Yemen: the nexus of Arabia - Zafar Hilaly - Saturday, April 09, 2011

Of all the Arab uprisings the one in Yemen will be the most complicated and difficult to resolve. Just about every factor is involved. It’s part tribal, religious/sectarian, political, economic, military and generational. The revolt is not exclusively about democracy even though it does involve a yearning for freedom. Of course, the selfishness of one man, his family and the fact the goodies the state has to offer only benefit his coterie offends many. But whether under the Ottomans, imams or presidents it has always been like that in Yemen, the land of incense, myrrh and spices. The spices came from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India to which the sea faring Yemenis had discovered a passage much before Vasco de Gama. But, wanting to keep it a secret, they claimed the provenance of these much sought after items was Yemen itself.

Developments in Yemen, the dark hole of Arabia, have seldom bothered the outside world. Yemen is a backwater state; it has no oil or at least none that is left; very little money to buy anything; and absolutely nothing of value to export. In many respects Yemen is like what Afghanistan used to be, so far off the beaten track, so inhospitable the terrain and so fractious a people that in times of peace nobody really bothered about what happened there. But just as Afghanistan when in ferment aroused concern in the capitals of empires so does instability in Yemen in the Arab world. And just as Afghanistan is the gateway to the sub continent so is Yemen to Saudi Arabia – through its soft underbelly in the south.

No wonder then turbulence in Yemen has the senior most geriatrics of the ruling Saudi family – Abdullah, Sultan and Naif – riveted and apprehensive. Yemen is their backyard. Collectively and individually they are deeply concerned by what is happening. Each has his own favourites among Yemen’s leaders and tribes; and each also has his own opinion of how to deal with Yemen, and these differ considerably. Naif and Sultan, for example, have little time for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. King Abdullah, on the other hand, has a good working relationship with him. But what all find insufferable is the endemic hostility of the ordinary Yemeni and his traditional contempt for Saudis.

Yemenis look down on their Saudi neighbours and their unsophisticated desert culture. They believe Yemen is the cradle of Arab civilisation and the birthplace of the Arabic language. They proudly claim Yemen to be the first country to convert to Islam and allude to a mosque in Sana whose construction Hazrat Ali reportedly supervised. Hence, they have little time for Saudi pretensions about being the font of Islam.

To complicate the situation they consider their neighbours effete, lazy, even cowardly and insufferably conceited. The al Houthi tribe of the (Shia) Zaidi sect have incessantly raided Saudi territories. Their links with the shias in the southern Saudi provinces of Najran and Jizan are strong and were they to emerge more powerful as a result of the current unrest in Yemen this would embolden the shia in Saudi Arabia’s oil rich Eastern Province bordering Bahrain to step up their agitation against Riyadh, backed possibly by Iran. Such a scenario deeply worries the Saudis as it would threaten Saudi Arabia and provide the use of Yemen as a base for staging attacks on the Kingdom. To make matters worse, armour and sophisticated Saudi weaponry is useless in the mountainous terrain of north Yemen where the al Houthis, like the Taliban, are masters of mountainous guerrilla warfare.

Needless to say, not all tribes which are members of the Hasid and Bakil confederation of tribes of north Yemen feel the same. The influential al Ahmer clan of the Hashid tribe is staunchly pro Saudi. However, most other clans and tribes, especially those of south Yemen, are at best indifferent; and it is only a small step from indifference to outright hostility.

Latest reports suggest Saleh, seeing the writing on the wall, is prepared to quit. Washington has belatedly come to the same conclusion and has conveyed to Saleh that he is no longer a part of a solution. The two Saudi princes and the king also seem to have finally concluded Saleh’s ship wrecked presidency is beyond salvaging. But all of them and especially the Americans are understandably apprehensive as to what will happen and who will follow him.

Saleh wants to be succeeded by his vice president who is a nonentity and an acolyte, but to the protestors anyone associated with the Saleh regime is unacceptable. Jihadists, Islamists and conservative tribesmen, who prevailed in the civil war against Marxist south Yemen, feel power should rightly devolve on them and specifically Saleh’s brother- in- law, Mohsen al Ahmar, under whose command they fought and who has deserted Saleh. However, according to one American sponsored publication, the US feels otherwise. It lays the blame for the largely unsuccessful US backed counter terrorist campaign against al Qaeda in Yemen on their inclusion in the security apparatus.

Hamid al Ahmar, a Saudi backed candidate from the influential Al Ahmer clan has trumpeted his Saudi connections and proffered it as a reason to succeed Saleh. But he is hardly the ideal successor being considered too much of a Saudi pawn; nor does he speak for the other tribes.

As confabulations continue paranoia about ‘al Qaeda rushing in to fill the vacuum in Yemen’ deepens in Washington. The International Herald Tribune reports that the ‘anti al Qeada operations have ground to a halt in the wake of the political tumult’. It also quotes a US expert on Yemen as saying the narrow focus on combating al Qaeda through military operations overseen by the Saleh family ‘has had the disadvantage of tying the US counter terrorism effort to one family’.

Speculation abounds that Yemen will again break up following Saleh’s departure. Southerners gained nothing from unity and memories subsist of the bitter civil war in which they were defeated by the north. A fairly strong southern secessionist movement is gaining traction. The more educated and secular Marxist south have little respect for their unsophisticated northern tribal brethren.

The stakes are high for the Saudis and the Americans and with all the fluidity still in the Middle East, the Yemeni situation acquires acute importance, not least because of the al Qaeda aspect and Yemen’s strategic location in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden which puts it in close proximity to the Suez Canal, the Horn of Africa and also underscores Yemen’s strategic importance in the wider Indian Ocean context.

Why does the fast changing scenario in Yemen affect Pakistan? Because of the possibility our Saudi nexus will be exploited by Riyadh to summon our help if the tumult in Yemen leads to a war in which Saudi Arabia feels it must intervene. Defending Saudi Arabia against unprovoked aggression is one thing and perhaps even an honourable step, but helping the Kingdom to assert control over the territory of a neighbouring state is quite another. In the past our forces stationed in Saudi Arabia came close to being asked to play such a role, today it must surely be out of the question both for external and internal reasons.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email:

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