What now for Yemen?

Al anad air base
Saudi coalition ground forces and southern militias have captured Al Anad airbase.

Today it has been reported that the Saudi-led coalition has managed to take a military base near Lahj in southwest Yemen, and the few flights that were landing in Sana’a airport have been diverted to Aden. All ships heading for Hodeida port have been diverted to Aden port, now under the control of the Saudi-led coalition and local militias. Meanwhile, the Yemeni economy has collapsed under the effect of a Saudi-led blockade that has also caused severe life-threatening shortages of food, fuel, medicines and water. The Houthis have called for peace negotiations, and although the Houthi militias still are present in the southwest area, they have been placed on the back foot by the anti-Houthi coalition that appears to be gaining ground.

As we hear of these significant changes, reactions from Yemenis seem to vary from elation from those who were under siege in the southwest and also those who supported the Saudi coalition’s air strikes, to denial by those who support the Houthis. Those in the northwest, especially the Zaidis, will be feeling very apprehensive if they hear the news that the Houthis are losing ground in the southwest. But the majority, who desperately suffered under multiple wars and a devastating blockade, are hoping that this news means that peace is a little bit nearer. But during this war, many have witnessed deaths of family and friends, and lost homes, jobs, savings, and health; it has heightened the differences between Yemenis and caused many to develop a deep hatred of ‘the Other’.

Although the Houthis are calling for peace negotiations and asking for internationals to act as mediators, the Saudis are only likely to accept a full surrender. The Yemen government, now beholden to Riyadh and still in Saudi Arabia, has always demanded full compliance with UNSC resolution 2216, which calls on the Houthis to leave all the areas it now controls in Yemen. Hadi, the disputed President of Yemen, remains very unpopular, particularly amongst the groups that suffered most in the Saudi-led air assaults, widely reported to be at Hadi’s behest. It is unlikely that Yemenis could all unite around him.

Additionally, new militias have formed during the four months of war, and others have strengthened their position, both in terms of recruitment and control of territory. Al Qaeda, Da’esh and Islah all fought the Houthis, linked by a common bond of anti-Shiism. These militias were also fighting alongside the secessionist militias from Aden and the south, who do not share their religious intolerance, but have a strong anti-North Yemen sentiment. This group of disparate ‘victors’ already had significant differences before the war; it is hard to imagine these will have faded and they will now live in peace together.

Over a million people have been displaced in Yemen during the war; many of these have had their homes destroyed, making it impossible for them to return. But there is also likely to be forced displacement caused by heightened intolerances, based on religious differences or the North/South divide. Many people from the old North Yemen lived and worked in Aden; they may find this impossible in the post-war situation. In large cities like Sana’a, Shia and Sunni lived, worked and worshipped alongside each other; but the effect of war will make them now view their former neighbours with suspicion.

The destruction of the economy and infrastructure will have serious impact on work opportunities, already limited in Yemen prior to war. With no work and little to do, more men will be drawn to militias for employment. There have already been a number of bombs and other attacks by militias in Yemen in the last few months. Unless there is a comprehensive negotiated peace agreement that addresses the real grievances of all Yemenis, but especially addressing the Southern question and the Houthis concerns, and also tackles the reasons behind the growth of extremist Sunni militias, then these sporadic attacks are likely to continue. The Houthis homeland, the area around Saada, has been decimated; if they are forced to retreat, they have nothing to lose. That will make them extremely dangerous as guerrilla fighters, hiding in the mountain areas that they are familiar with, able to make sporadic attacks on those that they believe to be their enemy.

The South, meanwhile, wants an independent homeland. That is the area that contains most of the oil and gas reserves in Yemen. It is unlikely that the North will willingly agree to give them up. And it is even less likely that Saudi Arabia would agree to a tolerant, democratic society developing on its southern border, but perhaps a democratic system is the only thing that could hold Yemen together. It is too early to celebrate victory; the path to peace still has a long way to go.  But at least the first stage of the war is over.


Britain’s role in Yemen: does it need to change?

