Sana’a – a city in waiting.

Old City Sana'a; continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.
Old City Sana’a; continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.

Every day, I look for the latest news for my Facebook page, which does what it says – it provides the daily news headlines from various sources, showing a wide perspective on this catastrophic conflict in Yemen today. As the war intensifies, I’m finding more and more articles every day, most of them from Middle East sources; I am having to be selective. As someone who lived in Sana’a and felt it a privilege to be part of this ancient civilisation for a while, it is more and more depressing as I find articles showing me that Yemen is rapidly being destroyed by air strikes and militia activities, and Yemenis are suffering under a comprehensive blockade of food, petrol and aid, that even prevents them from running to safety. And now, as I read the news, I see this devastation is likely to move towards the capital, Sana’a.

Something else is happening. Every day, I have more and more Sana’ani people asking me to be their Facebook friend; people from all walks of life. University lecturers. An army officer. A few journalists. Some retired people. An unemployed engineer. Civil servants. An author. It is almost as if Sana’anis feel more secure if they have someone to contact from outside Sana’a; someone they think will pass on their story. They tell me about themselves and send me photos of their children. Some tell me of their financial problems accruing as the war goes on into its sixth month. They share their worries; the lack of education for their children, their insecurities concerning ongoing employment, the problems that arise when someone in their family needs health care. They tell me how they are managing their lives without electricity, and the challenges in providing food for their families – and most crucially, water. They share their thoughts on the war. Their views cross the spectrum of opinion, from those who still even now fully support the aerial bombardment in Sana’a, saying that whatever the cost, the Houthis must be dislodged. But most are tired of the non-stop assaults, the night and day explosions, the dust, the smell of war, the fear as bombs explode near their homes, the worry that they might be the next victim. Some are highly critical of Saudi Arabia or the Houthis; most are critical of all fighting forces; others make no comment. One said that he didn’t care who ruled Yemen as long as the war would stop; he wouldn’t even care if it was Israel. Very few tell me of their political leanings, although I can sometimes guess. Some tell me about the effects of the bombardment on their families, and on their own health. Most tell me of their fears for their future and their city. They are already weakened by six months of siege. I have been impressed with their courage and resilience.

Despite a prolonged aerial bombardment that has destroyed homes and infrastructure, Sana’a has not yet experienced fighting on the ground, but the inhabitants already know what happens elsewhere as militias and armies meet in conflict. They have heard so many stories of devastation. Fighting street by street means sniping, missile strikes, landmines, personal attacks, kidnapping, lynching, arson and looting – plus a continuation of the aerial attacks. One on hand, the Houthis and the Yemen army loyal to ex-President Saleh; on the other, militias including extremist Sunni militias – Islah, Al Qaeda and Da’esh, the army loyal to President Hadi, and the foreign troops of the Saudi-led coalition. In the modern context of war, cities have apparently had to be destroyed in order to save them, never mind that people have worked and saved for decades in order to create a home for their families. The losses have included many sites of historical importance, many of them bombed in air strikes that accompanied fighting on the ground. The Houthi alliance has been driven from Aden – the first city where the militias and armies met in combat – but weeks after the Houthi and Saleh alliance left it still has no governance; most of this port city is now ruled by militias, and some of them are fighting each other. Fifty percent of housing stock was destroyed in Aden; much of that remaining is also damaged. Landmines have been left behind everywhere. During the active fighting phase, food is inevitably in very short supply, people run out of money and cannot access banks, and those with cash in their homes often have it stolen by militias, many of whom are unpaid. Humanitarian agencies find working conditions extremely challenging and can only offer very limited assistance. Getting to a hospital if ill or injured is sometimes impossible, and always challenging due to lack of petrol, plus active warfare in the immediate vicinity. Phones and computers cannot be used. Illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever and water-borne diseases become endemic. This pattern of devastation in Aden followed in other cities as they one after another fell victim to ground war; the city of Lahj hardly has any building left standing; now Taiz, Hodeida and Marib are experiencing their share of this merciless conflict. Whilst the UN, the ICRC, Oxfam, Human Rights Watch, MSF and others put out desperate warnings as cities are besieged, hospitals close and children starve, these stories rarely make front page news and Western politicians ignore what is happening as if Yemen doesn’t exist. These are the forerunners that Sana’ani people stare at in horror, as they wait to find their own fate.

Destruction in Aden
Destruction in Aden – will this be the fate of Sana’a?

As the war seems to creep ever closer go the capital city, I can’t help but reminisce about my happy times there; I lived in an old part of Sana’a called Al Qaa, 20 minutes’ walk from the Old City; a city constantly inhabited for over 2,500 years. Not just the buildings, but also the knowledge of a way of life is held within it; if Old Sana’a is destroyed, with it will be a loss of the accumulated knowing of ancient ways that will be a tragedy for all humankind. This is a world UNESCO site, already severely damaged by recent coalition bomb strikes, with some of its ancient multi-story homes pulverised to dust, its civilian inhabitants killed. But when I lived there it was perfection; each symmetrical building exactly in tune with its ancient neighbour, as if some master planner had set out to design a paradise that fitted exactly within its rugged mountain landscape. There are 6,500 buildings that originated before the eleventh century, with mosques, bathhouses, a souk, and vegetable gardens, the whole city surrounded by an ancient wall. The soft brown buildings have ornate white gypsum embellishments and alabaster windows. Above each window is a gomeria, a fanlight of coloured glass. We loved to go there after nightfall and it was like walking around fairyland; the soft coloured lights from the gomerias illuminated the quiet streets for us. The history seeped into our souls as we explored those narrow lanes, and as we passed between the tall ancient buildings we always felt at peace; man and nature in perfect harmony. This is a precious, unique jewel that the world should cherish.

old city at night
Old City of Sana’a at night – like fairyland.

