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From one Yemen to a dissolution of Saudi Arabia

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As political crisis turns into civil war, Yemen’s embattled president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has appealed for international help. Yemen’s northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia has been very nervous about both Bahrain and Yemen uprisings, unfolded since 2011. Regime in Riyadh unconvincingly warns it will “take necessary measures if needed” and currently the Saudis are reportedly grouping artillery and other heavy military equipment close to the border. Most observers agree, this move is a show off made for the domestic Saudi consumption, to prevent panic and demoralisation.

Almost constantly since its foundation in 1932, Saudi Arabia has been involved in Yemen politically, and sometimes militarily – far too often with negative consequences for Yemen. Is the increased Iranian influence in Yemen a game changer? Could this ultimately lead to a complete dissolution of Saudi Arabia as a state? Is (con-)federalisation of Saudi Arabia the best long term option?

Yemen has long been the odd man out in the Arabian peninsula: poor, populous and republican in a region dominated by extraordinarily wealthy but less populated monarchies. Even without the presence of al-Qaeda, it has generally been viewed warily by its neighbours.
Relations with Saudi Arabia have always been a central feature of Yemeni foreign policy, not merely because the kingdom is the dominant state in the peninsula and Yemen’s most important neighbour, but also because the Saudis’ perception of their security needs is that they should seek to influence Yemen as much as possible in order to prevent it from becoming a threat.

According to this view, Saudi interests are best served by keeping Yemen “on the wobble” (as one western diplomat put it) – though not so wobbly that regional stability is jeopardised. Before the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, this amounted to ensuring that both parts of the country focused their attentions on each other rather than on their non-Yemeni neighbours.
For that strategy to succeed, it was essential to maintain an equilibrium between both parts, so that neither became dominant. Thus Soviet support for the south was generally matched by Saudi support for the north, coupled with frequent meddling in the internal affairs of both parts. To some extent, the north exploited this policy to its own financial advantage, but even so there were drawbacks. Most importantly, it created dependence on the Saudis. Apart from official aid and unofficial aid (in the form of bribes to various tribal leaders), by the 1980s remittances from Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia had become the mainstay of the northern economy.

The Treaty of Taif, 1934
Just two years after establishing Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud fought a brief war with Yemen. Details of the conflict are not particularly relevant today but its result was the Treaty of Ta’if which for the first time formally demarcated part of the border between the two countries. This was the westernmost part of the border, adjacent to the Red Sea, and in the process several ethnically Yemeni areas became Saudi territory. However, because on kinship ties on both sides, and other factors such as animal herding, the border proved difficult to control.
Letters exchanged by Saudi and Yemeni leaders at the signing of the Ta’if treaty could be interpreted as allowing relatively unrestricted Yemeni entry into the kingdom. Naturally, Sana’a made a point of interpreting them in this way and regarded them as an integral part of the treaty.
By the time of the oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s, this had resulted in countless Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia. Northern Yemenis were allowed to enter the kingdom on terms which were easier than those for nationals of other countries (including the southern Yemen). They had no need for a Saudi sponsor, and were allowed to own businesses without the customary Saudi partner. In the view of Sana’a, these privileges were not merely a favour bestowed by the Saudis but amounted to a legal right.
Together with dependants, the number of Yemenis living in Saudi Arabia probably approached two million at its peak. Although in the short term their remittances brought tremendous benefits to north Yemen, the longer-term effects were more debatable. In the first place, the remittances tied north Yemen’s economy to Saudi Arabia – which meant it would suffer if political relations deteriorated. Meanwhile, the influx of cash into Yemen from expatriate workers caused inflation and huge disparities in wealth where the families who had no members working abroad were the first to suffer. Agriculture declined as able-bodied workers drifted away from the countryside, leaving villages populated largely by women and those males who were either too old or too young to work abroad. Gradually, the delicate system of mountain terraces began to fall into disrepair, leading to soil erosion and further agricultural decline.
Even at its best, the relationship between the Saudis and their Yemeni guest-workers was by no means harmonious: the Saudis, for their part, seem to have feared that Yemenis in the kingdom might foment opposition to the monarchy. Yemenis, in turn, also complained of ingratitude. It was their labour, they said, which had built Saudi Arabia – without adequate compensation. They had performed many of the jobs that Saudis were unwilling or too lazy to perform themselves. Many Yemenis complained of discrimination and harsh treatment in Saudi Arabia. Comparisons are sometimes drawn here with the British attitude towards Irish labourers. The late Fred Halliday, for instance, quoted one elderly Yemeni living in Britain as saying: “The Irish are like the Yemenis. They built London, just as the Yemenis built Saudi Arabia. No wonder the Saudis and the English get on so well – they don’t do any work.”

