Category: Yemen

How the Saudis Escalated Yemen Struggle Beyond All Control

Yemen is a small, poor country in a region empires have plundered for centuries. This civil war is a local struggle that has been escalated out of control by the ambitions of powers outside of Yemen—mainly Saudi Arabia.

The British Empire ruled the Yemeni city of Aden in South Yemen as a colony, a refueling station for ships on the way to the Empire’s Indian possessions. Gaining independence in 1967, South Yemen had a socialist government from 1970 on, becoming the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

Northern Yemen was ruled by a king from the city of Sana’a who followed of the Zaydi denomination of Islam, clashing periodically with both the British and with the Saudi kingdom over borders in the 1930s. Arab nationalist revolutionaries overthrew the king in 1962, starting a civil war between nationalists, backed by Arab nationalist (Nasserite) Egypt and royalists, backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran (then a monarchy too). A peace deal was reached and by 1970, even Saudi Arabia recognized North Yemen as the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).

North and South Yemen talked about unification throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and it finally happened in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union that had been South Yemen’s most important ally.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was killed this December 3, was a military man who had been president of North Yemen since he was appointed by a junta in 1978. He became president of the unified country in 1990.

Saleh had to navigate a dangerous time for the Arab world. When Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US under Bush declared a New World Order, showing that the US could now operate in the region without any concern about a Soviet deterrent. Yemen happened to be on the UN Security Council in November 1990 when Resolution 678 authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from Kuwait—authorizing the first Gulf War, in effect—came up for debate. Yemen voted against the resolution. The American representative famously told his Yemeni counterpart, “That was the most expensive vote you ever cast.” Yemen, which had hundreds of thousands of workers in the oil-rich Gulf countries including Kuwait, found its workers expelled and its Western aid programs cut when the war was over. Yemen was made an example of.

The post-1990 war sanctions on Iraq, which by most estimates killed hundreds of thousands of children through malnutrition and preventable disease, as well as the US military bases in the Arabian peninsula, were extremely unpopular in Yemen (as elsewhere in the Arab world). So was the lack of progress in ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel, as people gradually realized that the Oslo Accords had frozen the occupation rather than ending it.

People from wealthy and powerful Yemeni families, among them veteran of the Afghan jihad Osama bin Laden (in fact there were numerous Yemenis who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan), wanted to raise a local Arab force to secure the Arab peninsula and have the US military leave. But the idea was a non-starter with the Saudi kingdom that hosted the Americans.

When bin Laden’s al Qaeda attacked US embassies (killing 44 embassy personnel and 150 African civilians), a US naval vessel (the USS Cole), and finally US civilians on 9/11, the US declared a war on terror. Saleh had learned his lesson from 1990 and agreed to cooperate with the US after 2001.

By this time, Saleh had been in power for more than two decades, and had enriched himself and his family in the process (his son, Ahmed Saleh, was a commander in an elite army unit). The vice-president, Abdrabbah Mansur Hadi, also headed a powerful and wealthy family. Other “big names” in Yemen include the Al-Ahmar family (which includes the current Vice President in exile and army general Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, billionaire media owner Hamid al Ahmar, and the founders of the Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islah party) and of course the Houthi family of Sa’ada, a mountainous governorate on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, like the old kings of North Yemen, are of the Zaydi denomination.

The term “tribe,” used by the British Empire for its imperial purposes of classification and rule, refers to a genuine social phenomenon, but is not especially useful in explaining the politics of Yemen. The country’s elite is indeed organized in extended family networks, but this is arguably not so different from Western countries (how many Bushes and Clintons have participated in ruling the US empire by now?). Politicians and bureaucrats use public office to enrich themselves.

This, too, is not so different from Western countries, with the Trump brand being the starkest example. The Yemeni version of elite profiteering is exemplified in the smuggling of diesel fuel out of the country. Sarah Philips, author of Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, cites analyses suggesting that 12% of Yemen’s GDP is smuggled out, the profits siphoned off by the elite – dollar estimates run as high as $900 million, with reports of a single man from a prominent family taking $155 million in smuggling profits in one year.