Most of all I think about the people who are still there. My neighbour Saeda looked after me as if she was my mother; one day I accidentally left my front door open when I went to work, but she entered, bolted the door behind her, and climbed over the back wall to get into her home so that my house was secure. Mohammed and Hassan were two very reliable guards at my workplace who unfailingly went about their duties with dignity and patience, and never complained despite their long hours of duty. Aziza, my hardworking English teacher, whose hospitable family cooked the most delicious food; a meat stew called salta, and a soft pastry with honey called bint sahn. My friend Ibtesam only spoke Arabic, so forced me to practice my hesitant language skills whilst we went on outings to explore Sana’a’s many ancient attractions. Sofia, then a small toddler, now an intelligent nine years old, who climbed up to her open window to wait for me when I visited her family, calling out my name whenever I came into sight. Ali was a pharmacist, who took me to visit his home village, and whose wife insisted on giving me her wedding dress as a gift. A female journalist interviewee told me that her ambition was to become the president of Yemen. A colleague, Eman had dedicated her life to caring for children with learning difficulties, and then despite having no sports training experience, she was persuaded to take on the training the Yemeni para-Olympic team, that ended up winning far more medals than their non-disabled counterparts. And there are so many more to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for their friendship and gracious support. They all knew this was where they belonged; they had a sense of place, an awareness and confidence that came from being part of this ancient culture, this land that was not carved by invaders, but has existed with more or less the same boundaries for more than ten thousand years. I recognised their pride in being Yemeni. All of the time I lived in Sanaa, despite its poverty, I never met anyone who wanted to leave.

Now they all want to leave, but where can they go? Queues are five kilometres long outside petrol stations, and anyway, the petrol pumps are empty. It’s too hot and dry to walk. Villages nearby are safer but have no access to water or food. Most routes out of Sana’a are blocked by war; in Hadramaut to the East they have long been suspicious of their northern counterparts, but now with influences from the expanding extremist Sunni militias, Hadramautis have already decided that they will not allow displaced people from Sana’a to seek refuge; they are also blocking the refugee route through Hadramaut to Oman. Aden, having itself suffered an unimaginably cruel blockade and war, now bans all northerners from entering their city, and even bans southerners who have been living and working in Sana’a from going there. So Sana’anis are trapped, forced to stay in their homes whatever the danger, waiting to see what the worst will mean for them. Unlike most other Yemeni cities which have largely homogenous population, Sana’a has attracted people from all over Yemen to live and work there. The previously religiously tolerant and generous Yemeni population that lived, worked and prayed side by side in peace is already becoming polarised and suspicious – neighbours are learning not to trust each other. The government, now just about functioning, will have to cease – anarchy and militia rule is likely to be the outcome.

It is hard to see how things can be improved. The exiled Hadi, himself living in luxury in Riyadh far away from conflict, is stating that he will not attend UN brokered peace talks. This, despite the UN special envoy stating that a solution is very near; the Houthi/Saleh alliance have already conceded most of what Hadi demanded. It will be much better for Sanaa and its people – and Yemen – to have a peaceful passage of government from one ruling group to another, rather than a military battle and victory that will inevitably destroy the administrative processes leading to chaos.   As my friends in Sana’a keep saying, please pray for us. It is perhaps the only thing that we can do.

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.

The Strange Relationship between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni tribes.

Saudi is the only country in the world named after a family – the Sauds, from the Nejd region in the middle of Arabia.  They were motivated by religious Wahhabi zeal and from 1902 the Saudi tribes started to capture much of the Arabian peninsula, which Abdulaziz Al-Saud declared to be a kingdom in 1932; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  After the discovery of oil, the tribes were rapidly pulled into the modern day. A comfortable life afforded by wealth from its large oil reserves softened the tribes who became used to a very different way of life.  Instead of fighting for power, for over 80 years Saudi maintained its position by use of its wealth to buy friends and influence, and relied on a pact with USA to defend the kingdom against any dangers.

king abdulaziz al saud
King Abdulaziz Al Saud

Historically, the wealth in Arabia had been generated in the south west of the peninsula, in the areas that became known as North Yemen plus the Aden area; mountainous, with a higher rainfall and able to grow crops especially coffee that generated a high income, Yemen also controlled land trade routes of valuable commodities such as frankincense, whilst the ports of Aden and Mocha controlled the trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe.  They were the most sophisticated and cultured people in the peninsula, with comparatively large urban conurbations and distinctive architecture.

Dar al Hajjar2
Stunning and sophisticated architecture of Yemen

The area was guarded by the mountain tribes that originated from the north of Yemen, who were notorious warriors who knew the mountain terrain and were able to defend their position for a millennium; adventurers such as the Ottomans found it impossible to control them. The largest of these was the Hashids, and the other important large tribe was the Bakils whose ancestral home was in Saada near to the Saudi border.  Yemen was ruled for one thousand years by an Imamate, whose ruler was drawn from the Bakil tribe; in recent decades was known as the Mutawakkilite kingdom.  The last 150 years of the Imamate were spent trying to recapture Aden which was occupied by the British since 1839, developing Aden as a Crown Colony.

Imam Ahmed bin Yahya
Imam Ahmed bin Yayha 1891-1962

The autocratic, unpredictable and conservative Imam Ahmed died in 1962 and his son Muhammed Al Badr was briefly crowned, but within days he was overthrown by revolutionaries who wanted a more forward looking  Yemen, assisted by Egyptian forces.  Yemen was declared a republic, but the unseated Imam was supported by Saudi Arabia who feared a vibrant democracy developing on its doorstep.  Al Badr was given asylum in Saudi Arabia, and for a half a decade they supported the deposed Imam and his tribe in the quest to return to power.  Egypt lost thousands of soldiers trying to hold the peace in Yemen, only to find that being bogged down in Yemen tribal warfare probably cost them the six day war against Israel. Al Badr eventually settled in UK and died from natural causes at a grand old age.  The British were forced to relinquish Aden in 1967, and South Yemen became a communist state.  The ruling sheikhs were deprived of their assets and fled to Saudi Arabia, where they smouldered resentfully after their loss of status and wealth.Eventually an uneasy peace settled between Saudi Arabia, the northern tribes and the Yemeni President. However, Saudi provided weapons and financial support to the Hashids and Bakils, which meant they remained a thorn in the side of the Yemen government.

tribes yemen2
Yemeni tribes often had more weapons than the Yemeni army, supplied by Saudi Arabia.