Yemen’s civil war, 1962-1970
A rebellion against the Iman’s rule in northern Yemen led to a protracted civil war. Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia (along with Jordan) intervened in support of the royalist cause, equipping royalist tribes and hiring hundred of foreign mercenaries. Britain provided covert support and the Shah of Iran helped with financial support since the Imam, like today’s Houthis, was a Shia Muslim from the Zaidi sect.
Meanwhile, Nasser’s Egypt backed the republican side, sending 70,000 troops as well as chemical weapons (which were actually used). This proved a military debacle which has been described as Egypt’s Vietnam.
Saudi Arabia pulled out in 1965 and Egypt recalled its troops in 1967 in the wake of its defeat nearer home at the hands of Israel. The civil war ended with northern Yemen becoming a republic.

Yemeni unification, 1990
In 1990 northern Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic, ruled by Ali Abdullah Saleh since 1978) and the southern Marxist-ruled People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen united to form a single state, the Republic of Yemen.
Although Yemen’s peninsular neighbours formally welcomed unification (since they were obliged to pay lip-service to Arab unity), in reality they greeted it with a mixture of coolness and consternation. For some of them, the fact that Yemen espoused democratisation along with unification made the changes doubly disturbing.
Yemen ‘s unification created a new state with a combined population of around 15 million citizens. Though population figures in the Arabian peninsula tend to be unreliable, Yemenis greatly outnumbered Kuwaitis, Omanis, Qataris, Bahrainis and Emiratis. They also equalled or possibly outnumbered Saudi citizens. Yemen’s comparatively large population, further enlarged by unification and coupled with a high birth rate, may not have been of much practical consequence at the time but it was one of the psychological factors lurking in the background.
For Gulf rulers, the political changes that accompanied Yemeni unification were no less disconcerting psychologically. In a region where states are generally run along the autocratic lines of a 19th-century family business, multi-party democracy tended to be perceived as no less revolutionary than the old Marxist regime in south Yemen.
Firstly, there were fears that democratisation in Yemen could create pressure for similar measures in Saudi Arabia and upset the stability of the monarchy. Secondly, there was the fear that Saudi opposition groups might look to Yemen for support, and that Sana’a, well aware of Saudi support for opposition groups in Yemen, might feel justified in providing it.
Saudi Arabia’s wary – even hostile – attitude towards Yemeni unification, coupled with Yemeni anxieties about the kingdom’s reaction, exacerbated relations during the early 1990s. At about the same time, three additional factors came into play. One was the discovery in Yemen, starting from the mid-1980s, of modest but useful quantities of oil and natural gas; the second was renewed interest in the border question and the third was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In combination these brought a rapid worsening of relations.

The Gulf War, 1990-91
Unification also came at a time when Saddam Hussein of Iraq, after the war with Iran, was adopting an increasingly belligerent stance towards Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; having fought Iran in part as their proxy, he was now seeking recompense. Yemen itself had long-standing relations with Iraq: the original connections were religious, but the two countries also had economic, military and political ties. There was a strong element of Iraqi-orientated Ba’athism in north Yemeni politics, and at an international level the country had tended to align itself with Iraq rather the Gulf states. President Saleh regularly used Iraqi military advisers and his Republican Guard was modelled on Saddam’s. Furthermore, Yemeni troops had fought alongside Iraqis in the war with Iran.
The formation of the Arab Co-operation Council in 1989, consisting of Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and Jordan, was seen by some as the birth of a new alliance which might one day challenge the GCC. There is also no doubt that Saddam supported and encouraged Yemeni unification – to the extent that some have claimed, in the light of the invasion of Kuwait a few months later, that he saw it as a building-block in his regional master-plan. Had the Arab Co-operation Council become a success and also developed into a military alliance, the Saudis would have had good reason to be alarmed. As it turned out, however, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (and the international response to it) forced Yemen’s relations with Saddam to be drastically scaled down – but not without causing enormous damage in the meantime.
Less than three months after unification, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait presented Yemen with a stark dilemma. It had long-standing links with Iraq; at the same time, it depended on remittances from Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Whatever Yemen decided to do, it was bound to suffer. Opting for what it saw as a middle course, Yemen simultaneously condemned the invasion of Kuwait and opposed Western military intervention, arguing instead for a regional – Arab – solution. In this it differed little from several other “neutral’’ Arab states, but as the only Arab member of the UN Security Council at the time, Yemen possibly felt it had a special responsibility on behalf of the Arab world. In any event, it was in a uniquely exposed position and its behaviour came under special scrutiny.

