Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix

13 July 2007
Yemen tends to be propelled into the media spotlight only with such incidents as the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000 or the killing of seven Spanish tourists in July 2007. But its modern political history deserves to be more widely known on its own account.
The killing of seven Spanish tourists in the Arabian state of Yemen on 2 July 2007 is a terrible and tragic event, for the victims and their families, for the people of Yemen whose suffering and isolation it will only increase, and for all those who aspire to travel and explore beyond the confines of the enclosed hotels and beaches of the travel industry. Yemen, with a population of 22 million, occupies the fertile southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula. It was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix ("Fortunate Arabia") to distinguish it from Arabia Petrea or Infelix ("Stony", i.e. desert or "Unfortunate Arabia", and today this land of mountain vistas, spectacular roads, medieval cities and fierce national and religious traditions is among the poorest countries in Asia. Yemenis regard themselves as (in a phrase they are fond of repeating) al 'arab al asliin (the original Arabs), the most ancient of the Arab peoples. The tourists killed on 1 July died visiting an ancient sun-temple at Marib, which Yemenis associate (without any historic evidence) with Queen Bilqis, the legendary Queen of Sheba who the Bible says visited Solomon in Jerusalem. Yemen is, indeed, one of the only four countries in the world - along with Egypt, Persia and China - that can legitimately claim three millennia of more or less continuous culture and statehood. Yemenis are proud of their ancient past, including the many languages (including Hebrew, ancient Himyaritic, Latin and Greek) that were once spoken there, and which are visible on the inscriptions that lie, in cheerful disorder, in the museums. By the same token, Yemenis look down on the recently invented state of Saudi Arabia as a land of the uncivilised and uncultured. Yemen eternal Yemen has in some ways remained outside the flow of modern history and development. Yemenis' own variation on this theme is expressed in another favoured anecdote. Adam got bored in heaven and asked God to let him see the world once more; flying over London, Paris and Cairo he had to ask what the buildings he saw were called, but as he went down the Red Sea he turned to God and said: "You don't need to tell me where this is, it is Yemen. It has not changed at all." In large parts of the country there is no state control; almost all men outside the cities and coastal regions carry arms; the main social unit is the tribe; educational and health standards, especially for women, are appalling; corruption is widespread and growing; and much of family income and time is devoted to the daily consumption of the mild, amphetamine-like narcotic, qat. The reality of the economy is forever fixed in my mind by a conversation I had some years ago in the House of Commons. In a misguided gesture of promoting academic research, I introduced a French PhD student of mine, who knew Yemen and had good Arabic, to reputedly the richest man in Yemen, a hotel-owner, trader and good friend of the president. A charming gentleman, he was keen to tell us that he had been a minister of health in the first revolutionary government after the 1962 revolution, and was proud of his role in those years. I had once acted as his translator at an official dinner with British government representatives in London. On this occasion he was in town for a parliamentary reception for the leaders of the Yemeni community in Britain (the Yemeni community in Britain was born over a hundred years ago, the oldest global-south community next to the Chinese). My student explained in lively colloquial Yemeni dialect that she wanted to do a thesis on the Yemeni economy. The millionaire listed carefully and then said, with a sigh: "Madam, I have to tell you: in Yemen there is no such thing as an 'economy'" (fi yaman ma fi iqtisad). The wind of change Yet international history has not passed Yemen by. In a brutal but vivid inversion of the Trotskyist "law of combined and uneven development" it is those (few) countries in Asia and Africa that escaped formal colonial rule, and were thus isolated for decades from economic and political development who, in a violent spasm of accelerated change, are then the site of major, and sanguinary, upheavals, often marked by extremes of sectarianism and far-left authoritarianism: thus Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Nepal have all in recent years been the site of such belated and thereby more intense convulsions. Yemen - which combines the non-colonial northern part with the former British colonial region beyond Aden - exhibits much of this pattern of revolution, at once combined and uneven. The north was in 1918 the only independent Arab state, but was isolated by conservative imams from the outside world till the revolution of 1962 when radical republicans inspired by Nasserist Egypt took power. An eight-year civil war followed, before the royalist counter-revolution was contained by the Yemeni and Egyptian republicans. It is conventional, not least in Egypt, to say that this was Egypt's "Vietnam", that Nasser lost the war in Yemen: but