On 4 December 2017, former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh was assassinated in his home country. His murder came after clashes in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and a schism within the tactical alliance Ansar Allah (often termed “the Houthi movement” in the media) and supporters of Saleh, primarily, the Republican Guard.
Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to step down as president following mass protests in 2011–2012 in exchange for full immunity from prosecution for the actions he took during his term in office. The deal was supported by the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC). The process of transferring power from Saleh to his Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi (a native of South Yemen) was launched. According to Sergei Serebrov, Saleh’s removal was largely linked to a tribal rift in the country’s political elites, which had been latent and deepening since 2007.
In 2015, President Hadi was forced to flee the capital after Houthi forces seized control. Later on, the Houthi movement and the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, formed a tactical alliance. Hadi, in turn, took refuge in Saudi Arabia, which intervened in Yemen’s domestic conflict. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in conjunction with the Gulf Coalition (hereinafter, the “Coalition”) and enjoying the full support of the United States, the United Kingdom, etc., commenced bombing the positions of the Houthis and their followers. Not only did the operation aggravate the humanitarian situation, it also failed to facilitate any kind of political process. The Yemen peace talks in Kuwait were similarly unsuccessful. The United Nations described the ongoing situation in Yemen as catastrophic: the healthcare system was destroyed; 7 million people were on the verge of famine; and there were some 300,000 confirmed cases of cholera. The humanitarian situation in Yemen has continued to deteriorate.
The clashes that took place last week were triggered by Saleh’s decision to switch allegiances, as well as by his harsh rhetoric against the Houthis. He announced that he was ending cooperation with Ansar Allah and was ready to support the officially recognized government led by Hadi, accusing the Houthis of crimes against the Yemenis. However, to most of the country’s population and part of the Republic of Yemen Armed Forces, it sounded like their former President had betrayed them. The sentiment was carefully stoked by Houthi-controlled media and other Yemeni communications channels, with the Coalition announcing its support for Saleh further fanning the flames. What is more, the Hadi government made an announcement promising a new law that would pardon everybody who severed ties with Ansar Allah. Essentially, the situation was spun in such a way as to make it appear that Saleh had succumbed to the temptation to support rich Arab monarchies that had been blockading and bombing Yemen for three years.
Another factor, though not a key driver in the political processes, still deserves to be mentioned. The Houthis also see the killing of Ali Abdullah Saleh as revenge for the founder of their movement, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who died in the Yemeni war in 2004 (during the 1990s and 2000s, Saleh led around six wars against the Houthis). Hussein al-Houthi is considered a martyr to the Houthis and is often referred to as Hussein of Yemen, a reference to one of the central figures in Shia Islam – the grandson of Prophet Muhammad Husayn ibn Ali killed by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid in Karbala in 680.
Saleh’s forces were defeated, and Ahmed Ali Saleh will now have to bring together what is left of them.
Regional Forces in Yemen and the Possible Balance of Power after Saleh’s Death
The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (and, to a certain extent, Qatar) are the most influential actors in the history of Yemen. Western and pan-Arab media often refer to Iran, and more specifically, to Hezbollah, as the Houthi’s main sponsors. However, many Russian experts regard this position as a completely intentional and hysterical exaggeration of Iran’s role in Yemen. Although the Gulf Coalition has continued as a united front for a while, it soon became clear that each party is pursuing its own interests and goals. As such, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are known to have certain tensions which are not obvious from their joint rhetoric. While Riyadh supported President Hadi and took part in military operations in Yemen, albeit quite erratically, the United Arab Emirates gained more influence in South Yemen in pursuit of its own project to establish control over major ports in the Gulf of Aden. To illustrate, the United Arab Emirates already has military bases deployed on the Mayyun (Perim) and Socotra (both in Yemen) islands, in the port of Assab (including its airport, Eritrea), Djibouti (including its airport) and the military base in Berbera (Somalia).
