Yemen as exemplar – Re-published 7 June 2018

"Yemeni Shi'ite Muslim Houthi fighters backed by government forces drove the local wing of al Qaeda from one of its last strongholds in central Yemen on Friday in intense fighting that killed at least 35 people, tribal sources said.

The Houthis' Ansarullah movement has become the main political force in Western-allied Yemen since capturing Sanaa in September and then pushing south and west into the Sunni Muslim heartland of al-Bayda province, where Ansar al-Sharia has allied itself with local tribes. 

Yemen has been in turmoil since 2011, to the dismay of neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, and of the Western powers who want to prevent instability in the Arabian peninsula threatening their crude supplies or giving al Qaeda a base for overseas attacks. 

Tribal sources said the Houthis had met stiff resistance as they pushed towards the village of Khobza district using Katuysha rockets and heavy artillery. 

They said at least 25 Houthis and 10 Ansar al-Sharia and tribal fighters had died in the fighting, which began on Thursday afternoon. Ansar al-Sharia and its allies withdrew to Yakla district, on the border with Maarib province."  Reuters


Full disclosure – I was once DEFATT in Yemen at Sanaa.

 A primer on some aspects of Yemen:

– Zeidi (fiver) Shia  Muslims are so conservative (restrained) religiously that they are sometimes thought of as a fifth Sunni mathab.  Their theology and general view of the religious sciences follow the mu'tazilite tradition.  They are quite distinct from and have little allegiance to the 12er Shia in Iran, Lebanon and other scattered places.

– From a few miles south of Sanaa to the northern reaches of the country where it "borders" Saudi Arabia the country is almost altogether Zeidi Shia in population.  Those people are tough little mountaineers, who are extremely tribal in their lives and who are generally aligned in two major tribal confederations, the Baqil and the Hashid.  These tribal confederations are the real power in Yemen north of Sanaa.  they possess a lot of military equipment that was mainly stolen from the government when officers who are members of these confederations defected back to their true allegiance taking their gear and often soldiers with them.

– The former president, Ali Abdullah Salih, was a Zeidi tribesman of the Sanhan minor tribe of the Hashid confederation.

 - From Sanaa south, Yemen is primarily inhabited by much less tribal villagers who are Sunni and usually of the shafa'i mathab.  These folks are the recruiting ground for AQAP, Ansar al-Sharia and similar Sunni salafi jihadi groups for whom the Zaidi tribesmen of the north are just another kind of murtadoon (heretics) to be fought to the death.

– Further complicating the mozaic of groups that is Yemen is the lingering effect of British possession of the Aden crown colony for many years.  In the course of that period a lot of Yemenis from Aden attended such schools as the London School of Economics where they became  both atheistical  and left wing politically.  Such people are still on the scene in the cities and continue to be active in the government of a united Yemen.

– The Houthis are a Zeidi Shia reformist movement that draws solely on the Zeidi population of the north.  It does not have and cannot have any friendly relations with the Sunni jihadi groups of the south.  The movement started in the al-houthi clan and has since spread to the two major confederations of Zeidi tribesmen.  The Houthis as a cult prefer not to fight if it can be avoided and captured the capital, Sanaa, with very little violence.  Salih, a Zeidi tribesman understandably sides with the Houthis as opposed to the Sunni, left oriented people now running the government of the United Yemen.

– A government of national unity has been formed among; the Houthis and their army, the national army and the nationalist/left dominated functionaries now in office in Sanaa.  This coalition is actively and successfully fighting the Sunni jihadis.

The US government response to all this is to denounce the Houthis and Salih as interfering with stability and the integrity of the Yemeni state.  This reflects the ignorant, obsessive, insistence of the American foreign policy establishment that "one size fits all" in terms of the norms of governance across the world with the implication that the US embassies in such countries as Yemen are actually pro-consular outposts from which the ambassador/governor guides and controls the province/country in which he/she is located.  When this attitude, derived from notions of "exceptionalism," is accompanied by the IR/Poly Sci paradigm of foreign relations now so evident in the US government, the result is the noxious self-defeating  environment in which US decisions are now made.  pl


Translation of the Houthi logo:

"God is Great

Death to America

Death to Israel

Rejection by God of the Jews

Victory for Islam."


You should not take the words in this too seriously.  This is standard populist cant in the Muslim World.  pl


This entry was posted in As The Borg Turns, government, Iran, Lebanon, Middle East, Policy, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Yemen. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Yemen as exemplar – Re-published 7 June 2018

  1. The beaver says:

    “The US government response to all this is to denounce the Houthis and Salih as interfering with stability and the integrity of the Yemeni state”
    Reporting on what being said in Brisbane, Matthew Lee the journos reporting on the travails of the UNSC has this to say:
    [Obama did not say countries should not interfere, militarily, in other countries. If a country is not a democracy, apparently, one can intervene, as long as it is not to stoke separatism. Are those the new rules?
    The US “train and equip mission” on Syria came to mind. Those are proxies, but are they allowed under Obama’s new rules? On Syria Obama said that eventually there will have to be a political solution including Syria’s neighbors like Turkey and Iran, and “Assad’s patron,” Russia.]