In the first Security Council vote imposing trade sanctions against Iraq, which was carried on August 6 by 13 votes to nil, Yemen abstained along with Cuba. In a second vote on August 25, allowing military enforcement of the blockade, the voting pattern was the same. Later, Yemen voted against the use of force to recapture Kuwait and its stance was interpreted in the West as evidence of secret support for Saddam, and by Saudi Arabia as nothing less than betrayal. Although Yemen declared that it would observe sanctions (but would not “impede international navigation” by challenging ships suspected of breaking them), Western diplomats questioned its sincerity.
A few days before the Security Council’s second vote, an Iraqi tanker, Ain Zalah, had begun to unload crude oil at the Aden refinery, though work apparently halted as soon as Yemen announced its decision to abide by sanctions. Two other Iraqi tankers, al-Fao and al-Qadissiyah, arrived empty in Aden after being refused entry to a Saudi port. A fourth, Baba Gurgur, took refuge in Aden after earlier failing to stop when US Navy frigates fired warning shots across its bows. Unnamed diplomatic sources cited by Associated Press also claimed that Iraq had flown 12 captured Kuwaiti fighter aircraft to Sana’a and that 36 Iraqi warplanes had been stationed in Ta’izz. Yemeni government ministers emphatically denied that there were any Iraqi warplanes or Iraqi forces in the country. About the same time, the British Consul-General in Aden, Douglas Gordon, was briefly arrested and then expelled from Yemen for taking photographs in the port area.

Mass expulsions from Saudi Arabia
The outcome was that Yemen got the worst of all worlds, suffering more from the war than any other non-combatant country: UN sanctions cut off its trade with Iraq and the US cut off its aid (declaring Yemen’s vote “the most expensive no in history”). Saudi Arabia ended all economic assistance to Yemen and deployed troops in the frontier zone. In addition, it announced that Yemenis working in the kingdom must find a Saudi sponsor or business partner or leave the country. Almost none of them found sponsors or partners before the deadline, and within a few weeks some 750,000 people were bundled over the border into Yemen, many of them leaving behind most of their possessions. Those who owned property in Saudi Arabia were obliged to dispose of it quickly, which in most cases seems to have meant selling it for a fraction of its real worth. Needless to say, the withdrawal of privileges for Yemenis was interpreted in Sana’a as a breach of the Ta’if treaty.
This amounted to double punishment of Yemen, for not only did the country suffer a sudden loss of remittances but also faced the problem of absorbing this huge influx of returnees. In the space of three months, Yemen experienced a 7% increase in its population and a 15% increase in its workforce, severely exacerbating unemployment. To begin to comprehend the upheaval this caused, in proportional terms one would have to imagine close to four million British expatriates suddenly arriving at Dover – jobless and largely homeless.

The luckier returnees drifted back to their cities and villages. In Sana’a, a year later, they could be seen every morning, sitting by the kerbside at major cross-roads, hoping someone would hire them for a day’s work. Most were still there by nightfall. For months, several hundred thousand camped out on the hot and humid Tihama plain. The Yemeni government, arguing that they should not be treated as refugees in their own country, provided little comfort – hoping that this would encourage them to disperse. It worked up to a point. The numbers dwindled gradually, aided by outbreaks of cholera which at one point were killing 50-60 children every week.
By no means all of these people had close connections with Yemen. Some had never previously lived in Yemen; one woman claimed to be a Saudi citizen married to a Yemeni; others, of distinctly un-Yemeni appearance, were probably of east African origin. There was little doubt that the Saudis had taken this opportunity to expel not only Yemenis but anyone else who had no passport and seemed to be a burden on the state: the blind, the infirm, beggars, plus a few thieves and drug addicts.
The result of the expulsions was a hardening of attitudes on both sides. In Saudi eyes, their actions were justified retribution for Yemeni ingratitude after decades of economic assistance at a level that no other state had come close to providing. If the Saudis hoped the expelled Yemenis would blame the Sana’a government for their plight, they were mistaken. On the streets, in the buses and cafes, there was vigorous support for Yemen’s Gulf stance, coupled with undisguised admiration for Saddam Hussein.
A further wave of mass expulsions came in 2013 when the Saudi authorities began a crackdown on undocumented migrant workers. Millions of foreigners living or working in the kingdom were ordered to regularise their legal status or leave the country. Once again, this included large numbers of Yemenis who were peremptorily herded across the border.