The differences between Abu Dhabi and Doha are even more irreconcilable when it comes to the United Arab Emirate’s uncompromising position on Qatar’s Muslim Brotherhood (many experts argue that domestic Yemeni actors should not be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood). They have also added fuel to the ongoing crisis within the GCC, since tensions remain between Qatar and other GCC monarchies.
Reportedly, President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has appointed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, head of the Republican Guard. It should be mentioned that Ahmed Ali Saleh has been at the helm of the Republican Guard before, but has been residing in the United Arab Emirates as of late. Before the Coalition took up arms against the Houthis, he was Yemen’s ambassador to Abu Dhabi. He was then arrested in the United Arab Emirates. Ahmed Ali Saleh is believed to have been the liaison between his father and the powerful Al Nahyan family (who have a strong influence on the position of the Saudi-led Coalition through their close ties with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman). It is possible that the unexpected shift in Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rhetoric was brought about by certain agreements between him and the United Arab Emirates (and, through the United Arab Emirates, with the Coalition), but he ended up making a miscalculation. Saleh’s forces were scattered, and it is up to Ahmed Ali now to bring together what is left of them.
The collapse of the Saleh–Houthi alliance will without a doubt tip the balance of Yemeni political forces. This does not mean, however, the change will be for the better, and the Coalition will finally be able to destroy all the Houthi forces. We will most likely see further fragmentation of the political forces within the country. This article will not dwell on the role of the Al-Islah Party, the Southern Movement (al-Hirak), or even Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. The Houthis emerge as a fairly solid force against this background, even if they have been weakened somewhat by recent events. Even taking the intended merger of the forces of Ahmed Saleh, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Coalition into account, the Houthis will still enjoy strong positions in the north and remain a key player in Yemen. As for the General People’s Congress, led until recently by Saleh, Ansar Allah said: “The General People’s Congress remains our partner in the Supreme Political Council and in counteracting aggression. We need to intensify our cooperation.” Iranian politicians like to add another factor into the mix when the Houthis are defined as “rebels.” According to some political figures in Iran, Zaydis (followers of the Zaidiyyah sect of Islam widely represented in North Yemen) and Zaydi imams have ruled Yemen for centuries, and the Houthis represent this very part of the Zaydi population which is so essential for the Yemen political scene.
Moscow: Keeping Tabs
According to a press statement published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, on August 21, 2017, Russia’s Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov received the newly appointed Ambassador of the Yemen Arab Republic to Moscow Ahmed Salem Al-Wahishi, who presented his diplomatic credentials. The move established an official Yemeni representative in Moscow, although, given the deep political crisis tearing the country apart, it was unclear exactly which side Al-Wahishi was intended to represent. On July 13, 2017, President of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, acting largely with the backing of Saudi Arabia, appointed him ambassador to Moscow. The new ambassador is believed to be a compromise between Mansur Hadi and former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh. The appointment was in large part made possible by the fact that Moscow blocked almost every other candidate for the position from the Hadi government if they were known to be exclusively pro-Saudi in their political leanings.
What does Moscow stand to gain from issuing accreditation to a Hadi-appointed ambassador? Russia has shown it is ready to mediate in the crisis, but nothing more. Moscow has sought to alleviate some of the tensions in its relations with Saudi Arabia on the Yemen matter, while maintaining a multi-faceted approach. It has continued to work with all the actors in the crisis on different levels. Pragmatists on every side of the conflict benefitted from Russia’s move, since it put them on a path towards political dialogue. However, it is likely that Russia will abstain from any actual action on the ground to reinforce its diplomatic efforts due to its limited resources and current foreign policy priorities. Therefore, Russia’s commitment to promoting the political process can be defined as long-term.
In this context, we cannot avoid mentioning the Syrian conflict and possible relevant trade-offs between Saudi Arabia and Russia. However, it would be unreasonable to tie the conflicts in Syria and in Yemen together, even though some Russian experts believe that Syrian armed groups with connections to certain Saudi circles pose the greatest threat to the so-called de-escalation zones.