Britain has a long interest in Yemen; its near century and a half occupation of Aden was important to the British Empire, but particularly Aden was vital in Britain’s lucrative control of the Indian Raj. Britain changed Yemen’s history, and some of those changes still reverberate in the current conflict. For that reason alone, the British government has a responsibility now to Yemeni people; to ensure that any involvement by the international community does not cause Yemeni suffering; to help Yemenis work together to find a meaningful peace; and to provide significant humanitarian aid to ease suffering.

The boundaries of most states in the Middle East were drawn up by colonial powers, and often bear little resemblance to the way the land was used and divided amongst its residents. That was not true of Yemen; although the boundaries between North and South Yemen were decided by the Ottomans and the British in the nineteenth century, the geographic area in the south-west corner of Arabia has existed as the land of Yemen since long before Islamic times; it is referred to many times in the Holy Qur’an. The final boundaries between Saudi and Yemen were only settled in 2000. Yemen’s location is strategic; it sits in the centre of Africa, Europe and Asia, and borders the sea routes between those land masses. Aden has a natural harbour that has been used by seafarers for millennia: it was known to belong to the Kingdom of Aswan that ruled Yemen between seventh and fifth century BC.

When the British India Company settled in Aden in 1839, the Ottomans had already had an interest in Yemen for three hundred years, although they had found the hostile tribes of North Yemen difficult to win over and had not successfully controlled them. The Zaidi Imamate had ruled Yemen for hundreds of years, and saw Aden as within its domain, although it had largely been used by a colony of Indian Ocean sea pirates since the 1700s. The British were looking for a coaling station to fuel its steam ships travelling between Suez and Bombay. After tetchy negotiations with the local sheikh failed, eventually the British took Aden by force, in spite of the Imam’s objections. A mix of bribes and demonstrations of force by the British kept Aden in British control, although hostile tribes were always causing problems. The area was known as the Aden Settlement, part of the Indian Raj.

When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the increase in shipping made Aden into a prosperous port, one of the busiest in the world. The territory was re-organised as a separate Crown Colony of the United Kingdom from 1937, the hinterland becoming a British Protectorate. The British offered little to Yemenis themselves at that time, although some were employed the conditions were tough and they lived in a shanty town in Crater, with only rudimentary medical and educational services. World War Two brought a surge to the fortunes of Aden, with a dramatic rise in its population to over 80,000, only one third were Aden-born Arabs, with others drawn from all over Yemen, plus Indians, Jews and Somalis.

After the war Britain began to lose the lands of its empire, but Aden was a jewel that was worth keeping. The airport at Khormakser was the busiest RAF airport in the world, and only New York and Liverpool received more ships than Aden port. As the local population grew more restive under British occupation, concessions were made in order to try to keep it under British control. The colony acquired a parliament in 1947, and by 1955 some of the members were elected. Permission to establish a trades union was granted in 1942 and 20,000 union members were registered by 1956. There was a large rise in the numbers of school places offered.   After much struggling, Britain managed to get the cosmopolitan Adeni population to join with the Hadramauti tribesmen of east Yemen to form a new Federation of South Arabia


But inevitably, Yemenis became interested in Egypt and the pan-Arabism and anti-Imperialist movement of Nasser. Not only was this a threat to the British, but also to the Imamate in North Yemen, whose relationship with Britain had become more hostile in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually in 1962, with the aid of the Egyptians the Imamate of North Yemen was overthrown and North Yemen became a republic. I have a Yemeni friend who recalls her happy sixties’ childhood in Aden; she does not describe any feelings of oppression due to the British occupation. She recalled that one day when she returned from school, she was having fun singing to herself and playing; she forgot the time and was very late home. The impression from this story is that it was considered normal for small girls to walk home from school alone, demonstrating the perception of safety within the Arab community. Even though Aden was under occupation, her father was able to operate a successful business and also owned property within the city. Similarly, I have heard accounts of British children living in Aden at this time, and their memories of Yemen were invariably positive; for example, the son of a British officer told me that he used to cycle home from Steamer Point to Khormakser late in the evening without ever considering he might encounter problems. So despite the political unrest and occasional uprisings, in the main Aden provided a stable home for its citizens, whatever their origins.