The oil factor
Yemeni oil had begun to come on stream shortly before unification; by 1989 the northern fields were producing 200,000 barrels a day and proven reserves at the time were estimated at four billion barrels. Although modest in comparison with its neighbours’ oil resources, this gave Yemen, for the first time in its history, an independent source of wealth. Economic independence in turn held out the prospect of greater political independence because it made remittances and aid from Saudi Arabia less important. Internally, oil provided a substantial new source of revenue for the central government and, since existing tax revenue was extremely low, this created an opportunity for Sana’a to increase its control over the whole country by using its funds to benefit the more wayward tribes, possibly making some of the shaykhs less susceptible to Saudi bribery.
It was generally assumed that most forms of opposition and political intrigue in Yemen at the time were funded by the Saudis. There was no documentary evidence for this but the stories were so widespread as to suggest they contained a good deal of truth. At the start of the 1990s, the Islah party (rather than the YSP) was considered the main recipient of Saudi largesse. Apart from the more straightforward forms of subsidy, the Saudis appear to have made frequent use of bribes to achieve specific ends – though not always successfully. During the 1991 constitutional referendum, the men of Sa’ada in the far north were allegedly bribed to abstain from voting but defied the Saudis by sending their wives to vote instead. Later, during the 1994 war, a northern shaykh told friends he had been bribed by the Saudis to support the southern cause. When asked why he had failed to keep his side of the bargain, he replied: “The Saudis gave me only a little money”.
Another important effect of oil was to increase pressure for a settlement of the largely undefined border with Saudi Arabia. The issue had been of little practical consequence until the mid-1980s when Yemen discovered its first oil close to the notional line. Shortly afterwards Saudi Arabia began to assert territorial claims in oil concession areas allocated by Yemen, apparently to discourage further exploration by foreign companies under Yemeni auspices. In 1991 Saudi forces reportedly chased out a party of French geologists working in the Hadramaut region. The following year, the Saudis sent warning letters to six oil companies operating in Yemen: British Petroleum, Atlantic Richfield, Hunt Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Elf Aquitaine and Petro-Canada all received the warnings, according to diplomats in Sana’a. Most of them appear to have ignored the threats, though BP halted drilling work on a well in the Antufash block in the Red Sea.

Although the disputed oil areas were hugely important to Yemen, the quantities involved were marginal in terms of the Saudis’ overall production. This suggested that Saudi Arabia was less interested in acquiring the oil for itself than in depriving Yemen of the benefit in order to limit its prospects for economic development and independence. Possibly the Saudis also feared that Yemen would use its oil wealth to acquire modern weapons, as had happened with Iraq. Although oil revenue was unlikely to be sufficient to allow Yemen to build up its armed forces in the way Saddam Hussein had done, it did mean that for the first time Yemen would have the hard currency to buy weapons on the open market, should it choose to do so. It is important, however, not to over-estimate the military threat that Yemen was able to pose. Its financial resources were modest and likely to remain so; northern and southern forces were not integrated into a single fighting unit; and the main functions of the armies were (a) to maintain internal control and (b) provide employment of sorts for large numbers of young men.
Nevertheless, the border question was of such crucial importance to Yemen’s future that it was reasonable to suppose Sana’a might be prepared to fight for it. There was also reason to suppose that in a border conflict Yemen would not necessarily be defeated, despite the Saudis’ superior weapons. The Yemenis were likely to be more highly motivated than the Saudis, and the Saudis would have had to maintain forces at the far edge of the Empty Quarter, whereas the Yemenis would have much shorter lines of communication. With the outbreak of war over Kuwait, Yemeni oil assumed even greater importance. Oil revenue became a vital replacement for the loss of remittances following the enforced return of Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia; Yemen also began to consume its own oil rather than exporting it, because of the UN embargo on Iraqi oil. This, of course, added to concern over the border issue.