When US wanted volunteers to fight in Afghanistan to overthrow the communists there, two Yemeni groups immediately volunteered as mujahedeen.  One was the deposed rich from the South who were living in exile  in Saudi; they thirsted for revenge against any communist state. From the same background as Bin Laden, they soon moved into positions of command, the most well-known being Tariq Al Fadhli whose father was Sultan of Abyan, near Aden, who organised the first jihadi movements in Yemen on his return. The other group was from the Bakil and Hashid tribes, natural warriors who were used to fighting in mountain terrain. When they returned, they believed that they had caused the downfall of the Soviet empire.  Many were given civil service jobs on their return, jobs which most did not even do, but they drew a regular salary which bloated the already inefficient civil service of North Yemen.

President Ali Saleh of YAR (North Yemen)
ali al bidh
President Ali Al Bidh of PDRY (South Yemen)

After the fall of the Soviets, the two Yemens both had problems, and they decided to unify in 1990.  It was a hurried and not well planned merger, President Saleh of the north knew that Saudi Arabia preferred two warring countries and he forced things to move too quickly to avoid giving Saudi chance to interfere; the South suffered financially after the loss of Soviet support and were forced into full unity rather than a federation, their preferred choice.  The South believed that their better form of government, superior health and education would win them voters in the southern highlands, and also in the coastal plain along the Red Sea called theTihama.

It was not to be; an emerging Islah party (Muslim Brotherhood) reportedly funded by Saudi Arabia took a large proportion of the vote they had counted on. Additionally, a few months after unification, the largest oil reserves in Yemen were discovered in Hadramaut.  The Southern leaders found themselves side-lined in government and the posts they were given were only tokens. Pension payments to retirees in the South were withheld. The real power lay with Saleh’s party, corruption and inefficiencies remained, the oil spoils were divided amongst Saleh and his northern friends, who took the long standing view that they did the protection and in consequence they had a right to take anything in the south that they wanted – and they did.  They took property and business assets, whilst the corrupt legal system offered the Southerners no redress.

Tribesmen were infuriated by the use of the mocking term ‘Dahbashi’

Southern resentment boiled over in 1994. They believed they could win in a war against Saleh, severely weakened by economic sanctions, and Saudi agreed to back the South’s quest for independence. But Saleh, a powerful manipulator, had a trump card. He called on the mujahedeen to help fight the ‘infidels’, or the communists, in South Yemen. Fired with anti-communist propaganda, these religious extremists saw a new mission. They arrived in the South and fanatically started applying sharia law, flogging people for drinking alcohol or talking to unrelated women, ransacked the church, and burning down the famous Sira beer factory.  They then stripped the city of its assets, even removing bathtubs, windows and doorknobs, to take back to their homelands.  The Yemen Constitution was torn up and a new one devised, no longer a compromise between the socialist South and the tribal North, but one that suited the North and religious extremists. From then on, Southerners believed themselves to be living under occupation.  A new television programme emerged in the south-west, called ‘Tales of Dahbash’.  Dahbash was a hopeless but loveable rogue with a northern tribal accent.  The name ‘Dahbashi’ became a pejorative term used to describe the chaos of northern management and the unsophisticated behaviour of the tribal people, most of whom had little education.  This made northerners bristle.

As Saleh was keen to continue improving his relationship with Saudi, he gave permission for Saudi to set up Wahhabi schools in Yemen. Religious tolerance in Yemen was high and it had never been a factor in Yemeni politics, historically the tribe being a more significant identifier rather than religion. Saudi was beginning to feel challenged by rising Shia power. The massive Middle East oil field with wells in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and East Saudi Arabia was almost totally over Shia lands. Saudi neurotically obsessed in case their Shia population moved its allegiance to Iraq or Iran, both of which had Shia majorities, which would mean it would lose its oil wealth.  Saudi planned to convert the Zaidis to Sunni Islam, but the northern tribes were having none of it, and countered with a Zaidi revivalist movement. This resulted in escalating tensions, and eventually Saleh was paid by Saudi to attack the Bakil tribe in 2004.  Saleh used members of his own tribe, the Hashids, to do so.  Hussein Houthi, a youth leader was killed in the battle hence his movement became known as the Houthis.  After this other attacks on the Houthis followed, and in 2009 Saudi crossed the border to attack the Houthis themselves, only to be repelled by battle hardened Houthi warriors.

Locations of Sunni and Shia populations in the Middle East
Gas and oil fields. Note the correspondence of oil fields with Shia populated areas

The Houthis became more and more militarised in response to the very real threat they faced from Saudi Arabia, and once more they wanted to be in a controlling position in governing Yemen. Meanwhile, as US drones attacked Al Qaeda operatives in areas like Shabwa, often killing civilians as they did so, the numbers of recruits to Al Qaeda actually increased. Al Qaeda by now had a strong anti-Shia sentiment; if it wasn’t funded by Saudi Arabia, all of its characteristics were aligned to Wahhabism.  All of these factors increased the Houthi vulnerability, and made their  stance more aggressive.

After Yemen’s Arab Spring and the downfall of Saleh, the Houthis wanted to be a prominent actor in the new negotiations. They aligned all the Zaidi tribes, including the Hashids, and strangely they allied with Saleh, now ex-President but wanting to take back his old job.  Saleh had left office with considerable wealth.  Because of the tribal support, they easily took over large swathes of the old North Yemen, including the capital, Sana’a.  Obsessed with Saudi and Western interference, they did not try to win hearts and minds; most people in Yemen were tired of the old politicians and corruption, and were open to new approaches; they might have welcomed a more conciliatory approach. Some did start to support the Houthis, but when they closed businesses that they thought had any Saudi or US connections – most that they closed didn’t – and they closed newspapers and arrested jounalists, they deprived many people of their livelihood. When negotiations failed and the interim President Hadi fled from Sana’a to Aden, the Houthi militias followed him.  They were determined not to be deprived of the jewel of Aden, as their forefathers had been by the British occupation. They were  reported as using the old rhetoric as in the 1994 war, calling Adenis infidels and stating that they were intent on killing them.

