Assessing the Chaos in Yemen – Part 5 – Questions

Published: April 7, 2015

Editor’s Note:

It was standing room only at the National Council on US-Arab Relations hosted event “Yemen in Chaos: Analysis, Prognosis, and Prospects” at the U.S. Capitol Rayburn House Office Building in Washington on Thursday. The event, broadcast live to the country on C-Span TV, brought together a distinguished panel to examine the issues and developments in the aftermath of the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen to fight Houthi rebels:

Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President & CEO of the National Council, served as moderator and H.E. Adel A. Al-Jubeir, Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to the United States, delivered featured remarks. Additional featured specialists included: Mr. Jeremy M. Sharp, Specialist in Middle East Affairs for the Congressional Research Service and Author of the CRS Report, “Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations;” Ms. Sama’a Al-Hamdani, Analyst and Writer for Yemeniaty and former Assistant Political Officer for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Washington, DC; Professor David Des Roches, Senior Military Fellow at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (National Defense University) and Council Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies (Syria); and Mr. Abbas Almosawa, Yemeni Journalist and Analyst, and former Media and Information Advisor for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Abu Dhabi and Beirut.

SUSRIS has already provided Ambassador Al-Jubeir’s remarks from this event. Today we provide the presentations of Mr. Sharp, Professor Des Roches, Mr. Musawa and Ms. Hamdani. We also have the question and answer portion of the event, moderated by Dr. John Duke Anthony. You can also review the entire session on C-Span [Link] and find extensive articles, interviews and more in “Yemen in Turmoil” a SUSRIS Special Section.

Here in Part 5, the question and answer period moderated by Dr. John Duke Anthony, President of the National Council on US-Arab Relations.

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[Dr. John Duke Anthony] 
Now we have time for discussion and questions, and we’ve asked individuals to write their questions on 3×5 cards – bring them forward – so that we have real questions as opposed to statements and valedictory addresses there. Several have been asked to me, and while I’m standing I’ll answer them as quickly as I can.

One is, hasn’t too much been made of the Sunni-Shia divide here? I made in my opening remarks, yes in the case of Yemen because the divisions between the Sunnis and the Shia there are rather soft. Historically they’ve cooperated. There’s intermarriage, there’s nothing nearly as pronounced as you find to the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, although it does exist.

It is true that Egypt came and had up to 70 to 80,000 troops in support of the so-called Sunnis or the [Shaphaya – phonetic] from ’62 to ’67, and it’s true that Saudi Arabia plus Iran – I pause there – plus Iran backed those in northern Yemen who were the monarchists as such. Now that itself is a window for one.

Secondly, in terms of people saying that Saudi Arabia is adamantly anti-Shia, ponder the following. Throughout the 60s and the 70s Saudi Arabia cooperated most closely geo-politically, geo-strategically with Iran, whose head of state was Shia. In terms of the Yemen government over the years, who has Saudi Arabia supported most? A Shia head of state. And indeed Saudi Arabia’s aid to northern Yemen and southern Yemen has been greater than that of the World Bank, the IMF, the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands combined.

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Aspects of it have pertained also to Lebanon, and the “Taif Accord” in 1989, it was Saudi Arabia that pushed for a reconfiguration of power in Lebanon, which enabled the Shia elements in Lebanon to have a greater percentage of power, and authority, and influence, position than they had before.

These are four cases there, and one can add with regard to Syria, Saudi Arabia’s longstanding relationship with Syria before the recent troubles has been with a government headed by an offshoot of the Shia faith.

So these are four examples of reaching out beyond ethnicity, beyond religion, beyond sectarian dynamics and divides to cooperate on interests and strategic commonalities and identicality.

With regard to Ali Abdullah Saleh, what is he in to? I subscribe to what Dave Des Roches and some others said, but here you have a situation of an individual who feels that he was ditched or not supported when the Arab Spring came about, and does not, did not want to see Yemen devolve into what happened in Iraq when you got rid of a strong person but did not replace the strong person with another strong person, and the same thing in Libya. That situation is in shambles.