As Yemenis watched Israel crush the second Intifada from 2000 on, as well as the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, Saleh’s cooperation in the war on terror became ever more unpopular. One prominent scion of the Houthi family, Hussein al-Houthi, led followers in Sa’ada in a famous chant: “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.”

In the chant, “curse on the Jews” stands out from the group of otherwise hyperbolic items seeking victory for one’s own side and death to the other. Even before this civil war, the Jewish community in Yemen was very small and long-suffering. Ginny Hill, author of the 2016 book Yemen Endures, found in her travels that “prejudice against the Jews was prevalent and unabashed,” and that Yemeni Jews in Sa’ada and elsewhere have suffered greatly from being caught in the middle of the Houthi insurgency.

Provoked by the Houthi chant and hoping to show his eagerness to fight the war on terror, Saleh sent the army into Sa’ada in 2004. The Houthis fought back. The army killed Hussein al-Houthi, who became a martyr of the Houthis’ cause. Six waves of warfare followed over the next seven years, as Saleh’s forces kept trying to quell the Houthis, whose power base in the north continued to grow. Saudi Arabia stepped in to support Saleh in 2009, and the Houthis responded with a quick raid from Sa’ada into the Saudi kingdom itself.

Meanwhile, in what had been South Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) was growing as well, and also challenging Saleh’s government. President Obama’s drone program blasted away in the south, leaving civilian casualties and terror in its wake. Saleh’s strategy was to focus on fighting the Houthis and make exaggerated claims that they were sponsored by Iran, while keeping a lighter touch with AQAP, which had more powerful patrons in Yemen’s elite.

At the same time, the Saudi royals were escalating their arms purchases, with contracts in the tens of billions with the US (and a $1.5 billion contract with a Canadian company now famous in that country). Saudi oil sales to and arms purchases from the US underpin the unbreakable bond between the kingdom and the empire. It explains why you hear much more about Russian (a competitor in the global arms trade) than Saudi (the greatest and most reliable purchaser of US arms) collusion in the US media. It also explains why the US provides military advice and help with targeting and intelligence to the Saudis as they use all their expensive purchases destroying Yemen.

In 2011, the Arab Spring came to Yemen and an alliance from the elite families joined the mass call for the end of Saleh’s rule. Saleh first agreed to step down, then refused. He was injured by a bomb blast in June and went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. He finally did step down, handing power over to his vice-president, Hadi, in 2012.

Hadi presided over a constitution-drafting exercise. One feature enraged the Houthis: a plan to redraw the regions of Yemen, making Sana’a and Aden self-governing and merging Sada’a into a new highland governorate, “a formation that would deny the Houthis control over the Red Sea coast to west, cut them off from natural resources to the east, and fence them up against the Saudi border to the north,” as Ginny Hill wrote.

The Houthis, in alliance with the ex-president Saleh, arrived in force in the capital, besieging the presidential palace in 2014 and taking it at the beginning of 2015. Hadi fled to Aden, where he declared that he was still the lawful president of Yemen.

Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in support of Hadi in March of 2015. The Saudi intervention magnified the humanitarian impact of the civil war into a full-blown catastrophe, bombing, besieging, and blockading the entire country to try to force the Houthis out.

The Saudi blockade and bombing have scaled up a local power struggle to genocidal proportions. They believe Yemen is their backyard and that it is their right to impose a solution. Military victory has proven elusive for them, but their unlimited resources and the wide license given them by the Western media to freely commit crimes has allowed them to keep raising the stakes and nudging Yemen towards catastrophe.

The Houthis have held on, however, withstanding the bombardment and siege, even as the humanitarian catastrophe continues to expand. By now, the casualty figures are more than 10,000 dead, two million displaced, 2.2 million facing starvation, and one million infected with cholera since 2015 (27% of whom are under 5 years old). In addition to directly helping the Saudi military use its weapons, the US, including the media, has continued to run interference for the Saudi intervention. The humanitarian disaster is presented as a natural disaster, not a direct outcome of the way the Saudi kingdom has pursued the war.