this is not true. The republic that Gamal Abdel Nasser sent troops to protect survived, and - even when the Egyptian troops left after the Israeli victory in June 1967 - the royalists, aided at that time by British mercenaries, failed to capture the capital, Sanaa. In a dramatic seventy-day siege in the last weeks of 1967, a popular resistance movement, composed of an array of tribal and Marxist-Leninist militias, and vigorously and courageously backed by a continuous Soviet airlift of arms, the royalists were pushed back and later (in 1970) forced to sign a compromise peace with the republicans. This siege had a curious witness. Many years later I met Vladimir Chubin, the main Soviet linkman with the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, a close comrade of Joe Slovo, Chris Hani and the rest of the ANC, and the South African Communist Party (SACP) leadership, and the person who was deeply involved in the guerrilla war against apartheid and in the war in Angola. I asked him which of all the conflicts he had seen in southern Africa had left the deepest mark His reply was "none of them". As a young Soviet special-forces officer, he had flown into Sanaa, at night and on a makeshift runway, in the first military supply plane in December 1967. In all he had seen in Africa, he had never seen the equivalent of the fighting spirit and military skill displayed by the popular militias during the Sanaa siege. The radicalism of the late 1960s was soon contained and crushed by the more conservative Yemeni army, and in 1982 the last elements of the socialist resistance movement in North Yemen negotiated a peace settlement with the government. Yemen was by then ruled by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a somewhat flamboyant and uncultivated artillery officer, who had come to power in a coup in 1978, after the assassination (by hands never publicly identified) of his two predecessors as heads of state. At the time few observers gave Ali Abdullah much chance of remaining in power, but, with his own astute sense of politics, and timely help from the Saudis, the CIA and, be it noted, the Soviet Union, he held onto power. Today "Abu Ahmad" as he is called (his son Ahmad is being groomed to succeed him, and was, as part of this programme, sent for a time to the British military academy at Sandhurst) has been in power for twenty-nine years. Some political change has followed, but ultimately all major decisions, and much of the state revenue, are associated with the president. On one occasion, when a multi-party system or "pluralism" was introduced into Yemen, I asked an official I knew why this had occurred. "Why did we introduce pluralism?" he asked rhetorically. "Because the president told us to do so!" A stage of revolution The southern, smaller, part of Yemen was, with its capital in Aden, a British colony from 1839 to independence in 1967. In the wake of the defeat of Egypt in the June 1967 war with Israel, and the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from the Yemeni civil war to the north, a radical "Marxist-Leninist" faction, the National Liberation Front (NLF), seized the reins. Two years later the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was proclaimed, with the aspiration to form the core of a future, socialist and united, Yemen. There followed the most thoroughgoing political experiment in modern Arab politics to date: the attempt to build, in effect, an Arab Cuba. At first the NLF leaders were attracted by Maoism, and in rhetorical denunciation of the "petty bourgeois" regimes of Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Algeria, they sought to export armed revolution to neighbouring Oman, to Yemen itself and to Saudi Arabia. If it were not to mix Arabian place-names and ideological currents, it could be said that, at that time, Aden was the Mecca of middle-eastern and what were then routinely known as "third-world" revolutionaries. In hotels and conferences in Aden in the early 1970s, researching my first book Arabia without Sultans, I had occasion to meet a wide array of characters from across the world: revolutionaries from Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia; volunteer doctors and teachers from Cuba; exiled MIR guerrillas from Chile; representatives of the far-left Palestinian groups; underground communists from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; dogmatic Soviet political instructors and bibulous policemen from the DDR; French and West German Maoists; Lebanese Marxists purveying the ideas of Alexandre Kojève and Louis Althusser; and (on one memorable occasion) two feisty visitors from New York, Monthly Review editor Harry Magdoff and the American radical political scientist and inventor of the board game "Class Struggle" Bertell Ollman (who had at NYU taught the PDRY ambassador to the United Nations, the late Abdulalh al-Ashtal, and who presented the Aden University library with a book by Wilhelm Reich). One person not welcome in Aden at that time, and whose organisation was not, for several years, permitted to open an office there was Yasser Arafat, leader of Fatah. Fatah was considered a "bourgeois" organisation by the PDRY, which gave priority to their "Marxist-Leninist" conferences, the Popular Front and the Democratic Front, who had, like themselves, emerged from the radicalisation of the formerly pro-Egyptian Arab nationalist