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How far is Saudi-Iranian rivalry fuelling Yemen war? 8, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen.
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The following article was published by the BBC and can be found here.

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The Saudis see growing Iranian influence everywhere – to the north in Iraq and Syria, to the east in its own country and in Bahrain, and now pointedly to the south in Yemen.

But this view belies the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics, overemphasises the role of Iran, and is unlikely to lead to anything approaching a successful conclusion, as is being seen with the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which is yet to achieve its stated aims.

The Houthi moniker, originally but a clan name, has been associated with the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam and, thus, by overly simplified if not erroneous extension, the “Twelver” Shiism predominant in Iran and Shiism in general.

Firstly, Houthis are not all Zaidis, and neither are all Zaidis Houthis. And secondly, Zaidism is considered to be the branch of Shiism least in dispute with Sunni doctrine.

Whatever the religious similarities between the Houthis and Iran, there is an implicit notion that any commonality matters. Whether nominally united or separated by faith, it is seldom as determining a factor in action as it is fatuously perceived.

None of this is to ignore commonalities between Iran and the Houthis.

Map showing Houthi and al-Qaeda areas in Yemen (22 April 2015)

Both display a vociferous anti-American and anti-Israeli streak, and there are obvious instances of the Houthis co-operating in some way with Iran in recent years.

A day after the Houthis took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in February, an aviation agreement with Iran was signed and an Iranian Mahan Airlines plane landed in the city.

Domestic dispute

But simplistically labelling the Houthis as “Iranian-backed” obscures the domestic nature of the conflict which predates the Arab Spring.

Zaidis ruled parts of Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962 and were even supported by Saudi Arabia in the 1970s.

But then the Houthis, who emerged as a Zaidi revivalist movement in the 1990s, fought a series of wars between 2004 and 2010 against the Saudi-supported central Yemeni state led by then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who also happens to be a Zaidi.

Religious divisions have, therefore, played a surprisingly minor role in the past until they were deepened not least by Saudi Arabia’s attempts in the 1990s in particular to spread its own austere version of Sunni Islam in Yemen.

The Houthis believed that such policies were designed to further marginalise their position, given their historic powerbase of Saada province being right on the Saudi border.

Spoils of war

The numerous wars fought against government forces gave the Houthis all the training and combat experience that they needed to humiliate Saudi forces when they intervened in Yemen in 2009 and to apparently fare so well against the recent air campaign launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

More importantly perhaps, many years of war have festooned Yemen with weapons.

There are plenty of accusations that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons. Some reports lack credibility, like Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV’s insistence that 185 tons of Iranian weapons miraculously made it through the international naval taskforce currently blockading Yemen.

Other stories, like the Iranian dhow that was stopped on route to Yemen in 2013 with a range of advanced equipment, are far more plausibly an example of Iranian weapons shipping.

While one UN Security Council report noted independent verification was unable to confirm the allegations, a more recent, as yet unreleased one, concluded that a pattern of Iranian support had emerged.

Houthi resilience

Nevertheless, a perennial problem with such instances is that the evidence of Iranian involvement often comes from sources that have a vested interest in plugging such a line: whether from the Saudi, Yemeni or American side.

External supplies notwithstanding, an obvious source of weaponry for the Houthis came thanks to a new-found agreement with their erstwhile adversary, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who seemed to support the Houthis in their takeover of Sanaa in autumn 2014.

This gave the Houthis the opportunity to help themselves to an unknown quantity of US weaponry from army bases captured curiously easily.

Overall, the perennial resort to the “Iranian-backed Houthi fighters” logic is problematic as it simplifies the conflict too much and mandates too much of an external focus.

If Iran is the major source of supplies, then an air campaign to destroy stores and interdict resupply might make sense. But this logic is being sorely tested by the complete lack of a collapse of the Houthis (quite the opposite, so far) in the face of the bombing onslaught.

Al-Qaeda ascendant

Similarly, the urgency to combat the Houthis lest some hypothetical Iranian proxy force develops on the Arabian Peninsula means that, as a direct corollary, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has received a free pass to expand its orbit of power.

Recently, the group reinforced its hold on Mukalla in the southern province of Hadramawt taking over an airport, a military base, and a prison, freeing dozens of prisoners including AQAP leaders.

Given that AQAP remains the core US interest in Yemen, such a turn of events will surely have given its leadership pause to reconsider its open support of the Saudi campaign.

It would not be surprising if US cautions about the knock-on effects of the campaign enabling AQAP played a role in Saudi’s announcement on 21 April 2015 that it was ending the air campaign.

But the sense that the Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, are simply winging their policy in Yemen is inescapable.

In lieu of anything approaching a cogent, strategic plan, the short-termist resort of bombing to win does not inspire hope for the near future.

