June 12, 2011
Every week another country of the Middle East captures our attention. A week ago, it was a bomb blast at Friday prayers that injured the embattled ruler of the country, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and many of his top officials, requiring their evacuation for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.
Whether Saleh, a wily, tenacious ruler for 33 years will now agree to step down is anyone’s guess.
This is a country reeling from weeks of demonstrations against Saleh, military battles between rival elite families and unraveling control of Yemen. Yemen also is riled by Southern secessionists, a northern Shiite minority rebellion and plentiful jihadists, including the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda. Maybe even the Somali pirates will be moving freely into southern Yemen. It’s a worrisome situation.
Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East, home of the legendary Queen of Sheba. It lies strategically at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula at the exit of the Suez Canal/Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden. Today’s population of 23 million is organized around tribes whose rivalries run deep. Most tribes have heavily armed militias; outside the major cities, order is kept by tribal chiefs with their own complicated loyalties. Its terrain has been a key isolating factor in its history. Except for the narrow coastal band, the country has an average elevation of 6,000 feet. If it were less volatile, Yemen today would undoubtedly be a major tourist stop. Its capital, Sanaa, is 2,500 years old and a declared World Heritage City. Even though a small country, Yemen contains two regions with extraordinarily different histories that hinder successful unification today. The northern Yemeni region was under the Ottoman Empire and then local caliphs; it joined the U.N. as an independent country in 1947. Republican forces gained control in 1962, whom Saudi Arabia opposed, but ultimately accepted in 1970. Saudi Arabia thereafter has provided substantial budgetary support, including funds, to fight the Shiite minority in the northern border region and al-Qaeda forces who want to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. Saleh comes from this northern half.
The southern Yemeni region, in contrast, came under British rule when the port of Aden was captured in 1839. Nationalist groups turned to terrorism in the 1960s to drive out the British and succeeded in 1967. A radical wing of the Marxist party gained power and sided with the Soviets, who sustained it with aid until the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. Southern Yemen then merged with the northern half. Succession sentiments have not died out, however, especially since Saleh’s northerners have monopolized political power and the diminishing oil receipts. Overall, this united Yemen remains the poorest Middle Eastern country.
Yemen is well known as a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists who have been ultra-keen to fight in conflicts in Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, more than half of the remaining detainees in Guantanamo Bay are Yemenis. It is also a safe haven for increasingly sophisticated militant jihadist planning and operations. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda is one such group, and today is judged to pose the greatest immediate threat to the U.S. and Europe, particularly since the demise of bin Laden in Pakistan. The American-born radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, is a member and proving skilled in Internet recruitment.
Since the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, the U.S. has been pushing the oft times reluctant Saleh hard to counter al-Qaeda, and will certainly want any successor to do the same. Now fearful of the vacuum being created by the current power struggle, the U.S. took the initiative a few days ago to strike and kill al-Qaeda militants in southern Yemen with armed drones and fighter jets. Weeks earlier, drone aircraft had tried but failed to kill Awlaki.
Saleh’s long held position was in jeopardy as soon as the “Arab Spring” demonstrations began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt. Yemini youth protesters and a relatively well-organized opposition coalition have been ratcheting up the pressure on Saleh to step down. He has endured increasing military and tribal defections, but he still has supporters.
Saleh at first said yes to a brokered agreement for transition, arranged by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, one that gave him immunity so that he could step down with dignity. But then he never signed it, evidently fearful for the future of the dozens of family members he has installed in government and business. Long a survivor of Yemen’s scrappy politics, he opted to ride out this latest threat. His eldest son controls the powerful Republican Guard; other sons and family members run the best trained and equipped military and intelligence units. And while Saleh is in Saudi Arabia recovering from his wounds, they remain in Yemen. But the plot against Saleh has a bigger cast. For several years relations between the Saleh and al-Ahmar families have deteriorated. There is a generational transition going on in both families, whose patriarchs once had a power-sharing agreement. The blueblood al-Ahmar family believes it should have a turn ruling Yemen. Armed conflict between them erupted in Sanaa last week. Saleh blamed that family for the Friday bomb explosion (which it denies), and his forces attacked their locations. With effort, a cease fire was arranged.
Among the many prominent al-Ahmar brothers is a business tycoon named Hameed, who owns the Sabafon mobile network and a TV channel. The opposition coalition has been using this mobile network to send out messages to organize the protests. Hameed stunned Yemen last August by daring to go on al Jazeera TV to call on Saleh to step down and not to try to enthrone his son. He is expected soon to assume leadership of his father’s Islah party, the largest opposition party in Yemen.
Yet another influential player in this drama is Army Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar (a half-brother of Saleh and no relation to the al-Ahmar family above). He defected from Saleh in March in part, it is thought, to prevent Saleh’s son from succeeding his father. General Mohsin has deployed his armored tank division at strategic locations in Sanaa and can play a significant role in determining the outcome of any future armed clashes.
Yemen teeters on the brink of renewed violence from a variety of disgruntled sources. Armed tribesmen have just driven out government troops from Yemen’s second largest city, Taiz. Opposition leaders are calling for a presidential council to assume immediate rule. Saleh’s sons are poised to fight back.
Saudi and Gulf officials are working hard in Riyadh to broker a solution while Saleh is there. They appear to be continuing to urge his agreement to their earlier transitional government proposal as the best means of preventing violence in Yemen. The U.S. favors that process, beginning now. But, then, Saudi Arabia was furious at the Americans for abandoning Mubarak in Egypt to support a democratic transition. If Saleh balks, will Saudi Arabia really force him to step down? No one dares assume it will.
Stay tuned. There is much to watch and worry about in Yemen.
Ambassador Harriet Isom grew up in Pendleton and has retired to the family ranch. She was a career diplomat serving in Asia and Africa from 1961 to 1996.