then let the East India company and the money men handle the administration and the technical details of dividing and conquering the locals. Once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the British expanded their Arabian colony further into Yemen as easy access to the Red Sea made them jizz their pants at Aden's new strategic importance.

   In 1904, the colonials drew one of those maps in Yemen that made no sense outside the smoke filled halls of a British officer's club. An arbitrary line drawn across the shifting desert, it divided Yemen into North and South with the Ottomans taking the North and the British gobbling up the South. Lax administration in the border region allowed the mountain tribes room to plunder the desert valleys for gold and pussy. These tribes weren't farmers or sheep herders or merchants yet have always played a big part in the Yemeni economy. They thrive best in chaos and make a living stealing shit, plundering farms and running protection rackets; exploits which basically made administration a nightmare for the British. Facing this administrative nightmare, the sedulous British signed a whole bunch of treaties with these local bandits to try to keep a lid on the cauldron. This resulted in numerous new sheikdoms, emirates and local strongmen that became collectively known as the 'Aden Protecterate', nominally under control of the British. Don't you just love the monikers the colonial pencil pushers come up with to hide the fact that they just stole all the land in some foreign desert? Same shit, different century.

   When the Ottoman empire fell apart in 1918, Northern Yemen fell into the control of a local Imam named Muhammed. Big surprise there. He died in 1962 and his son got deposed after the Egyptians helped finance a revolution that created the Yemen Arab Republic in the north with Sana'a as the capital. The Saudis chucked some cash at royalist forces that opposed the revolutionaries and that started yet another fucking civil war in Yemen and more people died in the desert.

   The British held on to Aden and Southern Yemen until 1967. This had a lot to do with the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula in the 1930s. That suddenly made Britain's hodge podge tribal 'Protectorate' a whole lot more valuable. Aden became a 'crown protectorate' (imperial speak for we own the oil) and flourished while the tribal hinterland saw no piece of the action. By the 1960's pan Arab nationalism was pressuring the British to leave. As a counter to Egypt's creation of the United Arab Republic, (a union with Syria and North Yemen aimed at stopping the commies), the British countered by attempting to unite all those divided and conquered sheikdoms and emirates into some kind of shitty confederation called the 'Federation of South Arabia'. Aden was incorporated despite the fact that the people there were quite happy with their oil money and had no interest in sharing it with a bunch of camel jockeys from the desert.

   The temporary closure of the Suez Canal in 1967, rioting in Aden, hundreds of guerrilla attacks, killings of off duty British personnel (what we would today call 'terrorism'  as if 'terror' is some illegitimate  war tactic just because conventional forces find it hard to counter). Let's face it, the dirty little secret of modern war is that 'terrorism' works. It sure helped to finally 'convince' the British to fuck off home with the office furniture and a "congratulations, you're independent" note pinned to the wall of some administration building. The factions in this newly independent "People's Republic of South Yemen" did what most former colonial provinces do once the pasty white men fly home and promptly started massacring each other for a piece of the action.

   Both North and South Yemen spent the next twenty years trying to get their shit together towards unification. The British drawn border was badly defined and militarized and there was oil underneath it. To bag the cash, North and South would have to agree on peace. The current leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh of the then Northern United Arab Republic and Ali Salim al-Baidh (leader of the mess the British left) came to a deal in May 1990 that was ratified by the populace and for the first time in hundreds of years of broken and fractured tribal history, Greater Yemen was politically united.


   There were still the tribal factions unhappy with the deal who, as always, needed chaos to make a living. There was still political infighting and distrust between politicians from both north and south of the old colonial border. In 1994 all this culminated in, you guessed it, yet another fucking civil war in Yemen.  Highlights included a pretty awesome tank battle in Amran near Sana'a and South Yemen bombing Sana'a with a bunch of Soviet era Migs and the North responding by bombing Aden. The South tried to secede but the international community weren't buying it because war is bad for business when foreign oligarchies don't have fingers in the pie. The Saudis gave billions in cash and weapons to the South, as always, fearing a united Yemen and what that might inspire in their own subjects. The North made a push toward Aden, captured the oilfields and that's when the UN tried to call a winner and demanded a ceasefire. That failed and the North marched into Aden while the leaders in the South fled.