  2. makosog says:

    Col. Lang, could the Yemeni model be replicated on the other Arab states? If so, it could lead on the stabilization of the Mid east.

  3. b says:

    slighly related: Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen writes about a kidnappung attempt there
    My Last Day In Yemen

    To kick out Saleh was on of the worst decisions the U.S. took. He was needed to keep up the balance. Then Hadi was “elected” as the only candidate and only a “yes” but no “no” field on the ballot. Some U.S. driven UN GCC committee was set up to find a new constitution. It ended in squabbles.
    The Houti now have an alliance with Hadi to clean up the chaotic mess that was created in Sanaa and elsewhere when Saleh was kicked out. They are so far pretty successful.
    But the somehow the Saudis and the U.S. do not like this. o the UNSC put sanctions on Houtis and Sanleh which no one in Yemen, certainly not president Hadi, can or will ever implement.
    Meanwhile U.S. drones fire again at some “Al-Qaeda” Sunni tribals and add to the outrage and revenge cycles.
    To what purpose does the U.S. do such nonsense?

  4. turcopolier says:

    The US supported Salih throughout the period of his reign that lasted from the time he took power in an assassination plot in the mid 70s until the idealists gained sway in the Obama Administration. His government was very useful in the Cold War. pl

  5. turcopolier says:

    You keep hoping that these folks throughout the region will be something other than what they are. They will not. there is no Yemeni model. There are only the facts of life in Yemen. pl

  6. Aka says:

    The beaver ,
    ” If a country is not a democracy, apparently, one can intervene, as long as it is not to stoke separatism. Are those the new rules?”
    I’m sure Russians and the Chinese are listening real closely. And who defines what democracy is? state department or the white house?
    BTW did you knew that the Economist has listed France as a flawed democracy.

  7. Origin says:

    A bit off topic. Who was the author of the book about Islam you have often recommended to the Committee?

  8. Abu Sinan says:

    Great analysis. My wife’s mother is Zaidi from Sana’a and her father is Sunni from Taiz. The Zaidi have been an effective fighting force against AQAP. It is short sighted of us not to support this. I wonder if those making our policy realise the difference between Zaidis and the 12ers in places like Iran and Lebanon? In Yemen many of the Sunnis also accuse the Zaidi of being in bed with Iran, but many 12ers dont even think Zaidi are really Shi’a. They are too Shi’a for the Sunni and not Shi’a enough for the 12ers.
    AQAP is strking back when and were it can. They recently killed a respected leader in the community, one known to my wife’s family. Mohammed Abdel Malek al-Mutawakel. They view it as a great loss.

  9. Thanks P.L.! Very informative! What is your take on the usage of KAT in Yemen?

  10. turcopolier says:

    Someone now working for an “international organization” in Yemen wrote to tell me that I do not understand the new Yemen. Interesting
    When I first went to Yemen in 1979 to serve in the embassy I was briefed all over Washington by State Department, CIA, various academics and other cats and dogs. They all had the same thing to say. This was that tribalism, sectarianism and a generally medieval view of the world were a thing of the past in Yemen, that a new day was dawning in the mountains of SW Arabia and I should hang out with the progressive people when I arrived there. When I arrived I found that there were damned few progressive people in Yemen. Among the few was a former vice president of the World Bank. He was in his sixties and I had the opportunity while there to attend his wedding festivities as he married a twelve year old girl. In fact Yemen was nothing but tribes and medieval Islam. I have been back any number of times and it does not change. pl

  11. turcopolier says:

    Qat? A national addiction, people are generally stoned by four in the afternoon. then they drink whiskey to come down. A lot of Yemenis would buy Qat rather than shoes for their children if forced to make a choice. pl

  12. The beaver says:

    I guess, being an International Civil Servantin an I.O and living in a guest house of some friendly Embassies or in a subsidised house/apt in a gated compound , must give one that sense that they are there with the “lambda Yemeni”. Wonder who does his/her shopping or if he or she meets the local farmer at the market or drives his/her own car (would like to see that) 🙂
    “New Yemen”, yep when one lives in and with the country club mentality and has full escort or a security guard when they have to be with the mass

  13. The beaver says:

    @ Aka
    Reason that France is a Republic ( even with the aristo in Neuilly or Paris 16) and there is still a class system in the UK, what with the House of Lords or Public schools ( which are really) and only a % can afford to own a house in London.
    The Economist sees fault in any country on the continent.

