BBC Radio 4 Today Programme 6.44-6.49 today. An item on Yemen. Please note: whilst it is laudible for the Today programme at last to do an item on Yemen, and it is excellent, why oh why put it on at 6.44, when the highest listening time on the Today Programme is an hour later. You can listen to this piece by going to BBC Radio 4 and move the cursor to 6.44.am.
More than 1600 people have been killed in Yemen in the last 3 months. Many of them have died in Saudi airstrikes on cities controlled by the Houthi rebels, including the capital Sana’a. The Saudis, who support the country’s now exiled President Hadi oppose the Houthis that they think are backed by Iran. Given ongoing fighting and risk of kidnap by Islamic extremists very few Western journalists are in the country but with the help of her mobile phone as a recording device Dr. Natalie Roberts with Medicine Sans Frontieres has given an account of her life in North Yemen to our correspondent Mike Thompson.
NR “I am in the MSF car now heading out of town to visit the health centre that’s out in the countryside”. 36 year old Dr. Natalie Roberts from Wrexham is in Amran province just north of Sana’a but her work in providing emergency health care takes her all over this dangerous terrain. “The roads are targeted, cars are often hit and as I’m driving now I can see a truck that was bombed a few hours ago, still burning. It was carrying apples and wheat, the sacks of wheat are on fire. Every few hundred metres you see another burned out vehicle. Every single bridge on the road has been bombed out. It’s just an intimidating experience to drive up and down this road and be aware that at any minute an aeroplane could be coming. We have a flag on the roof but it doesn’t feel that it gives me much protection when you arrive at scenes like this.”
NR. “I’m in the Emergency Room at the Health Centre that we have been supporting in the mountains of North Yemen, really quite near the border. It’s an area that has had very heavy bombing. All the villages and towns nearby sustain air strikes most days.”
MT. With little or no mains electricity in Yemen, clinics like this rely on noisy generators running on scarce and very expensive fuel supplies. Many of them needing emergency help here are young children.
NR. “There’s a six year old boy here with a piece of shrapnel in his eye that he sustained this morning. It means he has lost his eye. He’s being very brave, he’s lying on a bed covered in blood and his mother is talking to him. We have already had three trauma cases this morning and it’s 11.30am. ”
NR. “That’s the call to evening prayer you hear all around Yemen. Today it’s more exciting for people because the rumour is a ceasefire has been declared. There’s a strong rumour it will start this evening. Everyone is very much in hope of that. This is a desperate population and they need some respite from the fighting.”
NR. “Morning now, it’s really quiet. Last night at midnight we were all hoping that this ceasefire that was about to be implemented, but by three o’clock in the morning I started to get text messages saying that there was more planes bombing in Sana’a and Saada governates. Really, really disappointed.”.
MT. There was some brighter news from Aden recently, when a ship carrying UN food supplies finally managed to get through to the port after waiting for weeks, but it has been estimated that the continuing violence threatens the survival of six million people across the country who are in urgent need of help.
NR. “Lunchtime and there’s a warplane circling overhead again. It happens at least once an hour. This place really makes me concerned about planes because you know that if a plane is flying overhead it’s a warplane. There’s no other planes flying over Yemen just now. So you are just waiting for the bomb to drop.”
MT. Dr. Roberts previously worked in Syria and Ukraine and will spend another month in Yemen with this threat as she tries to help local people, who are too afraid or unable to leave their homes. But given the daily risk to herself, does she think of abandoning her contract and getting out?
NR. “All the time, yes, I’ve been having these moments for the last three years. Often there’s times I lie there particularly at night when there is bombing and I think I don’t quite know why I am here. But this is the first place I have been to with no media. I just haven’t met a journalist at all. That means it’s not in the public eye. The public should be aware of the disaster and the crisis that is happening in this country.”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Saudi Arabia does not want a strong, democratic country on the other side of the more than 1500 kilometer long border that separates both countries. It opposed the unification of former North- and South Yemen in 1990. It supported, together with Kuwait, the Southern separation movement during the Civil War of 1994 with billions of dollars. And it heavily influenced the outcome of the Yemeni transition process after 2011.
At the onset of his reign on January 23, 2015, King Salman bin Abdulaziz appointed his son Mohamed bin Salman (34) as Minister of Defense. Saudi Arabia, supported by others, started the airstrikes on Yemen at the request of its (il)legitimate President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi on March 25 of this year. Five weeks later, the highly experienced and thoughtful Saudi minister of Foreign Affairs (Prince Saud Al Faisal) was replaced by the former Saudi ambassador to the US (Adel bin Ahmed Al Jubeir). At the same time Aramco, the Saudi oil- and gasgiant, was restructured. The Supreme Petroleum Council was abolished and a Supreme Council established, to be chaired by the Minister of Defense. The influential minister already happened to be the Chairperson of the Economic and Development Affairs Council. These developments cannot be seen as separate from the attack on Yemen.
The energy sector is responsible for 90% of the export earnings and 45% of Saudi BNP. Regional security is therefore of crucial importance, In 2013 30% of all oil transported over sea (from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Iran) passed the Hormuz Strait, passing the territorial waters of Iran and Oman. 85% of this oil is intended for Asia. Gas too is an important export product, in particular for Qatar.