The border question
Yemen and Saudi Arabia shared one of the longest undefined borders in the world. Only a small part of the line had ever been agreed: a portion at the extreme north-western end stretching from a point just north of Midi on the Red Sea coast to Najran oasis. That was in 1934 under the Treaty of Ta’if, when, after a brief war, two ethnically Yemeni provinces, Asir and Najran, were ceded to the Saudis. The remaining eastern portion of the frontier – totally undefined – ran for almost 1,000 miles through mountains and desert, mostly unpopulated, on the fringes of the Empty Quarter. To the west, the maritime border in the Red Sea was also undefined, further hampering oil exploration.
Apart from the need for a settlement created by oil discoveries, there were a number of reasons why the border question came to the fore shortly after unification. From the Yemeni standpoint, unification made the mechanics of border talks more straightforward than previously because there would be only one Yemeni government negotiating with the Saudis instead of two. Meanwhile in 1992 the settlement of Yemen’s only other land border – with Oman – again tended to focus attention on the outstanding question of the Saudi border. Finally, the partial settlement of the border under the Treaty of Ta’if was due to lapse in 1992. Thus, by 1990 both parties were beginning to stake out their bargaining positions as a prelude to talks about renewal.

There were frequent Yemeni claims of Saudi troop movements in the frontier area. These usually coincided with periods of tension or new diplomatic moves on the border question. In October 1990, Saudi Arabia announced plans to construct a multi-billion dollar “military city” near Jizan at the north-western end of the border. This was to be one of a series in strategic areas, designed to house 50,000 officers and men with their families, and was described by Saudi officials as “a fortified bastion at our gates”. In 1991 a Yemeni border post at Baq’ah in north-west Yemen was reported to have been captured by Saudi troops, though Riyadh denied this. A bizarre diplomatic incident occurred in May 1992 when a Saudi weather forecast appeared to claim that the Kharakhayr region of Hadramaut belonged to the kingdom. As this was the birthplace of Vice-President al-Baid, it resulted in a stiff protest note from Sana’a. Further complicating the issue, about the same time, the Saudis were reported to be offering Saudi citizenship to some traditionally Yemeni border tribes in Shabwa, Hadramaut and al-Mahara provinces.
On the Yemeni side, the new unified constitution signalled a tough, uncompromising position when it stated in the opening sentence: “The Republic of Yemen is an independent sovereign state, an inviolable unit, no part of which may be relinquished.” The last phrase was an insertion which had not appeared in the previous YAR constitution. The Yemeni government also did little to discourage speculation that it hoped to recover the “lost provinces” ceded in 1934, though there is nothing to suggest that such rumblings were anything more than a negotiating ploy. Yemen’s declared aim was to extend the issue beyond the small area covered by the Ta’if treaty and to seek a comprehensive border settlement – which now appeared feasible for the first time as a result of unification.
Despite all the posturing, the border dispute was more than a mere quarrel between two neighbours; it was a genuinely difficult question involving complex and highly technical issues. Both sides had wildly divergent views as to where the border should lie – at some points on the basis of quite slender and conflicting evidence. One of the difficulties in resolving this was the number of different claims made over the years by both regimes or their predecessors. The other was agreeing on what criteria should be applied: the principle of self-determination was not applicable in unpopulated areas, and in most parts neither side had a history of local administration which might reinforce a claim. The respective claims were based on a number of lines on old maps: the Violet Line, the Hamza Line, the Riyadh Line, the Philby Line, etc., representing earlier claims which had been rejected by one side or the other. These lines not only diverged by up to 200 km in places, but also crossed, creating at one point a small triangle in the middle which appeared not to be claimed by either side.

A further, but related, issue was that the Saudis had long sought a land corridor southwards to the Arabian Sea (and thence to the Indian Ocean). Strategically, their oil exports were potentially vulnerable to a military blockade because tankers from Saudi ports had to pass through one of three narrow waterways, none of which the Saudis controlled directly: the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf, and the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab at each end of the Red Sea. A pipeline to the open sea in the south would thus provide extra security. This was not strictly part of the border dispute (since the corridor was a Saudi desire rather than a claim) though in practice the two issues tended to be linked.
Shortly before the south achieved independence in 1967 there had been strong suspicions, particularly within the National Liberation Front, that Britain and Saudi Arabia were plotting an east-west partition in the south, or possibly even to hand the eastern provinces of Hadramawt and al-Mahra to the Saudis. The idea originally seems to have been to reduce instability in the region caused by Britain’s withdrawal from the Aden naval base, though it would also have improved the kingdom’s strategic position. After southern independence, Saudi-sponsored subversion in the south appears to have been aimed at separating the eastern provinces from Aden and the west. Although these suspicions were not confirmed, they arose out of a meeting between King Faisal and Harold Wilson, the British prime minster, early in 1967. They were further fuelled by the fact that Britain handed the traditionally Yemeni Kuria Muria islands to Oman shortly before southern independence.
Subsequently, the Saudis proposed the corridor idea to both Oman and the PDRY – and both refused. In principle Yemen had no objection to a pipeline; the sticking point was that the Saudis, presumably for security reasons, had insisted on having full sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of it. For a time, one possibility was to locate the corridor between Yemen and Oman, but that option was closed in 1992 following agreement on the hitherto undefined border with Oman. It is conceivable that the corridor plan was one factor behind the Saudis’ encouragement of southern separatism in 1994. If the secession had succeeded, granting a corridor would have been the most obvious way to repay the Saudis for their support.
The poor state of Yemeni-Saudi relations resulting from the Gulf war made talks on the border issue impossible during 1990 and 1991. They started, after a decent interval, with a ministerial meeting in Geneva in July 1992 and continued spasmodically and somewhat half-heartedly, for almost two years. They were broken off on April 26, 1994, just as the political crisis in Yemen was turning to war. It was not until 2000 that the issue was finally settled by the Treaty of Jeddah.