Saleh, a wily operator who had survived in power since 1978, could not survive this last alliance with the Saudis: he was killed within 24 hours of making it. This December 3, Saleh announced he was switching sides, leaving his alliance with the Houthis and joining Hadi and the Saudis. The Houthis quickly routed his forces in the capital and blew up his house. The next day they stopped him at a checkpoint and killed him too, announcing that they had avenged Hussein al-Houthi. Saleh’s son Ahmed quickly announced his plans to avenge his father.

The UN, Oman, Iran, and others have put forward peace plans to end the Yemeni civil war. Most feature a national unity government that includes the Houthis, who will convert their movement into a political party, with elections to follow. Saleh switching sides and the Houthi killing him makes a peace deal much less likely in the short term. But the biggest obstacle to peace remains Saudi Arabia, which has also been the biggest escalating force of the war.

Justin Podur is a writer on international politics, and a professor of environmental studies at York University in Toronto. He is the author of Haiti’s New Dictatorship.


Why I Confronted Gerald Feierstein, a Key American Advocate for Saudi Arabia’s War on Yemen

At a public event in New York last week, Gerald Feierstein, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Gulf Affairs and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, denied claims that he lied on a congressional disclosure form about foreign government funding. He also called Abdulelah Haider Shaye, an independent Yemeni journalist whose reporting on the U.S. covert war in Yemen landed him in a jail cell at the request of the U.S. government during Feierstein’s tenure as ambassador, a “terrorist.”

The event where Feierstein appeared was organized by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, which recently hired former CIA director John Brennan as a “distinguished fellow for global security.” Feierstein used his time to condemn what he saw as the destabilizing influence of Iran in the Middle East, hyping the threat of Iranian support for the Houthis in Yemen, who have been the target of a brutal 32-month bombing campaign led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with significant support from the United States.

The war on Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe, causing 130 children to die everyday from extreme hunger and disease, forcing 20 million Yemeni civilians (almost three-fourths of the population) into need of immediate aid and unleashing the worst cholera outbreak in history.

The Middle East Institute that pays Feierstein’s salary is a Washington D.C.-based think tank that boasts substantial influence in foreign policy circles. As AlterNet’s Grayzone Project has reported, corporate media consistently give Feierstein and the MEI a platform to push for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. He has routinely defended U.S. support for and arms sales to Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen.

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March, Feierstein argued that limiting U.S. military assistance to the Saudi/UAE-led coalition would be “counter-productive.” In June, he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the U.S. “should continue to rebuild its defense relationship with Saudi Arabia.” “I believe that we should move forward,” he added, on the sale of precision-guided munitions, which the Obama administration blocked at the 11th hour because coalition airstrikes were killing so many civilians and which the Trump administration has since resumed with a narrow Senate vote.

Now Feierstein appears to have lied to Congress in a disclosure form regarding foreign government funding. He checked the “No” box in response to a question asking if he or MEI had “received any contract or payment originating with a foreign government related to the subject of the hearing” since 2013.

According to an email sent to Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE ambassador to the U.S., the United Arab Emirates has lavished the MEI with $20 million in donations, ostensibly to expand its offices. MEI’s annual report of contributions for 2016 shows contributions of $2 million from Saudi Arabia for Feierstein’s Gulf Studies program; another $1.5 million from the UAE for undisclosed purposes; nearly a half million from the Carnegie Corporation; more than $300,000 from oil companies Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Aramco; and tens of thousands from the weapons manufacturers Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, corporations that have a great deal of profit to gain through the war in Yemen. Annual reports as early as 2012 and 2013 reveal similar donations.

Confronting Feierstein about lying to Congress

During the Q&A portion of the event last week, I asked Feierstein about his failure to disclose the millions of dollars MEI receives from the very Gulf countries whose wars he defends in congressional testimony. “The most important thing is that the Congress doesn’t think that I misrepresented the facts, and that’s actually the most important point,” he said.

The claim that Congress doesn’t think Feierstein lied is difficult to verify, as there have been no public statements about his disclosure form.