Fear of an Iranian blockade of the Hormuz Strait, and the possibly disastrous results for the global economy, has existed for years. The US therefore pressured the Gulf States to develop alternatives. In 2007 Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman and Yemen jointly launched the Trans-Arabia Oil Pipeline project. New pipelines were to be constructed from the Saudi Ras Tannurah on the Persian Gulf and the UAE to the Gulf of Oman (one to the Emirate of Fujairah and two lines to Oman) and the Gulf of Aden (two lines to Yemen). In addition Kuwait could be connected to this network. So far, only the connection between Abu Dhabi and Fujairah (both UAE) has been completed. It became operational in 2012.
Blueprint Regional Network August 2007
Recent overtures between the US and Iran have led to heightened uncertainty among the Saudi’s about the Hormuz Strait. In 2014 Iran and Oman signed an agreement to construct a pipeline from Iran to Oman in order to export Iranian gas to Oman. Distrust about the intentions of Oman increased the attractiveness of the Hadramaut option in Yemen, a longstanding wish of Saudi Arabia.
However, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (in function from 1978-2012) opposed the construction of a pipeline under Saudi control over Yemeni territory. For many years the Saudi’s invested in tribal leaders in the hope to execute this project under Saleh’s successor. The 2011 popular uprisings by demonstrators calling for democracy upset these plans.
When the situation really became untenable the Gulf States, under the watchful eyes of the US and the EU, convinced Saleh to step down in exchange for immunity. His Vice-President Hadi would take over the presidency until the planned presidential elections. De facto, the existing system was kept intact. The subsequent National Dialogue led to the decision to form a federal state with six countries. The governorates of Hadramaut, Shabwa and al Mahra were to come together in a new state called Hadramaut. When asked last year, the current Yemeni minister of Information Mrs. Nadia Sakkaf (residing in Riyadh) could not explain how that decision was reached: one day it had simply been made. The new state of Hadramaut counts 4 of the 26 million inhabitants of Yemen, 50% of the land area, 80% of the oil exports and – contrary to large other parts of Yemen – a sufficient water supply. In addition, a gold reserve worth 4 billion US dollars has recently been discovered.
After the signing of the Jeddah Agreement concerning the border between both countries in 2000 Saudi Arabia initiated the construction of a three meter high wall along the border from the Red Sea. This wall has not yet reached Hadramaut. The governorate of Hadramaut is one of the few areas where the Saudi-led coalition did not conduct any airstrikes. The port and the international airport of Al Mukalla are in optimal shape and under the control of Al Qa’eda. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been delivering arms to Al Qa’eda, who is expanding its sphere of influence.
Those pipelines to Mukalla will probably get there eventually.
Saudi Arabia at war. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the largest country in the Arabian Peninsula. To its west is the Red Sea, to the east is the Gulf of Arabia and a short border with Kuwait and Qatar, to the south-east is the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and Yemen is to the south-west of KSA. To the north, it has land boundaries with Jordan and Iraq. Source of wealth. KSA has large reserves of oil, believed to be about 40% of the world’s reserves, and is currently the world’s largest producer of crude oil. Whilst oil dropped significantly in price in 2014, Saudi Arabia can use its windfall of reserves saved from when the oil price as higher to finance its current spending (http://www.quora.com/Falling-Oil-Prices-2014-15/How-will-falling-oil-prices-affect-Saudi-Arabia-economically).
Weapons procurement. KSA has been purchasing weapons for many decades, many from US and Europe, but the rate of increase in arms purchases has increased significantly in recent years. In 2014 it was the world’s top weapons purchaser.
Table of spending on weapons, 2013/214
Top Defence Importers
Top Defence Importers
1. Saudi Arabia
2. Saudi Arabia
7. South Korea
7. South Korea
Total defence spending. KSA was 4th country in the table of total defence spending in 2014, after USA, China and Russia, spending 10.4% of its GDP on defence, a rise of 17% since 2013. (Perlo-Freeman, Fleurant, Wezeman P., Wezeman S. 2015. Trends in military expenditure2015; Sipri fact sheet; SIPRI, Sweden.)
Sources of procurement. Most of Saudi Arabia’s military aircraft are supplied by USA and UK (Combataircraft.com)
Recent UK deals include: • September 2007, detailed contract signed for 72 Eurofighter Typhoons. o 24 were delivered in 2009, made in Lancashire. o Others supplied in kit form and assembled in Saudi Arabia. o Cost £4.4 billion. o Called Salam ‘peace’ project. • May 2012 BAE contract o Contract to train Saudi air force o 55 Pilatus aircraft made in Switzerland o 22 BAE Hawk jets. o Cost £1.6 billion (source: CAAT) This is surprising not only in terms of its own status as an intolerant dictatorship, but also in view of its funding of groups that are deemed to be ‘terrorists’ that has been heavily criticised in the West (Cockburn, P., 2014, Al Qaeda the second act: is Saudi Arabia regretting its support for terrorism; The Independent, 17.3.2014).