North-south war, 1994
Shortly after unification tensions developed between the former leaders of north and south Yemen. Failure to integrate the armies of the two former states also contributed to the outbreak, in 1994, of a war between them. However, in the space of a few weeks, Saleh’s northern forces (with Islamist backing) defeated the southern fighters and reimposed unity by force.
The Saudis backed the losing side, providing them with weapons – some of which were still arriving as the war had ended. They later provided refuge for some of the key southern leaders who continued agitating against Saleh from inside the kingdom.

The end of the border dispute
Tensions between Yemen and Saudi Arabia continued in the aftermath of the north-south war. A series of border skirmishes culminated in 1995 with reports of a large military build-up by the Saudis at three points in the border area just as Saleh was leaving Yemen on a rare – and diplomatically important – tour of Europe.
Resolving the border issue was no easy task. Only a small part of the frontier, in the populated north-western corner, had ever been defined and by 1994 the Ta’if treaty which defined it had technically lapsed. The remaining 1,000 miles or so had never been agreed. Since this undefined section ran mostly through desert on the fringes of the Empty Quarter its precise location had little importance until the mid-1980s when Yemen discovered oil close to the notional line.
For a while, the Yemenis talked of submitting the question to international arbitration but in 2000 both sides surprisingly reached an agreement which was set out in the Treaty of Jeddah. One consequence of this, besides defining the border, was that Saudi Arabia agreed to stop supporting the southern separatists.
Despite the agreement, though, the border remained porous and difficult to police. At the western end in particular there was a good deal of unauthorised movement across it, including smuggling activity.

The Houthi rebellion
From 2004 onwards, the Yemeni government fought a series of wars aimed at crushing Zaidi rebels – popularly known as the Houthis – in the far north of the country, adjacent to the Saudi border.
The last of these campaigns under Saleh’s presidency, dubbed “Operation Scorched Earth” by the Yemeni government, began in August 2009 an ended with a ceasefire in February 2010. On that occasion Saudi Arabia also intervened militarily, bombing Houthi positions in Yemen in support of Saleh’s forces.
The Saudis were especially anxious to prevent the Houthi conflict overspilling into their southern provinces and came up with a drastic solution: to depopulate the kingdom’s border area. Thousands of people from some 400 villages were forcibly uprooted and transferred to makeshift camps.

The Saudis also seized this opportunity to tackled other border-related issues. In the first six months of 2009, more than 120,000 people were detained for trying to enter the kingdom illegally, according to a Border Guard report, and in one two-week period an astonishing total of 30,557 people were allegedly arrested for smuggling offences. The smuggling trade was said to include weapons, hashish, qat, “shamma” snuff and alcohol. A report in Okaz newspaper said:
“The villages on the border assist their Yemeni counterparts in smuggling, with Saudi homes and Yemeni homes sometimes separated by no more than a few metres.
“Smugglers and infiltrators use abandoned houses as hiding places before moving on to the main cities in the kingdom, and use donkeys at night, navigating their way along tracks that take them around checkpoints, and sometimes seeking the help of local shepherds to keep them aware of any police presence.”
The Houthi rebellion, though, was partly a result of Saudi missionary activities. A major factor leading up to the Houthi conflict was rivalry between the majority of Zaidi Shiites and a growing minority of men who had converted from Zaidism to the salafi or Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, according to Shelagh Weir, a veteran Yemen watcher.
Though ostensibly religious, this rivalry also had a social dimension, Weir told a conference in London. Converts included men who occupied the bottom of the traditional status hierarchy and bitterly resented their social disadvantage, as well as youths who resented the power of the older generation or were attracted by the charisma of salafi leaders and their obvious financial resources. “Certain sheikhs openly or tacitly supported salafism for personal or anti-Zaidi reasons or because of the subsidies they received from Saudi Arabia.”
Weir continued:
“During the 1990s the growth of socially-divisive salafism within the heartlands of Zaidi Islam was encouraged and funded by officials and business interests in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Salafis increasingly mocked or questioned the beliefs and rituals of the Zaidi majority, threatening them in mosques and accusing them of wanting the return of the imam [i.e. the end of the republican system] – though this was publicly denied by the Zaidi clerics.”
Inevitably, the aggressive salafi/Wahhabi proselytising triggered a response from the other side, with the Houthis seeking to defend Zaidi rights in the Saadah region.
Saudi Arabia’s successful campaign to eradicate al-Qaeda from the kingdom also had the effect of driving militants into Yemen and caused AQAP, the local branch of al-Qaeda, to focus its attention there. Since the Houthis and al-Qaeda are sworn enemies, that also exacerbated the problems in Yemen.