And one has to ask with regard to Syria, what after Bashar al-Assad? As most of the 17 Christian sects happen to be beholden to the al-Assad family, this doesn’t come out in the media but it’s on one of the questions here. What are the implications for that in terms of getting rid of a strong man in Yemen? And so here we have Ali Abdullah Saleh, more than 30 years of being in power. No head of state in Yemen knows the tribes, the families, the marriages, the ethnic groups, the geographic groups, the municipalities more than that individual. He’s still in now. Yemen yearns for security and stability. To completely rule him out on grounds of dislike, of corruption, of misrule – all understandable, but what about the implications of doing that given what we’ve seen where other strong people have been removed there?

And this aspect, with regard to the United States, goes back to the ‘90s when Yemen held the chair of the United Nations Security Council and did not go along with the consensus to use force to restore Kuwait’s national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity. Yemen paid a big price for that, and Ali Abdullah Saleh was the one who drove those policies. So the country did indeed suffer from that aspect of his leadership.

But when people talk about dictatorial – okay, authoritarian – okay, strong person rule – okay. Backwardness – yes and no. Backwardness development-wise, economic-wise, but not necessarily in terms of a civil society. Having been the observer for 1993’s election, 1997’s, 2000’s, and 2006’s, I was just one of 33, but the consensus was that these elections were as fair and free and open and transparent as anyone would find among the one hundred and thirty developing countries. Do not overlook that.

And in 1998, Secretary of State Madeline Albright chose Yemen of all countries in the world to host an emerging democracies forum.

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So there are these windows on Yemen that must not be overlooked. And the development in the south, et cetera. Aden was almost an overdeveloped city in comparison to the other cities of Arabia up until independence in 1967, so we’re talking about the waste of a lot of talent with regard to the Yemeni people who are extraordinarily hard workers and productive and contributive. This part, too, seems to be lost in the account.

And then lastly with regard to the south, it’s not unanalogous to South Sudan and Khartoum. South Sudan is but one part of Sudan. It demanded 50 percent of the country’s oil revenues, leaving out Darfur in the west, leaving out the north in Nubia, and leaving out the east, and one wonders why you had a reaction of violence from these three other regions.

In the case of North Yemen and South Yemen with the unity in 1990, South Yemen played a hard hand and ended up with 50 percent of the power, 50 percent of the cabinet posts, and the other 50 percent the deputy ministers, when the percentage of the population was only one-seventh, one-fifteenth. So you can see why the south wanted to retain its powers or regain its powers, but you can also see the animus of the north, many of whom thought the south took too much, got too much, and didn’t deserve as much.

Now, Jeremy Sharp on the questions of the United States relationship with Yemen. What are the implications of this? Is this likely to result in an increased depth and breadth of anti-Americanism, hatred towards the United States the longer that this conflict continues?

[Jeremy Sharp] I feel like I should give my opening remarks all over again because I was sitting down and not at the podium.

Look, one side of me thinks that on any given day even when there’s not a major international operation in Yemen it’s never a good situation, as my panelists described. I mean this is a country with incredibly low socioeconomic indicators in terms of human development.

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Now, on the U.S. side we have a history now of U.S. kinetic operations in Yemen. We’ve talked about publicly in our own discourse here in Washington, where mistakes have been made; civilians have been killed.

That obviously engenders a great deal of discord directed against the United States, and certainly like my panelists said if there are more airstrikes that hit dairy factories or weapons depots in civilian areas, I mean that’s also going to sow a lot of discord.

And in terms of U.S. operations, maybe not necessarily Saudi, you’re getting into sort of broader questions about how we conduct counterterrorism operations not just in Yemen, but in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Syria.

These are questions that are unresolved and open for big debate. How do we protect our own homeland security without creating new breeds and generations of terrorists? And it’s being tested in Yemen and it’s going to be tested elsewhere, and I don’t have the answer to that debate, but it’s worth revisiting certainly.

[Dr. John Duke Anthony] Colonel Des Roches, how long will the logistics, the operational assets on the ground in Yemen likely last, including ammunition? And what are the implications for U.S.-Yemeni defense cooperation that’s now on hold, paralyzed, idling at the intersection? How do you assess this situation? What is your estimate, prognosis?

[David Des Roches] Thank you, sir. Well, the Saudi military spokesman, General Asiri, has said that the Saudi targets are depots, missiles, installations, then vehicles, and then rebel lines of communication, and unfortunately a rebel line of communication is what you and I would call a road.