Aden, Yemen.

The Southern secessionist movement had been more active since 2011 in response to the unrest in Yemen. They were determined this time to win their independence from their northern masters. Most of all, they did not want Saleh to resume his position as their master.  They resisted.  They are not practised warriors; Aden, the south-west and their populations have been destroyed and fighting was vicious; two sides with much to lose.  Saudi is now bombing tribes that had once been allies, the tribes from North Yemen. Saudi bombing has aggravated Houthi aggression and accelerated destruction. Although their presence is resented by many secessionists, Saudi funded Islah militias are fighting along with them together with Al Qaeda and Da’esh militias, who offered military training at Da’esh (IS) training camps.  Da’esh ideology states that anyone can convert to Sunni Islam except Shia, who must be eradicated. Eventually the militias were joined by ground troops reported as from Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt.

Saudi Arabia, its power long resented in Yemeni society, has used its wealth to build relationships with individual tribes throughout its history. Now it has used its military might to shape Yemeni society, and has caused a divide that will be hard to heal.

Yemen, its historical sites, and war; Part 3.

Between 12th Century BCE and 6th Century BC Yemen was one of the leading dynasties in the world, it was known as ‘Arabia Felix’ or Happy Arabia. The dynasties included Ma’in, Qataban, Hadramaut, Aswan, Saba and Himyar.  The Himyarite kingdom was an important one for Yemen, because it located its capital in Sanaa, the same location as today’s capital city.  The remains of the Ghamdan Palace where the rulers lived are in the Old City in Sanaa, and that too was destroyed in an earlier war.  The Himyarite period was known to the Romans, the Greeks, and the Egyptians as the Homerite Kingdom, and it spanned from 110BC to 520h (1126).   There were many cities in Yemen at that time with over 5,000 inhabitants, which was large for that period of history.  Because of its importance to Yemen, a museum collected the artefacts which were used by scholars and researchers; they numbered over 10,000 artefacts. This museum and its contents have now been erased, no longer available for scholars researching ancient world history.

dhamar museum
Dhamar museum, which contained 10,000 artefacts from the Himyarite period.
museum after bombing raid
The remains of the Dhamar museum today

The Regional Museum was the main museum of the Dhamar governorate. It was built at Hirran, north of Dhamar city, in 2002. It had several exhibition halls, a lecture hall, a computer laboratory and storerooms. Its pre-Islamic collection comprised over hundred inscriptions of various provenance and period, whereas the section dedicated to the Islamic archaeology contains some decorated artefacts bearing Arabic inscriptions, in addition to jewels and other handmade products of traditional handicrafts in Dhamar. The most important object is the wooden minbar (pulpit) from the Great Mosque of Dhamar city, which was dated to the fourth century Hegira (11th Century). This was bombed on 18th June 2015.  I have also heard that another museum has been bombed in Zinjibar, Abyan province, but I cannot find confirmation.

Another UNESCO site that has been damaged is the Al Ashrafiyya Mosque in Taiz.

The Al Ashrafiyya after its recent restoration
The Al Ashrafiyya after its recent restoration

One of the beautiful minarets of al-Ashrafiyya Mosque has been hit by tank shelling. It tooks more than 10 years to the Yemeni-Italian restoration team to complete the intervention and restore the original beauty of this holy place and they were ready to begin with the project for the restoration of nearby Al-Muzaffar complex, which now is unlikely to proceed.  It was damaged on 18th June 2015.

The damage to the minaret
The damage to the minaret

The south west corner of Yemen is indeed suffering considerable damage as several militias are fighting and it is also subjected to overhead bombing by the Saudi coalition.  The city of Lahj has been destroyed, mostly by militia activity.

(photos of Lahj from Fatema need downloading from phone and inserting.

Parts of Aden have suffered extensive damage.  The oldest district, Crater, is indeed built in the crater of an extinct volcano. Most of the buildings are relatively recent, but there was a pretty mosque that was used to illustrate stamps during the British occupation of Aden, called the Aidrus mosque.

aidrus mosque
Stamp depicting Aidrus Mosque

This mosque is believed to date from the end of the 15th Century. It was damaged during the 1994 civil war, when old Qu’rans were burned by Yemeni troops from the north, and it has been destroyed in May this year when Houthi militias burned down many of the buildings in Crater, including the Aidrus Mosque. I have no photographs of the mosque post damage  but this is a view of Crater at the time of the arson attack, which does not give me confidence that it has survived.

crater 006
Crater after arson attack by Houthi militias

Another building in Aden has suffered damage from bombs, this is an old Ottoman fort overlooking the harbour known as Seera Castle. This grand citadel was in excellent condition when I visited it in 2011, and commands extensive views of the sea and harbour. I understand it suffered extensive damage on 22nd June, although I have no photographs of the damage.

seera castle7
Seera Castle, Aden, now damaged by bombs.

I also understand that the port area has suffered considerable damage, but have no other details. The port has the remains of grand and imposing buildings erected during the British occupation of Aden, which were badly in need of loving care but not damaged or altered in any way, and after restoration could have been made the area into an attractive area for visitors. Also near the port was the attractive guesthouse of the Sultan of Lahj, or the Sultan of Abdali, who ruled Yemen in the Ottoman period and remained on good terms with the British during their occupation. Indeed, despite the long and bitter campaign to make the British forces leave, Adenis now remember the British occupation in positive terms and feel a strong allegiance with British people. The statue of Queen Victoria remained in place, and a small church damaged once by Al Qaeda and restored, were always treated with respect by Aden people.  I fear for these buildings that reveal a significant part of Aden’s 19th and 20th century history will be lost, and with it, the potential for developing tourism in this part of Yemen.