What next?
Given this historical background, it will be surprising if the Saudis do not become involved in the unfolding events in Yemen. What form this will take remains to be seen but the Saudis probably know Yemen well enough to avoid the folly of sending their own ground forces. They might engage in air strikes and, on past form, provide money and equipment. Even that would be dangerous though, because it would invite a response from Iran whose support for the Houthis has so far been verbal rather than tangible.
Also based on past form, the overall effect of any Saudi involvement is unlikely to be positive.

 

First published by Palestinian Pundit under title: ‘Yemen and Saudi Arabia – a historical review’.

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Middle East

Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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Middle East

Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.

Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.

The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.

This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.

The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.

These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.

With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as  the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.

Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.

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Middle East

“Kurdish Spring”: drawing to a close?

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For decades, the Kurdish problem was overshadowed by the Palestinian one, occasionally popping up in international media reports following the much-publicized arrest of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the genocide of Iraqi Kurds and the scandalous referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. A few years ago, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds’ opposition to the “Islamic State” (banned in Russia) pushed them to the forefront of global politics with the media now talking about the so-called “Kurdish Spring.”

In short, the Kurdish problem boils down not only to the absence of independent statehood for 40 million people, who account for approximately 20 percent of the population of Turkey and Iraq, and between eight and 15 percent of Iran and Syria, but also to the refusal by Ankara, Tehran and Damascus to discuss the possibility of an autonomous status for the Kurds. Today, the very issue of Kurdish independence is being hushed up, at least in public.

The first example of Kurdish statehood in modern history was in Iran: in 1946, the Kurdish Autonomous Republic was proclaimed in the city of Mahabad, only to survive less than a year. Since then, the Iranian authorities have spared no effort to make sure the name of one of the country’s provinces (Kurdistan Ostan) is the only remainder of the Kurds’ presence in the Islamic Republic. The situation is further aggravated by the fact that the Kurds, most of whom happen to be Sunnis, are a hurdle on Tehran’s official course to achieve the religious unity of the Iranian people.

Since all Kurdish organizations, let alone political parties, are outlawed, most of them are based in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. For most Kurdish organizations, the original goal of gaining independence has increasingly been transformed into a demand for autonomy for Kurds inside Iran.

The other “pole” of Kurdish nationalism is Iraqi Kurdistan. The history of the region’s autonomy goes back to 1970, and since the 90s, it has been sponsored by the Americans, who needed a ground base for the “Gulf War.” In 2003, the Iraqi Peshmerga helped the Anglo-American troops to topple the country’s ruling Ba’athist regime.

Under the current Iraqi constitution, Kurdistan enjoys broad autonomy, bordering on the status of an independent state with nearly 40 foreign consulates general, including a Russian one, officially operating in the regional capital Erbil, and in Sulaymaniyah.

Following the referendum on independence (2017), which was not recognized by either Baghdad or the world community (except Israel), Baghdad sent troops into the region, forcing the resignation of the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Massoud Barzani. He has maintained a close presence though, with both the current president and the prime minister bearing the same surname.

According to various sources, the armed forces of the Iraqi Kurds number between 80,000 to 120,000, armed with heavy weapons, armored vehicles and tanks, and their number keeps growing. Who are they going to fight? Erbil is on fairly good terms with Turkey and Iran, the autonomy’s two “windows to the world,” and you don’t need a huge army to keep the remnants of jihadist forces in check, do you? Iraq? Iraq is a different matter though, given the presence of disputed territories, the unsettled issue of distribution of oil export revenues, and a deep-seated rejection of the 2017 Iraqi military invasion.