So the target set is already fairly broad. What you’ll see happen is some forms of precision-guided munitions will run out relatively quickly because there’s just not a lot of stocks of them and they’re difficult to replace.

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We don’t know for sure what’s been used, but based on what they’ve bought I assume Paveway and Brimstone [Precision Guided Munitions (PGM)], which are both British-produced and they’re only used by Britain and Saudi Arabia.

The production line is relatively small. It’s incapable of surging. They’ll probably run out of that very quickly and what you’ll see is Typhoon and Tornado [fighter jets] will have to move back up to the north. The JDAMs on the other hand, which are the former McDonald Douglas-produced snap-ons to dumb bombs that allow them to be GPS-guided – those are very cheap, there’s a lot of them, they’re easy to move around. Those will probably become the target.

The paradox is the Saudi stocks of PGMs will probably decline at the same time that the targets become harder to find. So you have fewer precision-guided munitions at the time when your targets require more precision-guided munitions, and your political frustration increases, which leads to a sense of doing something, which is why I think it’s time to put away the stick and show the carrot. You have to have a political solution here because we’re not going to be able to make it happen.

The second question about the U.S. military support to Yemen, right now there’s a lot of – I would imagine there’s a lot of consternation within U.S. circles because a lot of the things that we’ve given to the Yemenis such as night vision goggles we simply can’t account for, and these are things that we try to track closely, that we inventory on a monthly basis. I actually inventoried the Yemeni Parachute Brigade’s night vision goggles. I got to inspect it several years ago. It was immaculate. We don’t know where those are, and unless we can establish where they are we’re not going to send more things of that nature.

So there will be cooperation if there is an entity that we can cooperate with, particularly against a common enemy like the guys who just busted out of Al Mukallah, but it will be very, very low level and it will be very, very low-tech until such time we can be assured that the high-tech things that people asked for, like night vision goggles, are capable of being accounted for. Thank you.

[Dr. John Duke Anthony] Two more for Jeremy Sharp, and then panelists on my right, your left. Can you talk about the implications, potential for this ten state Arab coalition to be engaged in the challenges pertaining to Syria and possibly against ISIS or to try to restore a semblance of security and stability in Iraq? Jeremy Sharp.

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And then if one could analyze Egypt’s position, Egypt’s role. We’ve read in recent days that the United States has lifted its ban or sanctions or hold on munitions and armaments to Egypt, and that Egypt is to be the location of a 35,000 Arab ground force for this United Arab Joint Defense Command, for which there’s an air component, which is much smaller – just a few thousand – and a naval component perhaps double that, but those two combined multiplied by seven would be the ground forces.

Now, who’s paying for this? Largely Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, but not all. And who else is involved in this? Morocco is, Jordan is. You may recall in the last four years a geostrategic pronouncement that the GCC countries would be more aligned, associated with Jordan and Morocco, fellow Arab monarchies. So this is not completely new with regard to reaching out to those two countries, but reaching out to Sudan is, in part because Sudan is a neighbor of Egypt and has its own armed forces, but in an effort to broaden the diversity of the coalition. Mr. Sharp.

[Jeremy Sharp] Yeah, I would say that it’s certainly not new, as John points out. But we are at a moment – one of the interesting strategic things to think about in terms of this conflict in Yemen and really what’s been going on since the so-called Arab Spring began in 2011 is this concept of regional integration, albeit military or economic, something that’s been talked about for decades, right?

If you look at it just from the economic side, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE are financially supporting countries that fiscally can’t do it themselves anymore, whether it’s Egypt, Jordan, certainly Yemen needs the assistance. All of these countries now, the GCC states – they have the reserves right now but they’re already running budget deficits, and the costs of the region are going up exponentially whether it’s military integration or economic integration.

We may be at a moment here – who know’s how operationally this joint force is going to work or where it will be deployed in the future, but this may be the beginning of – we’re at a point where we just can’t sort of laugh this off anymore. Like, oh yeah, they talk about integration and they make these deals but it never really happens.

This actually may be the start of something both financially and militarily that has some legs just because the region itself is getting to the point where it’s so bad that they need that kind of assistance.