This week, AlterNet spoke to Scott Zuke, MEI’s communications director, by phone. He declined to comment for this story.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in government ethics and national security, told AlterNet that the question on the disclosure form is “not aimed at detecting whether the witness is free of conflicts of interest. It does not inquire whether the witness or his organization has received funding from someone who has an interest in the subject of the hearing.” By contrast, it asks a very narrow question, i.e., if the payment itself is “related” to the subject of the hearing. “What Congress should want to know is whether there’s any source of payment—not just from any foreign government or the U.S. government, but from anybody—who has interest in this hearing,” Clark said.

But while Gulf payments to MEI weren’t explicitly earmarked to be “related to the subject” of Feierstein’s testimonies to Congress, Saudi and Emirati influence over MEI is clear: They give the think tank millions of dollars per year, and in return its staff members defend their wars to Congress and in the media.

Challenging the branding of a journalist as a ‘terrorist’

After the event concluded, I confronted Feierstein about his involvement as U.S. ambassador to Yemen in the proxy detention of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, an independent Yemeni journalist. Feierstein told me Shaye was incarcerated “because he was a terrorist.”

Although this is not the first time Feierstein has discussed Shaye and terrorism together, it is the first time he has explicitly called Shaye a terrorist. In 2012, Feierstein told veteran Yemen-based foreign correspondent Iona Craig,

“Haidar Shaye is in jail because he was facilitating al-Qaeda and its planning for attacks on Americans and therefore we have a very direct interest in his case and his imprisonment. But this isn’t anything to do with journalism, it is to do with the fact that he was assisting AQAP and if they [Yemeni journalists] are not doing that they don’t have anything to worry about from us.”

But Shaye is not a terrorist, and his incarceration was indeed directly related to his journalism. In a country dominated by Western- and Gulf-funded media, Shaye’s independent journalism offered a nuanced perspective on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the covert U.S. war in Yemen.

Shaye reported on civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes, including President Obama’s first in Yemen, a cluster-bomb-laden Tomahawk cruise missile that killed 14 women and 21 children in Yemen’s al-Majala village on Dec. 17, 2009. While the Yemeni government claimed its forces carried out the strike, Shaye’s reporting revealed that it was, in fact, an American operation. Journalist Jeremy Scahill writes,

“[Shaye] photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets and human rights organizations. He reported that the majority of the victims were women, children and the elderly. After conducting his own investigation, Shaye determined that it was a US strike, and he was all over the media telling anyone would listen. The young journalist was becoming a thorn in America’s side.”

Diplomatic cables later released by WikiLeaks confirmed Shaye’s account. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh assured then-CENTCOM commander David Petraeus a few weeks after the attack.

Shaye’s interviews with al Qaeda members—including several critical one-on-ones with U.S. citizen and al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki for the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Al Jazeera at the very moment when the CIA and JSOC were adding the radical cleric to their assassination lists—made him the “leading chronicler of the rise of [AQAP].”

Shaye often gained exclusive access to al Qaeda figures through his relationship, by marriage, to radical cleric Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, founder of Sana’a’s Iman University and a U.S. Treasury Department-designated terrorist. While the US government saw this as evidence of nefarious intentions, Shaye’s advocates argued that he was merely doing the journalistic work of developing sources.

In August 2010, eight months after the al-Majala bombing, Shaye was arrested by Yemeni intelligence agents, placed in solitary confinement for 34 days without access to a lawyer, and charged with being the “media man” for al Qaeda. “I believe he was arrested upon a request from the US,” Shaye’s lawyer later told Scahill. A few months later Shaye was convicted of terrorism-related charges in a kangaroo court and sentenced to five years in prison.

In response to intense pressure from tribal leaders and international human rights groups, President Saleh issued a pardon for Shaye’s release. But then President Obama intervened, calling Saleh directly and urging him to keep Shaye locked up. Despite another public request from Feierstein, Shaye was finally released two and a half years later by Yemen’s new president, the Saudi-backed Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, eliciting “concern and disappointment” in a statement by the U.S. government.

Gunar Olsen is a New York-based journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @GunarOlsen.