movement of the 1960s. What was not known at the time, and which later emerged in Germany, was that some of the radical Palestinians were - under the pretext of "international solidarity" - bringing into Aden associates from West Germany and the Armenian diaspora who were involved in terrorist acts elsewhere. A dream deferred In the first revolutionary years, foreign "monopolies" were nationalised (with disastrous economic consequences), and the "popular alliance of workers, peasants, fishermen, Bedouin and nomads" was promoted. One party song, not content with conventional Leninist programmes on female emancipation, even had the refrain: "We must arm the women!" But the NLF soon fell under Soviet influence, and failed to overthrow the military-tribal republic in the north. On two occasions, after short wars between the two states, the leaders sought to promote unification of the Yemens. "Yemeni unity", seen as a step on the road to a broader Arab unity, was a popular cause, even if in practice it amounted to little more than a non-aggression pact. The PDRY leaders thought that they, armed with the teachings of "scientific socialism", could outwit their northern interlocutors, but it was not to be. On one occasion, in 1972, the southern president, Salem Robea Ali, said he would agree to unity with the north if the latter complied with two conditions: liquidation of the bureaucracy and of the bourgeoisie. To this the northern president, Abd al-Rahman (Qadi) al-Iryani - a wise old man who had probably never heard of Karl Marx or Lenin - replied: "I agree. But first you have to give me a bureaucracy and also give me a bourgeoisie. Once I have them, I can then discuss getting rid of them again". Socialism could not be built in half a Yemen. In the longer run the larger and more politically coherent north prevailed over the revolutionary south. By 1990, riven by factional differences and abandoned by the USSR, the south agreed to unity with the military regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Four years later, in May 1994, the president launched a pre-emptive civil war, dispersed his socialist enemies and took control of the whole country. Little now remains of the socialist aspirations and sentiments of the first revolutionary years. All women in Aden are covered in black cloaks, and the only signals of the revolutionary years are the Castro grocery store, some faded slogans and a caste of academics and officials who, by dint of their study in countries of the "socialist camp", are fluent in Russian, Spanish, Hungarian and even Korean. The socialists retain some political liberty within the reunited Yemen, but they have little power and have not retained a hold on the younger generation. The harvest of sadness The murder of the Spanish tourists (an eighth was declared brain-dead on 13 July 2007, and two Yemeni men died) has to be seen against this background - of a weak state, an often fractured and violent society, and the emergence in recent years of new armed opposition groups that seek, if not to overthrow, then to discredit and weaken the government in Sanaa. There are at least three kinds of group that may have been responsible for the killing of the tourists: tribal forces seeking to undermine the central government's authority in their area, al-Qaida operatives based in Yemen, and representatives of a radical Shi'a group that has been in violent conflict with the army for several years. Al-Qaida certainly has support in Yemen: some of its local members, including the so-called "Army of Abyan", in a district of the former socialist south, allied with the president in crushing the left during the 1994 civil war and in the assassination of socialist leaders that preceded and followed that conflict. As recently as 2001, the leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party (the successor to the NLF), Jarallah Omar, a former guerrilla leader who became one of the most respected politicians in the country (and whom I met several times in Sanaa) was assassinated while leaving a political meeting. In 2000, al-Qaida blew up and nearly sank the American warship, the USS Cole, in Aden harbour, with the loss of seventeen lives. But al-Qaida has reason to be restrained in Yemen for the moment, since the country serves, in a covert way, as a rear-base for the anti-American insurrection in Iraq. The most likely culprits are the rebels formerly associated with the Shi'a rebel group associated with the tribal and religious leaders of the al-Huthi family. The al-Huthi, based in the northern province of Sa'ada (relatively near the Marib site) rose up against the Sanaa government some years ago, and reportedly called for the establishment of an orthodox Shi'a state. The leader of this revolt, the clergyman Husein al-Huthi, was killed in 2004 and, in a secret deal with the government, some of his followers agreed to go into exile in Qatar. But another faction refused to compromise and its members have continued to battle with government forces in the Sa'ada region. They have the greatest motive to carry out an operation of this kind, which was probably not focused specifically on tourists from Spain, but on the broader credibility of the Sanaa government. Spain, Yemen and all who know and appreciate this extraordinary and beautiful country are the losers. Copyright © Fred Halliday . Published by openDemocracy Ltd..