  14. Aka says:

    dear Colonel and Beaver,
    many of the people who works with IO (local NGOs, International NGOs) and even foreign embassies mingles with a certain pro-western (pseudo?) liberal crowd who themselves wouldn’t know the pulse of their countryman. Even if this crowd knew, they may alter the reality to suit their own agenda.
    For a example after going through wiki-leaks about my country I found out that the political sources seems to consist of the above mentioned crowd (who’s opinions are treated like horsesh#t by the majority of the local population). What they tell is their version of the truth. And also they were some highly doubtful reports even from government officials who didn’t seems trustworthy as much as the US embassy thought them to be.

  15. MartinJ says:

    Abu Sinan.
    The likelihood is that former president Saleh ordered the murder of Dr al-Mutawakkel. Most of the AQ in Yemen are funded and directed by him or by his cousin General Ali Muhsin apart from a few people. With this killing he is trying to foment a sectarian war. His rule was always built upon creating chaos.
    Most of the AQ activity we see in the media is actually Saleh’s thugs killing rivals from the security and particularly intelligence service that are not loyal to him.

  16. b says:

    President Hadi announced today that “Ansar Allah are now our partners”. The UN pressed by the U.S. just sanctioned Ansar Allah (Houti militia).
    Hadi’s term in office will officially run out in 45 days. There is no process or resources available for any “election” of a new one.

    @Pat – the people that tell you Yemen changed likely never left Sanaa.
    Haykal Bafana, a Yemeni lawyer and consultant in
    Sanaa tweets as @BaFana3 and (seldom) blogs at
    Some of his from two days ago:
    Sanaa is a small bubble of different norms from most other parts of #Yemen : women sit in cafes with men, drive cars & lead public lives.
    But drive half an hour out from Sanaa, and this pocket of seemingly modern life disappears.
    Women are not evident in public life outside Sanaa, a glaringly obvious phenomenon in the vast majority of Yemeni villages, towns & cities.
    Just like Sanaa, Aden city in the south is another pocket of differing norms from its surrounding hinterlands where customs are suspended.

  17. turcopolier says:

    And, IMO, it has not changed since then. I spent a lot of time wandering around the countryside both north and south of Sanaa. It was something like being in Indian Country during the Indian wars in the American West. pl

  18. turcopolier says:

    I would not for a moment dispute the thought of Salih double-dealing and lying his way out of almost any situation. when I lived there he routinely murdered any and all who opposed him including his own cabinet ministers if necessary. On the other hand I doubt that you will find anyone better with whom to replace him. It is that kind of place. Do you live in Sanaa or Aden? pl

  19. The beaver says:

    Wanna get a good laugh from some Journo who may be looking for a position at the UN in the Communication dept:
    [quote]Samantha Power has landed such heavy rhetorical blows on her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, that he is regularly knocked off balance.[eoq]
    Yeah right when Jeffrey Feltman is the real boss at the UN and whether it is Ban Ki Moon or Power, they don’t” parrot’ before getting the blessing from the boss himself.

  20. Origin says:

    Thank you!

  21. MartinJ says:

    Yemen is in this mess precisely because Saleh’s model of governance (patronage to tribes and opponents based on oil revenues) started collapsing in 2004 with his first war against the Huthis. In 2007 the South started to demand separation. The rest of the country joined in by 2011. He simply couldn’t afford to pay everyone off.
    Yemen’s population went from 12m in 1990 to perhaps 30m today. The oil has all but run out. Saleh failed six times to crush the Huthis. He’s had better luck in the South. But his usefulness as a cold war ally has passed. He re-invented himself as a man to fight AQ post 2001 but every time AQ went silent US money dried up. This kind of short sighted policy led Saleh to encourage AQ attacks in order to make up the shortfall in revenue from oil.
    Now we have a situation where the US is involved in a never ending drone war against AQ characters that Saleh encourages. Madness. The Saudis lack of engagement is second only to US lack of concern for anything other than access to drone AQ. Into this void has stepped Iran. Both North and South.
    Saleh’s perfidy and the utterly unsustainable kleptocracy he set up have done for him. Now the Huthis are in control and they seem deadly serious about taking on AQ, taking on corruption, and establishing security. In many ways they are better partners for the US war on AQ than Saleh’s model. The small problem being that they’re close to Iran and their neighbours don’t like that one bit.

  22. turcopolier says:

    When I was there Salih was in his 4th or 5th year in power and Yemeni oil was just a rumor among exploration companies that were trying to find oil in the east in an ambient situation that was tribally insecure (Sunni not Zeidi). At the same time Salih faced massive tribal hostility from the Hashid confederation north of Sanaa and the truly massive threat of the NDF insurgency. He coped with that well. pl

  23. Haralambos says:

    All, this is from a friend in the area:
    I cannot asses its accuracy. Does anyone want/care to weigh in on this?