It should be noted that the Yemen crisis involves a variety of regional forces. If Russia were looking to take on a more active role, it would have to synchronize its interests with those players. Until recently, Russia was generally aligned with Iran and the domestic Yemeni forces it supported (in words rather than deeds, but occasionally also with some actual “ground” support), i.e. the Houthis and Saleh. The latter repeatedly urged Russia to return to Yemen by building a military base. However, despite Yemen’s logistical value, Russia, as we have pointed out above, has no reason to become actively involved in the matter and spend its resources in this part of the region. Moscow is quite satisfied with the current terms of access to the Gulf of Aden. Furthermore, Russia having a presence in Syria gave Russia the opportunity to influence key regional players (where the Astana process started), something which Yemen did not have. In any event, the Houthis will command strong positions in North Yemen and remain a key player on the country’s political scene.
The accreditation of the ambassador was thus an entry point to regional processes for Moscow. While this involvement has to be maintained, although it is not worth taking serious steps in circumvention of the UN Security Council. Furthermore, Moscow should revisit the security of Russian representatives in Sana’a. There should not be any radical changes in Russia’s politics in this area. Moscow will maintain working contacts with all the players involved, while taking the actual circumstances into account. This will help prepare Moscow for any possible further changes.
First published in our partner RIAC
Battling for the Future: Arab Protests 2.0
Momentous developments across Arab North and East Africa suggest the long-drawn-out process of political transition in the region as well as the greater Middle East is still in its infancy.
So does popular discontent in Syria despite eight years of devastating civil war and Egypt notwithstanding a 2013 military coup that rolled back the advances of protests in 2011 that toppled Hosni Mubarak and brought one of the country’s most repressive regimes to power.
What developments across northern Africa and the Middle East demonstrate is that the drivers of the 2011 popular revolts that swept the region and forced the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen to resign not only still exist but constitute black swans that can upset the apple cart at any moment.
The developments also suggest that the regional struggle between forces of change and ancien regimes and militaries backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is far from decided.
If anything, protesters in Algeria and Sudan have learnt at least one lesson from the failed 2011 results: don’t trust militaries even if they seemingly align themselves with demonstrators and don’t surrender the street until protesters’ demands have been fully met.
Distrust of the military has prompted an increasing number of Sudanese protesters to question whether chanting “the people and the army are one” is still appropriate. Slogans such as “freedom, freedom” and “revolution, revolution” alongside calls on the military to protect the protesters have become more frequent.
The protests in Algeria and Sudan have entered a critical phase in which protesters and militaries worried that they could be held accountable for decades of economic mismanagement, corruption and repression are tapping in the dark.
With protesters emboldened by their initial successes in forcing leaders to resign, both the demonstrators and the militaries, including officers with close ties to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are internally divided about how to proceed.
Moreover, neither side has any real experience in managing the crossroads at which they find themselves while it is dawning on the militaries that their tired playbooks are not producing results.
In a telling sign, Sudan’s interim leader Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan praised his country’s “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as he met this week with a Saudi-Emirati delegation at the military compound in Khartoum, a focal point of the protests.
Saudi Arabia has expressed support for the protests in what many suspect is part of an effort to ensure that Sudan does not become a symbol of the power of popular sovereignty and its ability to defeat autocracy.
The ultimate outcome of the dramatic developments in Algeria and Sudan and how the parties manoeuvre is likely to have far-reaching consequences in a region pockmarked by powder kegs ready to explode.
Mounting anger as fuel shortages caused by Western sanctions against Syria and Iran bring life to a halt in major Syrian cities have sparked rare and widespread public criticism of president Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The anger is fuelled by reports that government officials cut in line at petrol stations to fill up their tanks and buy rationed cooking gas and take more than is allowed.
Syria is Here, an anonymous Facebook page that reports on economics in government-controlled areas took officials to task after state-run television showed oil minister Suleiman al-Abbas touring petrol stations that showed no signs of shortage.
“Is it so difficult to be transparent and forward? Would that undermine anyone’s prestige? We are a country facing sanctions and boycotted. The public knows and is aware,” the Facebook page charged.