What makes me feel so sad is that everyone has lost, and no-one has gained.  This is a man made war that cannot be won by military means. In the end, Yemeni and Saudi people will have to sit down with people they hate and make painful compromises. They could have done this without the loss of life, the suffering, and the loss of Yemeni, and world, architectural and historical heritage.

Yemen, its historical sites, and war; part 2.

Even older than the 2,500 Old City of Sanaa is the Marib Dam.  On June 1, the ancient Great Marib Dam, described as “one of the grandest engineering marvels of the ancient world” and one of the most important ancient sites in Yemen dating back to the ancient Queen of Sheba, was damaged by Saudi airstrikes which hit the better-preserved northern sluice. The original dam was first built in the 8th century BC, in the city of Marib which was once the capital of the kingdom of Sheba (Saba).  Saba, or Sheba, was one of the four great early kingdoms of Yemen; the largest and most prosperous.

marib damMarib is close to the area where Yemeni oil and gas reserves are found, and has long been an area of tribal conflict in Yemen. Currently the Houthis are fighting with Al Qaeda for control.  All of the Saudi bombs are falling in areas where the Houthis are active. This was bombed on 22nd June.

A new dam was then built more recently, close to the location of the old one, at the expense of the late ruler of the United Arab Emirates, whose tribe resettled from Marib to the present UAEsome time in the 17th century.The new dam is built of earth across the Wadi Dhana, creating a storage capacity of 398 million cubic meters. The dam site is located 3 km upstream of the ruins of the old Ma’rib dam. The new dam, like the old, was designed to store water for irrigating the Ma’rib plains. However, the wadi bed at the new dam site consists of alluvial sand and gravel material 30–50 m thick. Seepage emanates from this dam that does not threaten its structure,but does lose water. As a way of capturing the seepage, consideration is being given to rebuilding the ancient Ma’rib dam, both as a functioning structure, and also as a historic monument and tourist attraction. The complexity and volume of work involved in this project make it necessary that several organizations work together under the aegis of UNESCO using financial contributions from international organizations. (Wikipedia). However, with the current situation of unrest this is unlikely to happen.

new marib dam
New Marib Dam

A UNESCO site which was bombed to extinction without any world protest was the Al Qahira Citadel in Taiz. Bombing was reported on 12th May 2015.  This had recently been restored and was now a recreational and tourist facility.  The earliest portions were certainly pre-Islamic and it might have been one of the most ancient sites in Yemen, with some claiming it was there since 10C BC.  On top of it was built a beautiful Ottoman fort.  It took 3 days of bombing before it finally was totally demolished.

al qahira castle being bombed
Al Qahira site being bombed

al qahira castle being bombed2al qahira castle being bombed3

Saada, in the north west portion of Yemen and close to the Saudi border, and the home city of the Houthis has come in for particular bombardment.  Parts of the city had already suffered extensive damage in 2004-2009, when the Saleh government with support of Saudi Arabia conducted wars in this region, and Saudi crossed the border in a military incursion themselves in 2009.  However, what is left of the city has now disappeared. This includes stunning the 9th Century Al Hadi mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world, bombed on 9th May 2015. This was followed by the bombing of the pre-Islamic city of Baraqish again a UNESCO site on the 11th May.

al hadi mosque
9th Century Al Hadi mosque before it was bombed.
al hadi mosque after bombs
The Al Hadi mosque after 9th May bombs.

This loss to the world is compounded by the displacement of a whole population, some of whom were related to the militias but many of whom were just ordinary Yemeni working people.  Some Saada residents were already living in refugee camps ran by Oxfam since 2009, and although Oxfam told the Saudi authorities the exact location of the refugee camp and advised them that it was not a military site, the camp was bombed on one of the first days of the campaign. The bombing continues as Saudis strike nearby villages on an almost daily basis.

Another Citadel that was bombed was close to the Red Sea port of Hodeida, the Sharif Citadel in the city of Bajel.  This was struck on 24th May. I can find no details of damage sustained.

al sharif bajel
Al Sharif Citadel, Bajel.

One ancient site which I knew well which I believe is lightly damaged is the Dar al Hajjar, the House on the Rock. This was a palace of the last Imam of Yemen who was overthrown in the 1960s.  It was built in 1786 and is an icon of Yemen, it is in a valley north of Sanaa called Wadi Dhar.  Prominently located in the centre of the wadi, it is visible from most of the mountains that surround the valley, and I often went running in this wadi, with the view of Dar al Hajjar from many vantage points. Now a museum, it was hit on 4th June.

Dar al Hajjar2
The iconic symbol of Yemen, Dar al Hajjar in Wadi Dhar.

I am hoping that this wonderful museum survives the war. Part 3 describes more architectural gems that have been damaged.

Yemen, its historical sites, and war.

Yemen is an ancient civilisation; its location in the centre of the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, and adjacent to seas that link those three continents; plus its relatively moderate climate in the highlands and high rainfall comparative to other parts of the Arabian peninsula meant that it had people who were able to trade and develop sophisticated and wealthy settlements.  It controlled the spice trade and the frankincense trade routes, and for centuries it produced all of the world’s coffee, exported from its port Mocha. The Islamic Empire was centred on the Hijaz and Asir Mountain ranges, which run along the Western side of Arabia, the southern portion of which is Yemen.  The more northerly part of these mountains contains the Islamic cities of Medina and Mecca, which were won in battle by the Saud tribe in 1924 and became part of Saudi Arabia. Hence Yemen’s ancient heritage sites are particularly important not only to Yemeni people, but also they are part of the important heritage of humankind. Although it has been an impoverished nation in recent decades, it has a glorious history, and that is reflected in its ancient sites. It has walled cities, citadels, engineering projects, mosques, and palaces, many that stretch back to long before the birth of Christ.