[Dr. John Duke Anthony] These are questions, shifting gears here, to Abbas Al-Musawa, Sama Al-Hamdani. Could the two of you comment on the way that this discussion is going with regard to the questions asked and the answers provided? Is this another case of American lack of empathy and inability or limitation of Americans to project themselves into the shoe sole situations … these concerns, interests, and objectives of other peoples? Your comments on the Americanism aspect – anti-Americanism, the American role backing Saudi Arabia, saying it will support this ten state coalition providing intelligence, operational, logistical, and munitions support.

Are you in accord with these answers, these American perceptions? In Iraq hundreds of Americans were cocksure that they knew Iraq and could plan, and predict, and anticipate effectively, cost effectively and efficiently. What the United States did, and most would agree that it’s a disaster that Iraq was smashed to smithereens, lost its national sovereignty, lost its political independence, lost its territorial integrity, lost the four things that are in America’s constitution as to why American exists, namely to provide domestic safety, to ensure for the external defense, to enhance material well being, and to ensure the administration of an effective system of civil justice.

All four of those things were also smashed. The United States cannot blame others for those results. What are your answers to these controversial, implicitly challenging kinds of questions?

[Abbas Al-Musawa] (SPEAKS ARABIC)

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[Imad Harb – Translator] I tried to get as much of that as possible. There’s definitely a great lack of information on Yemen. Yemen is a tribal society, yes, but it is a very, very loving tribal society. They love each other; they love their neighbors. The idea of sectarianism, Sunni-Shia, as far as he’s concerned the Zaydis are not even Shia, they’re closer to the Sunni than they are to the Shia, and the Houthis are part of Yemeni society. The Shia of Yemen or the Zaydis of Yemen are part of Yemeni society. They have been there and they will remain there.

The issue is that the U.S. relations with Yemen basically is based on security issues – what do we do with al Qaeda, what kind of role Yemen plays as far as Bab el-Mandeb is concerned. The question is definitely broader than what the United States wants to look at Yemen around. I don’t like to talk of sectarianism and Yemen is for everybody.

[Abbas Al-Musawa] (SPEAKS ARABIC)

[Imad Harb – Translator] He’s relating a little specific piece of information that before the operation to – before the current operation in Saudi Arabia and he adds the United States to it, we wanted – basically everybody wanted to limit the Houthi influence in Yemen, obviously. There actually were very many tribes who have actually secured large areas on the Saudi Arabian border.

There’s a story that Ahmed Abdullah Saleh, the son of the former president, had come to Saudi Arabia basically to tell them to stop the media campaign against him and his father, to basically lift the sanctions on his family, and basically he promised that he himself will lead a campaign to end the Houthi threat in Yemen.

[Abbas Al-Musawa] Thank you. (SPEAKS ARABIC) Thank you.

[Imad Harb – Translator] Basically the idea is that he is against the war since because he doesn’t think that it’s going to resolve anything.

[Dr. John Duke Anthony] Okay. Yes, Sama’a Al-Hamdani.

[Sama’a Al-Hamdani] I’ll try to be brief. I want to talk about how the Americans are viewed from the Yemeni perspective. Given everything that’s happening I completely understand the U.S. being cautious and endorsing this attack in more than logistical support. They are already in a tough corner considering the drone strikes that are happening in Yemen that are extremely unpopular on the ground.

I think the problem – there’s an opportunity here for the U.S. to play the role of mediator and peacemaker for once in the region. They can help bring the parties together and reach a negotiation because at the end of all this war, at the end of sending ground troops or air troops, they’re going to have to sit down and come up with a solution. Those Yemenis are going to exist.

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I’ve talked earlier about this being a war to eliminate an ideology, and there’s no such thing as eliminating the Houthis or eliminating the Wahabbis or any of this rhetoric does not make sense.

What Yemenis can do is learn to coexist together, create a process that allows for pluralism.

So my opinion is although Americans try very hard to understand Yemen, Yemen is a very remote location, it’s a very different culture, and I think that sometimes because we’re so different that results in a creation of I versus you dialogue or me versus them, and I think that there are Yemenis who speak English and can communicate these ideas. Unfortunately, there are some nuances that the West just cannot get unless there is a Yemeni person translating that to them.

There is a sense that Yemeni life is worthless, and this sense comes from Yemenis themselves who kill each other and spill blood everywhere, and this has been happening since 2011 to this point. Yemenis just generally feel that their lives don’t matter, and I think this is an opportunity for the world to come and say no, your lives matter, do learn that you are worth something.