The manager of Hashtag Syria, another Facebook page, was arrested when the site demanded that the oil ministry respond to reports of anticipated price hikes with comments rather than threats. The site charged that the ministry was punishing the manager “instead of dealing with the real problem.”
Said Syrian journalist Danny Makki: “It (Syria) is a pressure cooker.”
Similarly, authorities in Egypt, despite blocking its website, have been unable to stop an online petition against proposed constitutional amendments that could extend the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until 2034 from attracting more than 320,000 signatures as of this writing.
The petition, entitled Batel or Void, is, according to Netblocks, a group that maps web freedom, one of an estimated 34,000 websites blocked by Egyptian internet service providers in a bid to stymie opposition to the amendments.
Mr. El-Sisi is a reminder of how far Arab militaries and their Gulf backers are potentially willing to go in defense of their vested interests and willingness to oppose popular sovereignty.
Libyan renegade Field Marshall Khalifa Belqasim Haftar is another, Mr. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) is attacking the capital Tripoli, the seat of the United Nations recognized Libyan government that he and his Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian backers accuse of being dominated by Islamist terrorists.
The three Arab states’ military and financial support of Mr. Haftar is but the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Haftar has modelled his control of much of Libya on Mr. El-Sisi’s example of a military that not only dominates politics but also the economy.
As a result, the LNA is engaged in businesses ranging from waste management, metal scrap and waste export, and agricultural mega projects to the registration of migrant labour workers and control of ports, airports and other infrastructure. The LNA is also eyeing a role in the reconstruction of Benghazi and other war-devastated or underdeveloped regions.
What for now makes 2019 different from 2011 is that both sides of the divide realize that success depends on commitment to be in it for the long haul. Protesters, moreover, understand that trust in military assertions of support for the people can be self-defeating. They further grasp that they are up against a regional counterrevolution that has no scruples.
All of that gives today’s protesters a leg up on their 2011 counterparts. The jury is out on whether that will prove sufficient to succeed where protesters eight years ago failed.
As Marsha Lazareva languishes in jail, foreign businesses will “think twice” before investing in Kuwait
IF THERE IS one thing to glean from the case of Marsha Lazareva, it’s that foreign businesses must now think very carefully before investing in Kuwait.
For more than a year, Lazareva, who has a five-year-old son and is one of Russia’s most successful female investors in the Gulf, has been held in the Soulabaiya prison by Kuwaiti authorities. Those authorities claim she ‘stole’ half a billion dollars, a claim she strenuously denies.
Human rights groups and prominent officials, including the former FBI director, Louis Freeh, and Jim Nicholson, former Chairman of the Republican Party and former US Ambassador to the Vatican, have called for her release and expressed concerns about the apparent absence of due process in a country where Lazareva has worked for over 13 years. Both Freeh and Nicholson visited Kuwait in recent weeks with Neil Bush, son of the late President George H. W. Bush. Bush has said Lazareva’s incarceration ‘threatens to darken relations between the U.S. and Kuwait, two countries that have enjoyed a long and prosperous relationship.’
Russian officials have been equally concerned. Vladimir Platonov, the President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, confirmed that a single witness gave testimony in Kuwaiti court, and only for the prosecution. ‘I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,’ he said. ‘One fact of particular note is that Maria was given 1,800 pages of untranslated documents in Arabic.’
Serious questions surrounding the safety and future viability of investing in Kuwait are now being raised. Through The Port Fund, a private investment company managed by KGL Investment, Lazareva has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to local infrastructure and economic development projects during her time in the country. Until 2017, when a Dubai bank froze $496 million without cause, she had worked largely unobstructed.
But as things stand, more foreign investment is unlikely to be forthcoming. Jim Nicholson has said that the ‘imprisonment and harassment’ of Lazareva ‘threatens’ U.S. support. adding that the ‘willingness of the U.S. to do business with Kuwait’ is based on ‘its record as a nation that respects human rights and the rule of law’. Mark Williams, the investment director of The Port Fund and a colleague of Lazareva’s, has called on international investors to ‘think twice before doing business in this country’.
