Far from the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, tucked at the underside of the Arabian Peninsula where the Red Sea meets the Indian Ocean, Yemen is at the periphery of Middle East studies and beyond the attention span of mainstream American media. It is a counter-terror target.
It is as if this country of some 25 million citizens is not a real place, as much as it is an outer space or a basket case. According to various journalistic tropes, Yemen is a ‘terrorist haven,’ the ‘ancestral homeland of Usama Bin Ladin,’ an untamed frontier where presumably the only choice for the United States is to shoot first and ask questions later.
To the extent there is conventional wisdom on Yemen, it presents the country as host to all manner of problems. It is the poorest and most poverty-stricken Arab country, with the youngest population. The capital city and other metropolitan areas have soaked up all the fresh water. There is an openly irredentist popular movement in what used to be the People’s Democratic Republic of (South) Yemen, and an obscure but persistent rebellion near the Saudi frontier by a group known as the Huthis who the Saudis say are backed by Iran. Yemen is also a sanctuary for a terrorist entity called al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, often abbreviated as AQAP, the target of American drone strikes that occasionally kill hapless civilians. Tribesmen blow up oil installations, block roads, and occasionally take hostages. Most of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Prison come from Yemen, but even after being cleared for release US authorities are reluctant to repatriate them to their home country.
According to many pundits and instant experts, Yemen’s so-called Arab Spring only made matters worse for the country. This conventional wisdom holds that the popular uprising, which threatened to further destabilize a failing state was, fortunately resolved by something called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative. Through this plan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, which are members of GCC, convinced Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih to relinquish power in exchange for immunity from prosecution for the crimes committed during his thirty-year administration.
The GCC Initiative set in motion something called the National Dialogue Conference. Envisioned as a six-month negotiation among some 565 representatives of various parties, factions, and regions, the Dialogue dragged on inconclusively until finally, in early 2014, with the help of UN Special Envoy Jamal Ben Omar, a proposal to remake Yemen as a federal republic of six regions was unveiled.
The story of the GCC Initiative has barely been covered by the Anglophone mass media (although, in fairness, the British press is more diligent than the American). Instead, it has been reported by think tanks, specialized news services, and expert transitologists writing in the omniscient imperative voice. These observers have largely chided Yemen to face its many problems and get its act together. Many commentators have called upon Salih’s Vice President and now successor, interim President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to set things right by following the good advice of the GCC and Ben Omar while also helping Saudi Arabia and the United States execute their War on Terror.
Yemen has made a mess of things, according to these perspectives, but neighboring petro-kingdoms and the American offshore hegemon are there to help. The financial aid they collectively provide keeps the otherwise bankrupt government afloat, and arms police, Republican Guards, and other forces that are working to maintain a semblance of order. Much is made of the generosity and largess of Gulf and international donors. Great stock is also put in the collective wisdom of the GCC Initiative and international experts on the question of federalism.
These conventional narratives on Yemen have become dominant for two reasons. First, many outsiders are befuddled by the complex diminuendos within the Salih regime, which has been only partly deposed, as well as among tribal entities and Huthi rebels. For these onlookers, the role of Southern Socialism and Wahhabi-style Salafism, Zaydis and Shafi’is, cowboys in Ma’rib and sharecroppers in the Tihama, the international oil industry, and the crosscutting patronage of Saudi royalty are beyond comprehension. Given this complex network of actors, it becomes tempting to simplify these matters as peculiar, primordial, exotic, and endogenous. If you do not already know Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar from Hamid bin Abdullah Hussein al-Ahmar, and Hamid from his brother Sadiq, and do not understand the role of both Ali Muhsin and the old Shaykh Abdullah in Salih’s regime – it is damned hard to follow the plot(s).
Secondly, for outside observers, it is very alluring to fall back on a story-line in which the privileged, placid members of the GCC, Western powers that are allegedly predisposed to seek liberal democracy, and UN experts with technocratic expertise all know best. Among these pundits, it is hard to find a perspective that does not present the GCC Initiative as a kind of Holy Grail that will save Yemen from its internal demons and self-destructive impulses.