However, the revolution in the north had stirred the desire for independence in the south, and behind the scenes there were ominous developments. Two rival groups, FLOSY (Front for the Liberation of South Yemen) and NLF (National Liberation Front) formed; both of them sought independence, and an armed struggle ensued between these groups as well as attacks on the British. FLOSY was considered to be less violent and had more educated people within its ranks, whereas the NLF was a Marxist paramilitary organisation that grew out of the trades unions. Things got bad enough for the British to suspend the government and impose direct colonial rule in 1965. This however did not stop the downward spiral, and finally the British were forced to leave in November 1967. As FLOSY was considered to be the most popular party, any negotiations that the British had concerning handover of powers tended to be with that group; however, a few months before the British left, the NLF had dramatically risen in popularity, and seized control.

Post-colonisation the South rapidly descended into economic chaos, although this was not caused by the ruling party. The British bases had been a valuable part of the Adeni economy, and because of financial troubles in UK at that time, an operating base was not left in Aden after their departure, leaving a hole in the finances of the fledgling state. And to make matters worse, the closure of the Suez Canal by Egypt after the Six Day War severely affected the traffic calling in to the port. South Yemen, which became known as the PDRY (People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) affiliated with the Soviet Union in 1968 and became the Middle East’s only Marxist state. As part of that process, property was seized and nationalised. Rich landowners and sheikhs fled to Saudi Arabia.

Could Britain have done anything to make the move to independence easier? Britain’s occupation had in many ways provided benefits to the Yemeni community particularly in the last few decades, but it had interrupted the indigenous systems of ruling, and taken away opportunities for self-determination. Part of that was the British ignorance of the ruling systems that had functioned effectively in the Arabian Peninsula before their arrival; the only system of rule they considered was the British system, with them taking on all responsibility for controlling ‘the natives’. What I see is that the rivalries between Yemeni groups with different aspirations that emerged before independence had no proper political channels for dialogue, because Britain had not allowed an effective system of political representation for local populations, apart from a few seats in parliament. So when differences arose, they were addressed through violence.

As in Palestine, trying to control the rivalries between groups took up so much time that there were no opportunities to hand over properly, and like in Palestine, when the British eventually left they did so in a hurry, leaving the warring factions behind them.

Yemen did not join the Commonwealth, and so unfortunately ties between the two countries did not continue. That is a pity; I was at first surprised by the warmth felt towards Britain by Yemenis, especially those from Aden. The mementos of British rule remained; the statue of Queen Victoria still undamaged placed in a small green park near the old port; the rows of army barracks, now turned into homes for local people; the many grand Victorian buildings from Empire days, in need of restoration but still exuding an aura of power and stability. The church, in a style found in many English villages, still stood strong; it had been damaged by the North during the civil war, but lovingly restored to its former state. The British graves left there were carefully tended. Many Adeni people told me that they considered Aden’s finest hour was when it was ruled by Britain.

I was shocked at the suddenness of the air bombardment by the Saudi Coalition. And I was more shocked when the Britain government stood by; allowing the devastating attacks on Yemen to continue without protest. As Yemeni civilians died, and as their country was bought to its knees in a few short weeks by a savage bombing, the defense secretary Philip Hammond stated that the British government would do everything to support the attacks, short of combat. I believe our shared history means Britain has a moral responsibility to be more active in promoting peace between the warring factions.

The UK government has been active in selling planes to Saudi Arabia. Many people believe the British government restricts sales to repressive regimes; this was true but was changed quietly without parliamentary approval in 2014 and the government now sells to anyone unless there is risk the weapons might be used in violation of the law. Before this change, UK deals include a £4.4 billion in the Salam ‘peace’ project in 2007, for 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, and a £1.6 billion BAE contract in 2012 to train the Saudi air force and provide 22 BAE Hawk jets. Government spokespersons have excused this, stating that if we didn’t do so, others would.