These comments will surely concern the Kuwaiti government, who said last year that FDI was ‘very crucial’ to the success of its Kuwait Vision 2035 road map. In September 2018, the FTreported that the government planned to reverse its traditional position as an investor in order to diversify its economy, carrying out a series of reforms designed to facilitate foreign investment and assist investors.
But despite these changes, which have propelled Kuwait to 96th—higher than the Middle East average—in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ report, investors may be unwilling to take the risk so long as Lazareva remains in jail. Lazareva’s lawyers have accused Kuwait of violating international law by breaching a long-standing bilateral investment treaty with Russia. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC has brought the case to the attention of the British public and the EU, writing in The Times that ‘there is no evidential basis to justify any claim of dishonesty, corruption or any other criminal wrong’. He added: ’Anyone thinking of doing business in Kuwait should read on with mounting concern.’
What’s worth remembering is that Kuwait is an important, long-standing ally of the UK, and a country generally seen as stable and fair. It is equally a major non-NATO ally of the United States, where there are more than 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education. But these relationships, and the investment to which they have historically led, have been cast into doubt. And it now seems certain that relations will continue to sour so long as Marsha Lazareva languishes in Soulabaiya.
Economic reform in the Gulf: Who benefits, really?
For Gulf leaders, long-overdue economic reforms were never going to be easy.
Leaders like the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed, quickly discovered that copying China’s model of economic growth while tightening political control was easier said than done. They realised that rewriting social contracts funded by oil wealth was more difficult because Gulf Arabs had far more to lose than the average Chinese. The Gulf states’ social contracts had worked in ways China’s welfare programmes had not. The Gulf’s rentier state’s bargain—surrender of political and social rights for cradle-to-grave welfare—had produced a win-win situation for the longest time.
Moreover, Gulf leaders, struggling with mounting criticism of the Saudi-UAE-led war in Yemen and the fall-out of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also lacked the political and economic clout that allowed China to largely silence or marginalise critics of its crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled northwestern province of Xinjiang.
The absence of a welfare-based social contract in China allowed the government to power economic growth, lift millions out of poverty, and provide public goods without forcing ordinary citizens to suffer pain. As a result, China was able to push through with economic reforms without having to worry that reduced welfare benefits would spark a public backlash and potentially threaten the regime.
Three years into Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 blueprint for diversification of the economy, Saudi businesses and consumers complain that they are feeling the pinch of utility price hikes and a recently introduced five per cent value-added tax with little confidence that the government will stay the course to ensure promised long-term benefit.
The government’s commitment to cutting costs has been further called into question by annual handouts worth billions of dollars since the announcement of the reforms and rewriting of the social contract to cushion the impact of rising costs and quash criticism.
In contrast to China, investment in the Gulf, whether it is domestic or foreign, comes from financial, technology and other services sector, the arms industry or governments. It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of private sector.
With the exception of national oil companies, some state-run airlines and petrochemical companies, the bulk of Gulf investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s prestige and soft power.
By contrast, Asian economies such as China and India have used investment fight poverty, foster a substantial middle class, and create an industrial base. To be sure, with small populations, Gulf states are more likely to ensure sustainability in services and oil and gas derivatives rather than in manufacturing and industry.
China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that would come closest to some of the Gulf’s soft-power investments. Yet, the BRI, designed to alleviate domestic overcapacity by state-owned firms that are not beholden to shareholders’ short-term demands and/or geo-political gain, contributes to China’s domestic growth.
Asian nations have been able to manage investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability. By contrast, Saudi Arabia damaged confidence in its ability to diversify its oil-based economy when after repeated delays it suspended plans to list five per cent of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest initial public offering.
To be sure, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards civilisationalism, populism and illiberal democracy. What differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment. These policies are focused on social and economic enhancement rather than primarily on regime survival. That may be Asia’s lesson for Gulf rulers.
Author’s note: first published in Firstpost
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