A North Yemeni soldier whips out his large weapon in 1994's civil war.

   This victory further consolidated Ali Abdullah Saleh's power.

   This guy is your typical sleazy Middle East 'democratically elected' dictator. Yemen has been paying lip service to the idea that it is a democracy since unification in 1990. But in a place where people vote on tribal, ethnic and religious fault lines, this isn't exactly the place where you are going to run an election campaign to change minds. Like Mubarak, Saleh's been in power so long he doesn't know how to step down. It took an RPG attack on his presidential compound on June 3rd to finally get him medivaced to a Saudi hospital. He's currently down but not out.

    Saleh is a member of the Hashid tribe, the second largest in Yemen, mountain men from the North going back to the first century AD and part of that power block in Yemeni politics that have always thrived on chaos. But even they want him gone now. He's grown too fat on power for too long. As with a lot of these sleazy Mid East leaders, he can be shrewd when it comes to playing his chips in the wider casino of global power politics and also pretty stupid. Just like Mubarak, he collected a paycheck from the US albeit for different reasons. Where Mubarak got tossed two billion a year to keep Suez running smoothly and not fuck with Israel, Saleh likes to play the al-Qaeda card whenever he's short on cash. On the other hand, Yemen under Saleh was the only Arab country to continue to support Saddam Hussein after he annexed Kuwait in 1990. That pissed off a whole bunch of his Arab neighbors not least the Saudis who expelled a million Yemenis and built a border fence to prevent them coming back. He's also pretty friendly with Iran and has supported their nuke program which really pisses off the US. And despite all this, fear of the 'terrorists' on monkey bars in the desert trumps all.

   Saleh is not exactly book smart or a student of history. He became a corporal in the army as a school kid and slowly worked his way up to colonel using political connections. He became a member of parliament and took a strongman governorship of a small province. Like a lot of these leaders in the Middle East, he knows how to play and manipulate people in the internecine warfare of Arab social structures. That's how you get to the top in desert cultures. They respect strongmen. Money helps but if shit hits the fan there's always intimidation and violence to fall back on if shit doesn't go your way.

Saleh playing the al-Qaeda card on Bush for spare cash.
    So why civil war now?

    Tunisia and Egypt are why. The Arab Spring. 65% unemployment among the youth. A satellite dish poking out of every mud hut and apartment block balcony that picks up hundreds of TV stations that collectively depict a better life elsewhere. This civil war is going to be different from all the previous ones. Because this time it's street based and not some politicians pocket war. It started as a genuine protest movement in cities like Taiz, Sana'a and Aden in February. The opposition movement is fractured though and includes students, enterprising tribes like the Houthis who see a chance for profit in chaos, a spectrum of political parties and even some young Hashid who want the tribe to take back power and make some decent bank before the oil runs out.

   On the other hand, soldiers, government officials and the civil service and anybody receiving a steady paycheck held counter demonstrations in support of the government. Saleh appeared on TV promising to leave when the 'time was right' and assured the populace that he'd sign some piece of paper meeting the protesters demands but then failed to show up at the signing three times. This all came to a head on March 18 when Saleh saw that bullshitting his way out of the problem wasn't going to work so he fell back on those tribal desert instincts of his that say there is no problem that can't be solved in Yemen by killing people. Army snipers shot dead 52 protesters in Sana'a.

   This even pissed off his own Hashid tribe who quickly declared their support for the opposition. Street fighting broke out in the northern suburbs of Sana'a that included arty and mortar fire.  Tribesmen attacked power lines resulting in blackouts in the capital. The price of water tripled in Sana'a because there's none left running in the pipes. Not all that surprising for a desert. The capital is a pressure cooker ready to blow.  It's now a lack of water and power that are helping to fuel the protests not just people pissed off because satellite TV showed them they'll never bang Miley Cyrus.

   Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the recuperating Saleh believes he can ride this out. Seeing Mubarak getting tried for war crimes in Egypt after being tossed out of power doesn't make stepping down look like a fun option. A promise of immunity in the Arab world is about as comforting as a slice of cake from Robespierre. And besides, after 32 years of power politics and with violence spreading across Yemen, he believes that gives him a better seat at the negotiating table. And it probably does. Especially if Yemen becomes a failed state like next door Somalia. Then all those square miles of desert really do become the place for the bad guys to pitch their monkey bars. The US have been conducting drone attacks on these wannabee al-Qaeda groups but they need a stable government in Yemen to continue operations or else it's Black Hawk down all over again. The current US drone attacks serve to piss off the average Yemeni who see the Islamic fundies in the desert as just small local gangs of whack jobs that no one cares about. In fact, with the situation rapidly deteriorating into yet another fucking civil war in Yemen, the average Yemeni views al-Qaeda exactly how the rest of the world views Yemen...

   A bunch of crazy people in some backward desert nobody gives a shit about.


  1. Great read as always bro.

    "Yemen proved no less susceptible to this mind virus as anywhere else on this sad planet."

    It's sad because you and I know that individuals are capable of so much more. If only we could rid ourselves of that goddamn "mind virus".

  2. Brilliant article about a place I never gave a shit about.

    Now thanks to WT I do. Keep it up man.

  3. Great article! I really love your essays, keep them coming!

  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQREVP3WDaU

  5. Someone posted this on reddit. Really fun read. Love your blog. Bookmarkt!

  6. "..Now all that surprising for a desert..."

    Should be 'Not all'?

    V gud as per ususal

  7. I love this. Thank you.

  8. This is a really great blog.

  9. That shows them they will never bang Miley Cyrus, LMAO

  10. Another great commentary. How's your traffic? I see more comments with each piece you write.

  11. The poor Economist has a column called Clausewitz, dealing with all things related to war. One weeps after reading WT comments and then going to read Clausewitz... Drone them out WT!

  12. This blog is a bloody good read. Hope it stays that way. If WT had a blog like Clausewitz's on the Economist, I doubt he could speak his mind as freely.

  13. As a descendant of these sand people, I will have to agree about your analysis.

  14. I saw some kids on the monkey bars near my house... very suspect. I'd contact the NSA but they're already reading this. I worry that somebody might smuggle our swing-set technology, not only would this mark a significant improvement in their terror playplaces but our multibillion dollar boarder fences may be compromised!

    Love you wartard

  15. hi WT

    good points.
    2 minor thoughts.
    1. Yemen is being totted by some as a choke point for sea / oil routes for china, hence it is of some strategic interest
    2. British imperialism was based on 'send in the business first . let them annoy everyone. then send the troops in'. not the other way around in many cases.

  16. My parents are from Yemen and I went there with an English friend in August 2001, shot my dads AK47 into the hills for a couple of days. 30 tracer bullets for $3 which is pretty dam cool. They are from the south but from the mountainous part, 2500m above sea level, and I agree with pretty much all you say. Although it is a very beautiful place with friendly, hospitable people. Its so corrupt and messed up I am happy to never go back there. Everyone and I mean everyone walks around with a machine gun. Even when shopping. I was born in the UK and thats all right with me. When I was there people kept whispering to me how much they wished the British were still there but I felt a definite dislike towards Americans. When I came back to UK I told some friends that it felt like the Muslim world was angry. One week later 9/11. The rest is history.

  17. Just stumbled across this article using Google and was interested in finding something about Yemens history. Salah just stepped down today and I was looking for information.

    I must say, I've never read a history lesson so entertaining and to the point.Thank you for writing it.

  18. Stupidest most ignorant article on earth. I didn't even finish it thank goodness.

    1. yeah that last part kinda excludes you from having a valid opinion.

  19. Great essay. Found one typo/word choice error ? I think you meant to say "they" promptly started massacre etc. instead of "and".