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What does the increasing assertiveness of Persian Gulf states mean for regional security? 15, April 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf, UK, Yemen.
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This article was published by The Daily Telegraph on 15 April 2015. The original can be found here.

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DESERT SHIELD

For much of the past two centuries, security in the Persian Gulf has been underwritten by the Ottomans, the British, or the Americans though a web of treaties, security guarantees, and military bases.

But this is changing.

Irked by the US pivot to Asia, insulted by how quickly America dropped the former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring after decades of support, and incensed by American negotiations with their Shia rival, Iran, the Arab Gulf states are increasingly asserting themselves across the Middle East.

Aside from financially and diplomatically supporting various groups in ongoing regional conflicts just as they have been doing for decades, for the first time, the states are actually using some of their expensively procured military kit in anger.

In Libya, the UAE (alongside Egypt) used their fast-jets to bomb Islamist militias to try to turn the tide of the conflict. Results, though hard to dissemble in the militia-swaddled failed state, appear to have been strategically negligible.

More prominently, Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Arab coalition of 10 states against the Houthi rebels in the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen. Over 1200 bombing sorties have not altered the strategic picture, though over 600 people have been killed, a majority of whom are civilians, thousands have been wounded, over 100,000 displaced, and millions are now without power and water.

Diplomatically too, some of the Gulf states are hardening their positions, adopting a George W Bush-like ‘with us or against us’ strategy.

The (initial) cancellation of negotiations with the Anglo-Dutch oil company BP, the refusal to allow a British nuclear submarine into UAE waters, and halting the use of long-established British military trainers are a part of the UAE’s increasingly forthright pressure on the UK to conform to its policies.

In particular, Abu Dhabi’s leadership is concerned with, from their perspective, the UK’s lax controls on Islamists residing in London and the Government’s wider laissez-faire policy towards groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

A 2014 report into the group commissioned by David Cameron and written by the UK’s top Arabist diplomat was aimed at assuaging such fears, but because it did not come back a damning indictment of the group, it has not been released.

Elsewhere, Saudi Arabia is cashing in its chips. Based on a long, deeply intertwined relationship with Pakistan, the Kingdom called on the Pakistani government to make good on their implicit promises and provide troops for the offensive in Yemen. But the Pakistani parliament unanimously rejected the Saudi request, to anger and threats of reprisals from affronted Gulf states.

A scathing but potentially accurate conclusion might be that Arab states could hardly do a worse job of securing the Persian Gulf region than America and its allies in recent years. But the bloody and ineffectual bombing campaign in Yemen hints that the approach of the region’s indigenous states is hardly more refined or successful.

While America might have been encumbered by a lack of knowledge of the region and its nuances, the Gulf states are equally encumbered by their own prejudices. In particular, the inability of the Sunni states to avoid foisting a sectarian dynamic onto any and all regional problems is depressing.

Certainly, Iran is often an active, difficult, meddling regional state, but it is neither omnipotent nor irrational, and the evidence for its support for the Houthis is patchy at best.

And the heat may well increase for the UK too, caught between two poles. Evidently, there is a desire to maintain historic ties and build military sales, underpinned by the plausible argument that the current set of leaders in the Gulf are as good as it gets without the remotest hint of any viable alternative. But with leaders actively interfering across the region as per their world view, they can be, on occasion at least, difficult to support.

But the British Government has brooked bad press in this regard before; notably by maintaining particularly close relations with Bahrain during its Arab Spring problems, under the credible rubric (as yet not particularly effectively spelled-out) that continued close British relations are essential to gently but effectively shape policy in the longer run.

The December 2014 announcement of a ‘permanent’ British naval base in Bahrain is a symbolic gesture of solidarity from the UK amid these wider, changing circumstances. Now more than ever, as the Arab Gulf states begin to edge to the forefront of maintaining, theoretically at least, regional peace, the British assertion of quiet influence in the Gulf states will be tested.

Qatar to mediate (again) in Yemen 15, July 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar, Yemen.
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Qatar is to attempt to mediate in the Yemeni conflict once more.

Back in 2006-7 Qatari mediators (including the Emir, the Foreign Minister and the Crown Prince) sought to mediate a solution to the Houthi Yemeni conflict. They suggested that the Houthi leaders relocate to Doha (with a nice house and a stipend) and refrain from making any public statements as part of their proposed solution. The Qatari attempts failed. Whilst I had simply assumed that Saudi had, in some way, shape or form, interfered and scuppered the deal, apparently, the Yemeni authorities (and their advisors) thought that Qatar was trying to pursue a line of mediation overly ‘kind’ to the Houthis.

Qatar have a mixed record in mediation. They succeeded in securing a very important medium term solution in Lebanon and are in the midst of mediating (with severe difficulty) in Darfur. Unlike many regional mediators (such as Saudi and Egypt, for example) Qatar can bring a high degree of neutrality to most of their mediations. Additionally, they are relatively cash rich and are willing to use their money to facilitate mediation.