Many of these sites have recently been renovated with international funding, and many are deservingly an important part of the UNESCO world heritage collection.  Yet these ancient sites that have stood the test of time are now being bombed, sometimes to the point of extinction, by the bombs that are being poured down on Yemen and its people by a war coalition that states it is ‘saving’ Yemen.   Of course, it is difficult to access information in a war situation, but it is obvious that there has been major damage to some of the major sites, some of which have been eradicated altogether.   Many of them are known to me personally, and I feel it as a personal loss.

Many of these sites are not near to people’s homes, but in Yemen people still live in ancient places, making them into living museums.  I always felt it was a privilege to visit them, and see them still operating as they did centuries ago, not as places which are just preserved for visitors to peek at.  The ones that are still lived in have not only sustained the loss of their architecture, but they have also killed the persons living there, and their sustained and sophisticated culture, which will be lost along with the architecture.  Because the structures for emergencies is not well developed, individuals are left to work alone to help survivors and to make the damaged property safe.

YEMEN-searching for survivors, old city
Old City, Sanaa; searching for survivors

The most important of these was only 20 minutes’ walk from my home when I lived in Sanaa’a, the Old City.  It was built of red bricks, with ornate white gypsum patterns and alablaster windows.  Some of these houses were up to five stories high, each story housing one branch of the family.  When I was living in Yemen, the lanes were being paved with grey stones, a massive project paid for by the Dutch embassy.  It was a walled city, and inside its walls it was a self sufficient space, with beautiful green gardens and an ancient souk, still selling traditional crafts that Yemenis used in their homes. Over each window was a fanlight shaped window with coloured glass, and that was why I loved walking through the Old City so much at night, it looked like fairyland. Sometimes when we walked around, we would come across wedding festivals, we would stop and watch the men dancing their intricate wedding dances, waving their jambiyyas, a curved dagger that they wore in their waistband.

There have been two major strikes on the Old City, one on 11th May, and a bigger one on 12th June 2015.

old city pre-bomb
The old city, Sanaa
old city after bomb blast2
The same site, after the bomb blast.

I read an article about a 99 year old woman who had lived in the city for almost all of her life, who has now had to move away from the city for safety.  There are no military establishments in the Old City, and nowhere for Houthis to set up camp and it is hard to understand why this was deemed necessary.

The Gulf Returnees.

When I decided to do a PhD to find out what influences Arab imagery in the British media, I hadt two main reasons that made me want to answer to that question.

The first was the occupation of South Lebanon by the Israelis that I witnessed in 1995-6. The second was seeing the Gulf Returnees in Hodeidah.  What I witnessed with my own eyes, anyone could see, yet no-one had bothered to look or report it.  Both were extraordinary. This is the story of the Gulf returnees.

When Yemen united in 1990, it joined together a communist state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, known as the PDRY or South Yemen, and North Yemen, also called the Yemen Arab Republic, known as North Yemen, forming the Republic of Yemen.  The PDRY was a communist state and following the collapse of the Soviet Union it seemed that unification with North Yemen was the best possible option.  It was welcomed by the people of the North and the South.  The two entities were very different in their philosophies, their education, and their culture.  The only way to unite two very different countries was seen as encouraging an open democracy, and indeed, there were many positive steps forward. The media in newly united Yemen was seen as the most free and open media in the Arab world at that time.

Yemen also had the misfortune of being a rotating member of the UN Security Council that year.  It was unfortunate because Iraq chose to invade Kuwait that year, and Yemen had to vote on whether or not to agree to what became known as the first Gulf War.  At that time, the Yemeni government was caught in a particular way of responding by its own internal consideration – keeping the Yemeni people together. Its vote was also influenced by Yemen’s membership of an alliance of Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. In many senses Yemen tried to sit on the fence and condemn the actions of Iraq whilst stating that this was an Arab issue, despite pressures from Saudi Arabia and US to support the war.

After the vote, Yemen suffered huge financial penalties and it could be argued that it never recovered from them.  The tourist industry in Yemen had started to blossom, but in many countries in the world Yemen was placed on a list of countries not recommended for tourists, which stopped tourism in its tracks. The aid packages that were agreed on unification by the IMF, the World Bank and the United States were immediately stopped. And the Yemeni nationals working in Saudi Arabia were expelled to Yemen. These became known as the Gulf Returnees.

Some men had only worked in Saudi for a relatively short time, sending their wages back to Yemen, the remittances being an important component of Yemen GDP; they and Yemen lost their income but at least they were able to return to their family home. But many returnees had lived in Saudi Arabia for generations and no longer had any family contacts in Yemen, and this population was treated so harshly that it was close to genocide. Many had done office jobs or worked as security guards, earning good wages and living a comfortable lifestyle. They were uprooted from their homes and forced to leave immediately, taking what possessions they could and selling the rest at a fraction of its value. They numbered 750,000 persons. The Yemeni government, suddenly facing a severe financial crisis, could not afford to offer any assistance. Unpublicised, no international aid agencies came to their rescue.  They settled in an area around Hodeidah. When I saw them for the first time 8 years later, they were still living in tent-sized corrugated tin huts with no water or sanitation.  Water was obtained from one single standpipe, surrounded by filthy water-saturated sand which people sank into as they approached it with their water containers. This was an area where summer temperatures often topped 50 degrees. Having worked in war zones in the Middle East and Africa, this was the worst living conditions of any that I had ever seen.  America claimed that this was the most expensive vote in history.

The Yemen government, now deprived of most of its income, was poorer than many of the tribes within Yemen, which now had bigger artilleries than the national army.  Additionally, after the Soviet Union withdrew its last forces from Afghanistan in 1989, many Yemenis who had been fighting on behalf of US as mujahedeen had returned to Yemen.  They believed, and not without cause, that they had won the war there and caused the Soviet empire to fall. They returned to Yemen, battle hardened, confident warriors, and filled with rhetoric of their Saudi paymasters.  The Yemeni government, deprived of conventional warfare due to the sanctions against them, used these mujahedeen to fight on their behalf to keep the tribes in order, and eventually, against the South in their battle for independence in 1994.