Saudi Arabia has no UN mandate for aerial bombardment of Yemen; they have bombed areas where civilians likely to be found; markets, a displaced person camp, schools and hospitals. They have also damaged infrastructure such as water tanks putting lives at risk, and the Saudi led blockade has put the civilian population at risk. Additionally, Oxfam has pointed to the use of illegal weapons by the Saudi coalition. According to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, UK made war planes are playing a central role in Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen. In July 2015, after reports of extensive civilian deaths and severe damage to infrastructure and historic buildings, it was reported that Paveway IV bombs, made by Raytheon, were diverted from the RAF to Saudi for use in Yemen. Experts have estimated that even if hostilities cease now, it will take a hundred years for Yemen to recover. It is time for the British government to make a stand and promote peace in Yemen. This conflict cannot be resolved by war. The Middle East has enough weapons, and what Yemen urgently needs is humanitarian aid.

What now for Aden?

aden airport recaptured

There was dramatic news last night of a change in Aden as twitter was alive with messages, with many Arab news websites carrying stories of the recapture of the airport.  This was grandly named “the Operation Golden Arrow for the Liberation of Aden”.  Those from the south are delighted.

I haven’t been able to find any commentary on this latest news in Yemen this morning, so here goes, my view. This has to be hopeful news in the short term for the Adeni people who have suffered under double siege by Houthi militias and Saudi Arabia – and also suffered from multi-pronged attacks, with heavy militia activity plus aerial bombardment from the Saudi led coalition – there is now hope of assistance arriving in Aden, and the fighting may be less intense. I had a lot of messages on Twitter yesterday evening and some with speculation – for example, I even had pictures of military machines entering Aden port but this morning I read that it is still an area of intense fighting, and also I read stories of Saleh fleeing, but can’t find confirmation of that this morning either. It will be easier to deliver humanitarian aid with the airport open; those now with control over the airport will presumably want to win friends by making this possible. These changes mean that much needed cash might also be available in Aden – the banking system in Aden had closed down and institutions like MoneyGram were no longer functioning making the economic situation impossible for Adeni people under siege. The World Heath Organisation also managed to bring in a shipment of medical supplies on Saturday, the hospitals in Aden had virtually no supplies left before that arrived. So good news in the short term.

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Aden celebrates as Houthi militias are driven from the airport

In the longer term, Aden has suffered more infrastructure damage than most cities in Yemen, virtually all businesses have closed down, all institutions have closed and many irreversibly damaged, most hospitals have closed (and the few still functioning closed to everything except emergencies due to direct effects of conflict). International organisations have left; there is no certainty that they will return soon. It is extremely unlikely that Southerners will get the independence from the North that they desired from soon after the unification in 1990, when they believed that the North had stitched them up and they had a very poor deal, and they believed with much justification that the North did not keep to any of the promises they made. ??ex ??President Hadi, the one who apparently agreed to Saudi air strikes in his quest to keep control is said to be in control of this recapture of Aden – at least, that’s what his masters in Saudi Arabia tell us. So with his appearance, Southern hopes of independence are indeed challenged. And the war is not over yet. Sana’a has been wracked with bombs overnight – they were promised – or maybe the right word is threatened – two hundred would fall on Sana’a in the last 24 hours. And Aden now will inevitably fall under Saudi influence, it’s more open, tolerant society, its enthusiasm for education, all under threat.

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As excited Adenis celebrate, their desired independence is still a distant dream

Fighting continues in most of Yemen including Aden, whilst most ordinary life in Yemen has stopped, the infrastructure damaged so severely that it will take several generations before life as before is nearly possible.  There will be recriminations, newly fostered hatreds, and power struggles in Aden – and Yemen as a whole even after fighting stops –  Yemen and Aden are still  a long way from peace. We should not get carried away and think this is the beginning of the end, for Aden or elsewhere in this troubled land.   The coalition fighting the Houthis in the south west consists of groups with very different agendas – the Al Hirak secessionists, the Islah militias, Al Qaeda militias, Da’esh militias, the troops still loyal to Hadi, amongst them the forces of Brigadier General Ali Muhsin Al Ahmer, himself a Salafist with a radical Islamic agenda, and of course, Saudi Arabia. To say nothing of Western interests, including United States and Britain.  If they are indeed victorious in the south west, the next stage will be when they all have to decide whose agenda is going to be put into action, and that will be far from easy.  And we can’t presume that the Houthi fighters, if fully defeated, will just go away and leave Aden alone. Everyone will want a reward for their own costs in this bloody and expensive war.  Their divisions may well be irreconcilable.