If, therefore, the conflict in Yemen is approaching something that might be described as a ‘ripe moment’ then Qatar may well have the attributes to bring the parties closer.

I look forward to some comments from knowledgeable Yemen people…

Hat tip: Mari

On Yemen’s ‘lawless’ spaces 31, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Yemen.
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The Waq al Waq blog makes an excellent point about Yemen’s “ungovernable/lawless” spaces that policy makers and journalists refer to so frequently, namely that they do not really exist. Rather, these spaces adhere to a different set of laws.

“Most so-called “ungoverned” spaces are in fact alternatively governed, typically by entrenched tribal laws and customs regarding the use of violence, mediation of conflict, and dispensation of justice. Such regions may be “sovereignty free,” but they are rarely Hobbesian.”

I bring this linguistic distinction up because I believe it is incredibly dangerous for policymakers, journalists and analysts to operate on the assumption that these areas in Yemen are indeed “lawless.” That is not the case. But thinking that it is often leads to mistakes of policy and writing, which makes Yemen over into some sort of blank map on which the author’s fantasies and imaginings can be projected.

There are laws and customs here. Just because they are not known does not mean they are not important.

The 60s, the UK and the Yemen 15, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in UK, Yemen.
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This is another link to a fantastic Adam Curtis blog posting. Here he delves into the history of the Yemen and finds it something of a pivotal place with Britain’s actions there in the 60’s having direct and traceable relations to what’s happening today in much more subtle ways that simple ‘Yemen as a failed state’ narrative. It also includes some fascinating BBC archive footage of what is decidedly not Britain’s finest hour.

Al Qaeda: idea or structured organisation? 11, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations.
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I am usually an ardent fan of Bruce Hoffman, one of the world’s leading terrorism experts. However, I have major disagreements with the latest piece that he has written for the Washington Post. The key issue I have with the piece is the overall tone of the article which fosters the idea of Al Qaeda as some kind of highly structured terrorist organisation with research departments, an R&D section, a hierarchy implementing long-term strategic goals and tentacles stretching around the world . My understanding of Al Qaeda is that it is first and foremost an ideology that various people attach themselves to. For sure, there are people who are putative ‘masterminds’ i.e. people who direct others and offer advice or money for attacks, but I don’t believe that these people are part of some hierarchical organisational structure with brain-storming sessions and proverbial headed notepaper.

Hoffman wrote about five elements of Al Qaeda’s new strategy.

First, al-Qaeda is increasingly focused on overwhelming, distracting and exhausting us. To this end, it seeks to flood our already information-overloaded national intelligence systems with myriad threats and background noise. Al-Qaeda hopes we will be so distracted and consumed by all this data that we will overlook key clues, such as those before Christmas that linked Abdulmutallab to an al-Qaeda airline-bombing plot.

This makes it sound like there has been a decision made ‘on high’ disseminated to underlings to increase chatter and distract the enemy; that an actual communication has gone from the proverbial directors, down through middle management and out to the operatives in the field. What seems to be far more likely to me is that hundreds of radicals/terrorists around the world, independent of  structure or orders or organisation (who may well describe themselves as Al Qaeda in the same way as a football fan from Bangkok who has never been to the UK describes themself as a Manchester United fan) are simply communicating in their own little groups. Why must some Machiavellian, evil organisation be behind this?

Second, in the wake of the global financial crisis, al-Qaeda has stepped up a strategy of economic warfare. “Today, al-Qaeda threatens: “We will bankrupt you.” Over the past year, the group has issued statements, videos, audio messages and letters online trumpeting its actions against Western financial systems, even taking credit for the economic crisis.

Again, this conjures images in my head of a board meeting where the Al Qaeda board of directors sit and have a chat over tea and coffee as to a long-term strategy. “Mmmm….I think we should go for a strategy of economic warfare” says one. Just because one guy – even a bonafide Al Qaeda spokesman [grumble, grumble…] – witters on about some strategic plan to bankrupt ‘us’ doesn’t mean that it is not just a simple by-product of usual terrorist tactics.

Third, al-Qaeda is still trying to create divisions within the global alliance arrayed against it by targeting key coalition partners. Terrorist attacks on mass-transit systems in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 were intended to punish Spain and Britain for participating in the war in Iraq and in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and al-Qaeda continues this approach today. During the past two years, serious terrorist plots orchestrated by al-Qaeda’s allies in Pakistan, meant to punish Spain and the Netherlands for participating in the war on terrorism, were thwarted in Barcelona and Amsterdam.

Any terrorist with half a brain could work this out. This is logic 101. Why – again – does this obvious logic need to have been necessarily sent down from on high?