The rhetoric amongst these fighters became strongly anti-Western as they witnessed the plight of the returnees, and also the way their country and their countrymen were punished for taking an independent stance.

Saudi Arabia had succeeded in stopping a vibrant democracy in Yemen from developing on its border, and turned Yemen into a failing state.

I could not understand how this suffering had remained silent.  Just as the terrible war inflicted on Yemen by Saudi Arabia is equally as silent today.

Al Qaeda and Islamic State in Yemen


As news was broadcast today that Nasir Al-Wihayshi, leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed on 12th June 2015 in an American drone strike, it seems a good day to reflect on Sunni militias currently active in Yemen, and the way that their sphere of activity is changing as Yemen’s civil war continues to devastate much of Yemen. Militias motivated by religion have been active in Yemen for more than twenty years, since the mujahedeen returned from Afghanistan at the end of the nineties.  As explained in earlier articles, originally these militias recruited from all willing Muslim groups, but they have developed a strong anti-Shia ethos over the last two decades and now recruit exclusively from the Sunni community.

Although Al Qaeda (AQ) and Da’esh/Islamic State (IS) exist in several countries, they are franchises; groups see themselves as sharing characteristics and declare themselves to be aligned.  There are significant differences in the philosophies of these two groups. The Yemeni AQ is known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and tends to have members that morph between being ordinary tribe members who sometimes fight with other tribes, and sometimes they become Al Qaeda members, their military activities then directed by members of the hierarchy of AQAP.  AQ has an international vision, critical of the Saudi Arabian monarchy and foreign interference in Arab affairs and its activity is often aimed towards outside targets. It is particularly critical of Israel and United States. IS on the other hand is seen as controlling and defending a particular territory, hence its membership is more permanent, and it aims to control ever larger geographic areas.  It has also been associated with attacking and fighting opposing Arab groups.  As it sees itself as permanent, it has more interest in developing alliances with other nation states than AQ; IS has often been linked to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, three predominantly Sunni Muslim countries, although these links are not openly declared.  More surprising alliances have been identified recently, such as Israeli supplied weapons used by IS Syria, and a 2012 Pentagon document released last month revealed that some support for IS originates from the United States government.

East Yemen or Hadramaut has not been under direct government control for several years; tribes have largely controlled their own geographic areas, but Hadramautis have been obliged to live by AQ rules, even though members of AQAP are small and its presence often not noticed.  When AQAP is involved in disruptive or military activity, it calls on tribe members to take part. AQAP has been particularly active in Marib, where oil companies have their oil wells, often causing damage to the oil pipe lines; it also has been actively involved in kidnapping or attacking non-Arab visitors to the area.  This group has also been accused of links with criminal activities, such as shoe bombs.  Adeni people also claim that for many years ex-President Saleh used AQ operatives to control and harass them.

What has been a contentious and often unreported issue is the US drone strikes against Al Qaeda members. Many Yemenis claim that many drones have killed civilians.  When US drones kill a Yemeni citizen, AQAP offers financial help and assistance, whereas US does not accept any responsibility, creating local sympathy with the AQAP position. Individuals who have taken a stance against US drones have often found themselves in trouble.  Abdulelah Haider Shaye is a Yemeni journalist who exposed US drone strikes and civilian deaths. He was arrested for his efforts, but no case was found against him. Then, in February 2011 US President Obama interferred and stopped his imminent release.  A further strange case was that of Ibrahim Mouthani; a political activist and writer, he made an impassioned and eloquent plea to the United States, saying that US drones were increasing recruits to Al Qaeda.  Previously fit, he unexpectedly died at the age of 24.  The best known protester against US drones was Anwar Al Awlaki, a radical preacher, and US citizen. He was named by US and UK governments as the head of AQAP but that was unlikely as Wihayshi had been leader of AQ in Yemen since 2002; Al Awlaki was then killed by a US drone in Yemen in 2011, which was widely reported in the UK news.. Two weeks later his 16 year old son, also a US citizen, was killed in the same manner, but that went unnoticed by UK journalists.

More insidious is the recent appearance of IS in Yemen. The Islah Party in Yemen is a Sunni Muslim party that is funded by Saudi Arabia; it is the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which shares the aim of IS for an Islamic Caliphate.  It has developed a militia that is fighting with the Al-Hiraq secessionist movement in the South against Houthi militias. Moreover, these fighters offered military training to Al-Hiraq members, but when they got to the training camps they found they were IS camps. Some managed to escape, whereas others have been trapped inside the organisation.  Members of IS in Yemen, like their counterparts in Syria, have been reported as using Israeli weapons. Some Israeli weapons were found in the Saudi embassy when it was overrun by Houthi militias two weeks ago.  Saudi Arabia tried to get Pakistan to supply a ground force in Yemen but they declined to do so.  It appears that they have now found Yemeni recruits.

The growth in militias makes every Yemeni man of fighting age a target for kidnappers who need to swell their fighting forces; the death rate in this hand to hand fighting is high and numbers have to be replenished – this situation frequently happens in Syria as well.  The son of a friend was recently subject to such an attack but managed to escape.    The fear of forced military recruitment is one of the push factors that encourages young men to want to join the stream of asylum seekers that leave the Middle East, many of whom aim for Europe.

The waterways south of Yemen are one of the busiest in the world, with oil tankers from the Middle East travelling round the Southern shores of the Arabian Peninsula as they head for the Mediterranean and Europe. The fight for the control of these waters has become brutal and the prospects for a negotiated settlement lessen as the stakes rise.

The UN peace talks in Geneva are taking place now, but the Houthi participants are trapped in Djibouti, because it is said no-one will give their plane permission to fly over their land.  The land they have to fly over is Saudi Arabia or Egypt.  They obviously do not care about the suffering of the Yemeni people. Shame on them all.