The situation that we’re in in Yemen now can be narrowed down to the politics of five individuals – President Hadi, former President Saleh, Hamid al-Ahmad, Ali Musa, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. The first four that I mentioned have been on the Yemeni political scene for years. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi is the only newcomer to the spotlight, and the reason he succeeded very much is because he was able to take the youth and employ them in the Houthi movement. All the other factions failed to include the youth in these movements.

The Houthis even were able to construct a show to present that women are participating in this affect, and so it shows you that they are more politically savvy than the other old parties that were on the ground.

So I think everything in Yemen is a result of lack of leadership, poor, poor governance. Ever since 2011 until now we had an opportunity to read – to take Yemen out of the situation that it was in and lead it towards democracy. We’ve all talked about the GCC deal that granted President Saleh immunity and as long as he remained on the ground it meant that he could carry out operations. The problem here is that we have a President who’s now residing in Riyadh. His strength in Yemen is getting weaker and weaker by the day, and it’s very hard to imagine how he would go back and then rule again by just issuing orders. That’s the only thing he can do, and that’s how he ruled prior to 2014 by the way, is that he would issue orders for things to be carried out but they would not be actually implemented.

I think in order to move forward the analysts in general, whether American or Saudi or from any other part of the world, they need to really sit down and take in Yemen’s history. I really do recommend to look at Yemen’s history not just in the past four years, not just in the past 20 years, I would tell you to look really, really back.

We are tribes by nature and we do take pride in our genealogy, and whatever vendetta we have from 50 years ago could still apply to this day. Having said that, if there is a process that is endorsed by the west, it’s been proven in the past that every political party is willing to come and negotiate. A lot of people have suggested Oman as a neutral location since Oman is the only country that has not participated in this airstrike as a place where all factions can talk to each other. That’s about it.

[Dr. John Duke Anthony] Thank you, Ms. Al-Hamdani. His Excellency Adel Al-Jubeir will be here in less than one minute we’re told, but a question or two additional there.

We Westerners – I’m one of them – have a problem thinking about tribes. Those who are Americans here over 50 perhaps have seen no fewer than 30 movies, cowboys and Indians, and the Indians were all tribal and they were the bad people, and the non-Indians were the progressive good people, and the Indians were seen as violent, backward, illiberal, non-progressive, and in terms of what has happened to them their lands, their resources, their mountains, their valleys, their rivers, their streams were all taken over by and large by people, white people, Christian people largely who came from Western Europe. So Americans have a difficulty on the question of tribes.

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I come from the state of Virginia where many of the tribes are still in existence but living on reservations. Others of you come from elsewhere where the tribes are larger and so are the reservations. But think of it in this context because the British do not have this hang up. Indeed, the British rule, and role, and position, and power, and prestige largely was through the tribes in the region. So with regard to tribes in a British sense, that power for nearly two centuries held the ring of security and stability. They could not have done it without tribes and through tribes.

So the American experience is radically different, and this means that we have proceeded with maybe two hands behind our back because we say we don’t do tribes, and largely we don’t. But here is a self-inflicted wound because what are tribes? Tribes are groupings of people. They’re sociological and anthropological realities, forces, factors, and phenomena on the ground, and in places where the central government is weak, where the resources are few and scattered, and there’s no strong central government it is left to plan “B”, to the preexisting tribes, which have leaders, and tribes are not illiberal or non-democratic in many instances. They, too, live by consultation. They, too, live by consensus.

This building’s ethos in terms of democracy boiled down to a phrase is the consent of the governed. How do you get the consent except by consultation? So the tribes are steeped in consultation, and largely peaceful interior rule in terms of where people would go for security and stability, and up until the last 40 years, but still in some places, you went to your tribal leader for a scholarship to get help to have medicine and health care, even to have a job or to get a position in the armed forces. So if you look at tribes from this perspective they are the glue, they are the adhesive, they are the lubricant that has kept this particular society together longer and more peacefully and effectively than would otherwise have been the case. It sounds as though I’m a member of a tribe, and I am. It’s called the human tribe.

We have His Excellency Adel Ahmed Al-Jubeir who’s arranged his schedule to be with us.

Transcript by SUSRIS.com – Permission is granted to reprint this post with credit to SUSRIS.com and notification to Editor@SUSRIS.com.

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