Fourth, al-Qaeda is aggressively seeking out, destabilizing and exploiting failed states and other areas of lawlessness. While the United States remains preoccupied with trying to secure yesterday’s failed state — Afghanistan — al-Qaeda is busy staking out new terrain. The terrorist network sees failing states as providing opportunities to extend its reach, and it conducts local campaigns of subversion to hasten their decline. Over the past year, it has increased its activities in places such as Pakistan, Algeria, the Sahel, Somalia and, in particular, Yemen.

If you are a terrorist and you want space, time and relative freedom to plan, construct and launch your attacks are you going to do this in Europe or a relatively stable Arab country or a country where there is next to no law and order? The choice is obvious and there does not need – again! – to have been some strategic decision taken on-high to relocate “all our assets” to, for example, Yemen.Hoffman also – unforgivably – describes Major Nidal Hassan’s attack at Ford Hood as part of Al Qaeda’s growing variety of attacks which to me is as egregiously wrong as concluding that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  He also finishes with a few useless platitudes and truisms.

Al-Qaeda needs to be utterly destroyed. This will be accomplished not just by killing and capturing terrorists — as we must continue to do — but by breaking the cycle of radicalization and recruitment that sustains the movement.

It seems to me that Al Qaeda is attributed most attacks that occur in the Western hemisphere and practically every attack that targets Westerners even when the evidence that Al Qaeda ‘did it’ often stems from no more than the protagonist ‘visiting Yemen’ for a few days/weeks/months.  The threshold for an attack to be deemed to be ‘by Al Qaeda’ is painfully low. We need to resist the urge to pigeon-hole, tabulate and name every threat in a Western-inspired, orthodox typeset but instead adapt our thinking to understand how things actually are rather than how we think they are.

US aid to Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan 11, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Central Asia, Iraq, Yemen.
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By 2008, nonmilitary [US] aid to Yemen had dwindled to less than $20 million. Afghanistan is expected to receive $2.7 billion a year in nonmilitary aid, Pakistan $1.5 billion and Iraq $500 million.

The administration doubled Yemen’s economic aid last year, but as Barbara K. Bodine, another former ambassador, pointed out, the amount “works out to $1.60 per Yemeni.”

The NYT.

A brief Yemen reader 3, January 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Yemen.
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Everyone who is anyone is, you may have noticed, waxing semi-intellectually about Yemen, or rather The Yemen if you want to sound a bit old school about it. Here’s what you need to read to fake it and join in the conversation.

  • Marc Lynch offering an excellent, tempered overall view.
  • Security crank doing much the same.
  • It didn’t just begin to be a problem on X Mas day you know, as Simon Tisdall and Kristian Ulrichsen sagely elucidated some time ago.
  • A bit of background from Carnegie.
  • A little bit on the Iran link.
  • And the answer from Waq al Waq.

Saudi’s floods and the Yemen conflict 14, December 2009

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The ever-dependable Simon Henderson over at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has a few useful notes in his latest policy brief.

Aside from a brief recap of the basics of Saudi succession (there is no-one better on this topic) Henderson briefly discusses the fall out of the recent floods in Jeddah and there’s also a word or two about their Yemeni conflict. The whole piece is well worth the read, but here are the key interesting bits, as far as I see it.

The Red Sea port of Jeddah is a case in point. The city suffered catastrophic floods on November 25, brought about by torrential rain after a period of drought. (The government had called on the Saudi people to pray for rain.) At least 118 people died, although some estimates put the toll at several times this, with one claiming more than a thousand. Critics see the magnitude of the catastrophe as correlating directly to insufficient investment in public works.

Among the places badly damaged were parts of the new, state-of-the-art King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a pet project of the monarch. In Jeddah itself, the crisis was worsened by lack of drains, even on newly built roads. The sewage system in much of the city is antiquated, relying on basement tanks that are emptied regularly and the contents trucked to Musk Lake (labeled on GoogleEarth), an artificial lake in the hills several miles east of the city. Fears that the earth walls of the lake could collapse have led to the panicked flight of some residents in the likely path of the estimated 30 million cubic meters of mostly untreated sewage. On December 10, it was reported that the Jeddah municipality has banned further dumping into the lake.

Despite claims of successes, the fighting has not been going entirely well for the Saudi forces. At least one small group of special forces has been wiped out by rebel units, and Saudi officials have released the names of nine missing soldiers, including a lieutenant colonel. Online reports indicate that some of the missing have been found in Yemeni territory, a contentious issue because King Abdullah has said no soldiers will cross the border.

The Yemen debacle spills over 21, September 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in The Gulf, Yemen.
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bum bomber

(Abdullah Asiri: the bum bomber [what an ignominious failure…])

You will not find a better or more knowledgeable article tying together the recent assassination attempt in Saudi Arabia (the bum bomb) and the mess currently unfurling in Yemen than the one in the National by Kristian Ulrichsen. Academic journalism at its best.