Notably, however, professional transitologists avoid portraying the GCC Initiative as a blueprint for democratization, much less revolution, in the Peninsula. To the contrary, the Gulf monarchies and their Western allies, especially the United States, are applauded for their vigilance in bringing ‘stability’ to southwest Arabia. According to the technocratic think-tank blueprint for Yemen, an ill-defined stable transition trumps liberalization or popular democracy. ‘Stability’ is assumed to be the most, and perhaps the best, we can expect. Poor President Hadi is given another year or two to get Yemen on track. Gulf and Western donors will be generous, as long as benchmarks for progress are met.
There are, however, two problems with this framing. First, it fundamentally contradicts the vision held by Yemen’s peaceful youth who demonstrated for almost all of 2011, and pays scant attention to the social justice aspirations of the most populous nation on the Peninsula. The GCC monarchies, most notably the dominant power Saudi Arabia, are inimically and intractably fearful of popular democracy. The Saudi kingdom outlaws and represses almost all forms of political expression.
The external narrative on the GCC Initiative also fails to acknowledge the extraordinary leadership of women during the Yemeni uprising and the National Dialogue. Tawakkul Karman, a firebrand speaker and controversial figure, was honored by the Nobel Peace Committee as a spokesperson for the whole Arab Spring. While most members of the National Dialogue Conference were older male veterans of past armed conflicts in Yemen, a substantial female contingent at the Conference exemplified middle-generation professionalism, and their contributions were notably constructive. Nowhere in the Peninsula have women exercised such leadership as they have in Yemen during the past three years. Let us not now pretend that the GCC Initiative is responsible for catapulting women to the forefront of negotiations. Yemen, in its own right, has been in the vanguard when it comes to female leadership in the Peninsula. Bravo to Yemen’s female leaders. We wish their Tunisian, Egyptian, and Syrian, much less their Saudi, Omani, and Qatari comrades as much of a public voice.
The second and more profound problem with these external narratives is their tendency to portray Yemen’s problems as purely endogenous self-inflicted wounds. This is inaccurate. The presence of AQAP fighters might rightfully be construed as a product of the breakdown of the rule of law under Salih; there is plenty of evidence that he or his conniving commandants played jihadi militants against foreign benefactors to creatively cultivate chaos. Nonetheless, al-Qa’ida’s ambitions in the Arabian Peninsula are not focused on impoverished Yemen. Rather, AQAP’s targets are the House of Saud, perhaps other GCC royal families, and the formidable American military machine that protects them. Al-Qa’ida exists on the Arabian Peninsula principally to resist the American 5th Fleet and other and other land, air, and sea installations in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Many, if not most, of the hundreds or perhaps now thousands of jihadi militants in Yemen are foreign fighters who are less concerned with the outcome of power struggles in Sana’a than with the ownership and protection of GCC carbon resources.
The GCC and the United States are engaged in retrograde policies in Yemen. The American role is especially reactionary. Washington does not have a Yemen policy, much less a progressive vision for the country. Instead, American policies in the Peninsula privilege the permanence and prosperity of the GCC monarchies, notably the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations have regarded Yemen as a real place with real politics. Instead, they have bowed to the misogynist Saudi gerontocracy in treating Yemeni politics as a problem to be managed for the sake of Gulf stability. President Obama’s visit with King Abdallah on March 28/29 is meant to reassure the House of Saud that Washington has its interests at heart.
The American drone war in Yemen contradicts ostensible goals of democratization and institutionalization of the rule of law. Remote-controlled counter-terror pot-shots are announced (if at all) in the American press as defensive measures against a supposedly formidable adversary said to threaten the US homeland. More often, they are not reported. A series of deadly strikes in early March 2014 were barely mentioned. Yet many Yemenis – the human rights community and plenty of illiterate peasants – are discomfited by the American practice of extra-judicially executing mere suspects.
Let us not pretend that the American, the Saudi, or the GCC blueprint for Yemen envisions social justice, feminine empowerment, or liberal democracy. It has not and probably never will. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, does not treat Yemen as a place where citizens have real aspirations. Instead, it is seen as a ‘theater’ of operations for the ‘war on terror’ in the backyard of the Saudi monarchy. The discourse of ‘rule of law’ invokes surveillance and policing, not justice or due process.