Nuclear ambitions. Many British newspapers have recently reported that Saudi Arabia could purchase battle ready nuclear weapons from Pakistan. The relationship between SaudiArabia and Pakistan is cordial and since 1974 KSA has funded part of the Pakistan integrated atomic weapons project. Western intelligence and diplomats believe that Pakistan would sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia. One German magazine produced photographs in 2006 that allegedly shows Gauri rockets in silos south of Riyadh; Pakistan denies that it has provided weapons to the Kingdom. Source: Wikipedia and UK newspapers.
Saudi Arabia’s use of military force outside the Kingdom. Between 1903-1920, the Saud tribe was involved in various wars in Arabia that enlarged its land under its control, and formed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Then, • In 1924-5 the Saudis fought a war with the Hashemite tribes and took part of the Hijaz territory that had previously been part of Yemen, including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. • In 1990-1991 Saudi Arabia was involved with the coalition that formed the First Gulf War against Iraq. • In 2009-2010 Saudi invaded northern Yemen to attack the Bakil tribe (the Houthis), and was repelled. • In 2012 it entered Bahrain at the request of the rulers of Bahrain, who had already been involved in a brutal crackdown against protesters, and helped the ruling dictatorship to consolidate its power. • It participated with US led air attacks on ISIS/Daesh in Syria in 2014. • It assembled a coalition to attack Yemen in March 2015.
The stated purpose of the attack on Yemen. • Saudi Arabia’s reason for the attacks (Defensive Shield) was articulated by Adel al-Jubeir, its ambassador to the United States, who said, “Having Yemen fail cannot be an option for us or for our coalition partners.” The Saudis believed that Yemen was failing because Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s former president who was supported by Saudi Arabia but was deposed as a result of months of demonstrations in 2011-12, had sided with the Houthi Shiites. The alliance allowed the Houthis to make rapid progress in their attacks on the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and take control of a significant part of Yemen. Hadi fled Yemen and took refuge in Saudi Arabia; Saudi Arabia claims that one goal of the military operation is to restore “the legitimate leader” of Yemen to power. (Sahimi, M., 2015, Saudi Attack on Yemen Aims to Prevent Thaw Between Iran and the West, The World Post, 30.3.2015.) • Yemen has since become a failed state; it now only has a government in exile in Riyadh that cannot speak or act independently in the interests of Yemen. Saudi has also extensively bombed the arsenal of the Yemen army, thus ensuring that there is no possibility of a Yemeni army to police and protect its population. Moreover, Hadi is not seen as a legitimate president by sections of the Yemeni community, because he was elected in a one candidate election for a limited term that expired in February 2014, and he had already resigned and then re-instated himself without authority from the Yemeni people. In any case, Saudi Arabia is not a country that has followed democratic processes in the past. Moreover, the extensive Saudi attack means that no section of society in Yemen can function because of the extent of damage caused. The Houthi links with Iran exist but they are recent, and there is no evidence that Iran exerted any control over Yemen, and also there is no evidence that the Saudi campaign has hindered the Houthi advance. Thus the initial stated aims of Saudi Arabia seem not to have been supported by facts on the ground, the subsequent actions by Saudi Arabia, and the result of those actions. • The UN appointed special advisor, Jamal Benomar, who was appointed to oversee the transition of Yemen after 2011 resigned after the start of the Saudi bombing. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he stated that negotiations in Yemen were continuing and a deal was possible, but start of the bombing raids had hardened all positions and complicated matters further. (Lauria, J, Coker, M., 2015; Former UN Envoy says Yemen political deal was close before Saudi airstrikes began. Wall Street Journal, 26.4.2015)
The members of the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen. Saudi Arabia all the GCC counties except Oman signed a statement of agreement before the coalition started the air attacks on Yemen on 25th March 2015. Oman has remained neutral.
• Saudi Arabia leads the coalition. Al-Arabiya reported it had deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and some naval units. These soldiers are not in Yemen but guard the border between the two countries.
• The UAE signed the GCC statement. Al-Arabiya reported it had deployed 30 fighter jets.
• Bahrain signed the GCC statement. Al-Arabiya reported it had deployed 15 fighter jets.
• Kuwait signed the GCC statement. Al-Arabiya reported it had deployed 15 fighter jets.
• Qatar signed the GCC statement. Al-Arabiya reported it had deployed 10 fighter jets.
• Jordan said its fighter jets were involved in the operation. Al-Arabiya said 6 Jordanian jets were involved.
• Sudan said its air and ground forces would take part in the operation. Al-Arabiya said three Sudanese fighter jets were involved.
• Egypt said its naval and air forces were involved in the campaign. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said ground forces could become involved “if necessary”.
• Pakistan had been asked to provide ground troops but declined to take part .
• USA and UK are supporting the coalition, but are not taking part in the combat operations. For example, it has been reported that US has helped to refuel in flight, shared intelligence, and assisted with rescue missions. Geneva peace talks. Saudi Arabia was not present at the UN sponsored peace talks in Geneva.