However, the political ambitions of the Barzani and Talabani clans, who divided Iraqi Kurdistan into zones of influence back in the 70s, are obviously offset by oil revenues, and are unlikely to extend beyond the “return” of the territories lost to Baghdad in 2017.

The Turkish factor is a major factor in the life of Iraqi Kurdistan: several thousand Turkish military personnel are deployed there, checking the activity of mountains-based armed units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is branded by Ankara as a “terrorist” organization. Baghdad is unhappy about their presence, while Erbil, rather, pretends to be unhappy as it is in a state of undeclared war with the PKK itself. At the same time, Turkish soldiers are standing by to nip in the bud any further attempts by the region’s Kurdish authorities to gain sovereignty as Ankara fears that an independent Kurdish state will set a “bad example” for Kurds living in Turkey proper.

During the 1980s, several regions in southeastern Turkey declared themselves “liberated” from Ankara. In 1984, the “Marxist-Leninist” PKK (created in 1978) prevailed over all the other local Kurdish groups and declared war on the Turkish authorities. Following the arrest of their leader in 1999, the PKK militants were squeezed out of the country into Syria and Iraq, despite the fact that discarding the slogan of creating a “united and independent” Kurdistan, the party had already settled for a demand for Kurdish autonomy within Turkish borders.

For many decades, the Turkish authorities denied the very existence of Kurds as an ethnic group. During the 2000s, in a bid to sweeten the pill for the Kurds, and meeting the requirements of the European Union, the Turkish government came up with the so-called “Kurdish initiative,” lifting the ban on the use of the Kurdish language, returning Kurdish names to a number of settlements, etc.

Legal organizations and parties, advocating the rights of the Kurds, were granted greater freedom of action. However, this did not prevent the authorities from banning such parties for “connections with terrorists” and “separatism.” The current Kurdish party (creation of any associations on a national basis is prohibited) – the Peoples’ Democracy Party – is also under serious pressure with some of its leading members currently behind bars.

However, the apparent defeat in the military conflict with NATO’s second largest army is forcing Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists to focus on a legal political struggle.

During the past few years the main attention of the international community has for obvious reasons been focused on the Syrian Kurds, who for many decades remained “second-class citizens” or even stateless persons in their own country. Any manifestations of discontent, which occasionally boiled over into uprisings, was severely suppressed by the authorities.

With the outbreak of the civil war, the Kurds assumed the position of armed neutrality, and in 2012, announced the creation of their own statehood with the capital in El Qamishli. Six years later, the name of the quasi-state was changed from a “democratic federation” to an “autonomous administration,” meant to demonstrate the refusal by the authorities of Syrian Kurdistan to pursue their initial demand for independence.

Needless to say, that change of priorities was prompted by the occupation by Turkish troops and their proxies of parts of the Kurdish territories. In 2019, Ankara halted its military advance only after the Kurds had allowed Syrian troops into the areas under their control, and international players “dissuaded” Ankara from any further expansion.

In addition to the Turkish factor, another important factor with a serious bearing on the situation are US troops and members of American military companies who remain in northeastern Syria without any legal grounds for their presence.  Back when the current US President was Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he promoted the idea of ​​creating a Kurdish state in Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have long lost their faith in Washington’s desire to grant them independence, but in bargaining with Damascus for the delimitation of powers, they never miss a chance to refer to US support.

However, in recent years, the Syrian Kurds (and not only them) have had ample opportunity to feel the results of Washington’s unreliability as a partner.

A lack of trust in the Americans, on the one hand, and the constant threat from Turkey, on the other, are forcing the Kurdish leaders to ramp up the negotiation process with the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic. Moreover, the Kurds are pinning their hopes for the success of the negotiations primarily on the mediation of Russia, given Moscow’s allied relations with the Syrian authorities. Besides, Moscow maintains working ties with the leadership of the self-proclaimed autonomy, and with the leaders of the opposition Kurdish parties.

Meanwhile, the negotiations are stalling with Damascus opposed to the idea of either autonomy or the preservation of the Kurdish armed forces’ organizational independence. It is still imperative, however, for the sides to agree on certain conditions. The “return” of the Kurds can become a turning point in the intra-Syrian confrontation as the Americans will feel too “uncomfortable” in a united Syria, and the Turks will lose the main argument for their continued occupation of the border zone, which will now be controlled not by “terrorists,” but by the central government. Which, by the way, is gaining more and more legitimacy even in the eyes of yesterday’s irreconcilable opponents.

From our partner International Affairs

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