The Southern Question and Islamic State

By Dr Judith Brown, who worked as a humanitarian aid worker in Yemen, and later undertook a PhD at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter, which was inspired by her personal witness to the suffering of Yemenis, hidden from British audiences by a disinterested media.

Aden; strategic position of Gulf of Aden; Ariel view of Crater, Aden.
Aden; strategic position of Gulf of Aden; Ariel view of Crater, Aden.

yemenmap aden3

In the space of five years between 1962-7, both North Yemen (geographically west Yemen) and South Yemen/PDRY (geographically east Yemen) shook themselves free of the entities that had long been ruling and dominating them.  In the case of the South, a 150 year British occupation, and in the North from tight control by despotic Imams, the aristocracy of the Bakil tribe originating from the north-west corner of Yemen.

The British controlled Aden and its hinterland.  Aden had been an international port for centuries before the British arrived, located at an important crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe.  It was a cosmopolitan city, educated – and not tribal, as over the centuries Yemenis who lived there had forgotten their tribal links. Included in the Adeni hinterland was the city of Taiz.  Because of the difficulty of fighting mountain tribes, the British drew their line of control between Taiz and Aden, and by default southern Taiz became part of the North.

The large desert area to the east of Aden, known as Hadramaut, was never successfully controlled by the British, although it was divided from North Yemen by the British occupiers. In consequence, the tribes in Hadramaut were fairly independent, with occasional incursions and punishments by British troops when they were seen to be getting too confident or demanding.  But the British occupation of Aden became untenable, and they suddenly left in 1967 with no formal handover.  This left a power vacuum; after bloody struggles the communists prevailed. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the South saw its best option as reunification with North Yemen, this being the popular will of the people of both countries.

South Yemen had good cards to play, and it rushed into the union with the North too quickly, not ensuring safeguards for the South with its smaller population. It had a superior system of governance, education and health, and importantly, unlike the North, it had oil. As a communist state, South Yemen had nationalised all private property, and the prior owners were promised they could have their property returned or compensation after reunification. However, President Saleh of the North ruled united Yemen and he and his cronies grabbed all the Southern assets for themselves, and controlled oil reserves. Moreover, he refused to pay pensions that were due to Southerners. Even as late as 2000, frequently I saw newspaper reports of yet another land grab by Northern warlords and tribesmen, who took land from its rightful Southern owners if they fancied it, the corrupt court system doing nothing to protect the dispossessed.

In 1994, aware of the poor deal they had struck, the South tried to pull up the drawbridge and reclaim their own country.  Saleh was weakened by reactions to his stance on the Iraq War, and the South thought they could win a fight for independence.  But Saleh had control over a group of hardened fighters, the returned mujahedeen from Afghanistan, many from the tribes in the North, including the Bakils. They were told that communist Southerners were not really Muslims, and the situation was likened to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in order to motivate them to fight. In six weeks, the civil war was over, the South forced to succumb to Northern domination.

The Constitution was changed, taking out many of the protections agreed during unity negotiations. Southerners remained resentful, and Saleh unleashed his secret weapon to control them; the beginnings of a movement that became known as Al Qaeda. These groups became particularly active in areas around Aden, and between the mountains of the west and the deserts of the east.  Gradually, the educated and industrious people of the South were forced to become more conservative by their Northern controllers.

Their frustration lead to the re-emergence of the secessionist movement in the 2000’s, called Al-Hiraq, which was predictably dealt with in a heavy handed way by Saleh. In the Arab Spring, I was in the South when the uprising began; the army had a very conspicuous presence.  The first death of a protester of the Yemen Arab Spring, killed by government forces, was in Aden; followed by three more killed close to the house in Mansoura where I was staying; we heard the bedlam and smelled the caudate as we sheltered indoors.

After the uprising and ousting of Saleh, a Yemen Dialogue Conference was meant to solve outstanding issues, but the Southern Question was not adequately addressed; the Southern secessionists and Northern Houthis – originating from the Bakil tribe – were dissatisfied with the outcome.  The Houthis took control of the North and moved towards Aden; the Adeni people were determined not to succumb and set out to resist.  Young men of Al Hiraq took up arms, but whether or not they were joined by Al Qaeda fighters is a much contested issue. Fighters from the Islah party, aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood and with strong links to Saudi, are believed to have recently joined the Southern resistance; it is further claimed they carry Israeli weapons. This sounds worryingly like the beginning of a Da’esh franchise.

As they moved south, the Houthis used the same phrases as in the 1994 civil war; the people of Aden were not proper Muslims, they would kill them and burn their homes. Ordinary Adenis were trapped and fearful; they initially welcomed the opportunistic Saudi bombing as it was the only external assistance on offer. This made the Houthis more aggressive. House by house, the Houthis entered, looted, and sometimes killed or burned down property. Outside were snipers; my friend was forced to leave her home due to the proximity of Saudi bombs, only to be shot at by Houthi snipers as she drove away, four bullets entering her car; she escaped to Hadramaut, which is under Al Qaeda control.  She is a tiny, middle aged doctor, with no military or political interests whatsoever, who has lost all due to war.  Like so many people.

The Houthis should do more to win hearts and minds. They are still brutally controlling the south west population, for example limiting food movement, already in short supply due to Saudi tactics. They have crushed Lahj, and control Aden and Taiz.  They are being led and funded by the dictator ex-President Saleh, who for decades had plundered the South for his own financial gain.  My fear is for a new frontier of the Islamic State in south west Yemen, controlling oil as it passes through the Gulf of Aden to Europe. Stopping the war is becoming more urgent. The Yemeni people must unite, and in a country which has been dominated by tribal politics and despotism for all too long, they have to use their Yemeni generosity to forgive, shape a new Yemen together, and free themselves from their painful past.  Most Yemenis do not support the Houthis, Al Hiraq, Al Qaeda, Islah militias, Saudi Arabia, or Da’esh, and never have. Simply, they have always wanted peace.