  24. MartinJ says:

    Agreed. He was very successful in bringing the Hashid together, defeating the insurgency and unifying North and South. But he’s lost his touch. He’s sprightly for a man in his 70s who starts on his whisky at 1pm and he’s been there since 1978. And yet… he lost his bargain with the elites around him in Hashid, in his own family, as well as losing the periphery of his country. He’s still powerful but there is a new sheriff in town. A different tribe with a different chief – but ultimately same Zaydi sect, same mentality, same way of doing business.
    How will the US and Gulf cope with this change that isn’t really a change? The key problem is Iranian sponsorship. The Saudis have to make peace with the Huthis and outbid them. But they’re too divided internally and too consumed by Iraq and Syria to focus on the age old anarchic mess to their south.

  25. confusedponderer says:

    re “The small problem being that they’re close to Iran and their neighbours don’t like that one bit.”
    => They are quite distinct from and have little allegiance to the 12er Shia in Iran, Lebanon and other scattered places.
    There is closeness by degree, some sorts of closeness being lesser than others. I recall AQ being linked to Iraq, because one operative was hiding out in Kurdish controlled north (out of Saddam’s reach and certainly without his consent, much less cooperation) – thus the two being ‘linked’. So let us unduly generous and say that they were linked (if only by virtue of having put into one sentence), but close?
    Point is, when the Houthis are surrounded by enemies to whom they are murthadoon. They can’t be picky about their allies. So when they take Iranian aid that may be just because there is nobody else to help them. That doesn’t mean they are an ‘Iranian proxy’.
    It’s a little as with Nicaragua back in the day. They wanted to buy CAS aircraft to fight the Contras and went to iirc Italy because they wanted to buy aircraft (iirc the MB325). Point is, the US pressured Italy, and any other western governments, not to sell to the Nicaraguans, which they then didn’t. So the Nicaraguans went to the Russians. To the US proof that they were dealing with Commies all the time.
    Given that the US are AQ’s far and preferred enemy, the US should be happy about the Houthis taking on AQ.
    To the US, Iran is probably the only country with whom they have actual mutual interests as far as fighting Islamist terrorism is concerned. The US allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE) – Oman and Jordan being the probable exceptions – support Islamist head chopper types. The Saudis in particular think they can keep them as pets, and of late, so does Turkey.
    After all, AQ is just who the US have been drone striking for what by now must be a decade or so.
    If the US chose to end their hostility towards Iran, they would have snubbed the Saudis and the UAE, not to mention the Israelis, but then – who is it again that these countries have been funding for decades? And why again is Iran a problem for Israel?
    Why should the US be all that interested in who the Saudis and the other Gulfies choose, to good extent motivated by tribal and religious bias, to be inferior and to be an enemy? I mean, by Wahhabi standards, who isn’t? Why should the US be interested whom Israel targets as an obstacle in the way of their project of territorial expansion and to become the military hegemon in the Middle East?
    I think that the US in the Middle East is on a fools errand for as long as they allow themselves to be instrumentalised to fight other people’s wars for other people’s animosities and ends (and I again explicitly include in that list, Israel).

  26. confusedponderer says:

    It sets off my alarm bells by
    (a) citing Walid Shoebat,
    (b) as reporting “Obama sent a letter of appeasement to Iran’s Ayatollah”
    (c) the floating headlines, particularly “the New Congress will not kill a bad nuke deal with Iran”,
    (d) the assertion that Iran wants
    (d)(1) to annex Iraq,
    (d)(2) collaborates with Turkey on removing Assad
    I’d be taking every word in that article with great caution.

  27. The beaver says:

    @ Haralambos
    Is you friend the author of the article or is he just referring this article to you?
    Shoebat is like Daniel Pipes or Pam Geller and I doubt their views or opinions. They don’t do due diligence when they “report” since they have a religious agenda.

  28. Aka says:

    dear Colonel,
    I would like to pose a question out of sheer curiosity, what came to your mind when you found out that the supposed “progressive” was marrying a 12 year old girl?

  29. Aka says:

    So Iran wants ISIS to topple Assad, weaken Iraq so they (Iranians) can annex Iraq and then fight ISIS in Iraq?

  30. turcopolier says:

    I had long before stopped believing what people said about themselves (emic information). So, I was not surprised. pl

  31. Babak Makkinejad says:

    EU is also in a fool’s fool’s errand in the Middle East.

  32. confusedponderer says:

    Ah, in the Austrian museum of military history they showed the trophy stick with the aerial victories of WW-II ace Gordon Gollob. The inscription was, roughly: “This belonged to the Austrian pilot Gordon Gollob who served in the German Air Force during WW-II”.
    Probably by accident. Just like Hitler was a German who happened to be born and grown up in Austria. The country just happened to be around Germany at the time of World War II. A most peculiar coincidence.

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