Yemen is fit to become another major theater in the War on Terror. The country is tribal, divided into Sunni and Shia, and hardly centralized or governed at all. Like Afghanistan or Somalia, it is more of an inhabited space than a nation-state. People just do what they like there. Never mind the rule of law, there is not even a proper system of car registration. Once the vehicle I was in was overtaken on the left and the right side simultaneously — the drivers were probably high on qat, which acts like an amphetamine as they chew it. Men carry daggers habitually, and even small arms. In Saada, there is an open market where every sort of weapon is openly for sale, and for cash you can buy a tank. According to hearsay, African slaves are also available.
Once this was Felix Arabia, Fortunate Arabia, the mythical site of the Garden of Eden. The Tihama area on the coast receives plentiful rain, the desert is manageable, with ruins like the Marib Dam, its perfect stonework said to date from the time of the Queen of Sheba but really from the seventh century A.D. In magnificent mountain ranges are fortified medieval towns like Ybb, one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen. The capital, Sana’a, has a unique local architecture. But you are on your own. Once I began walking down a handsome tree-lined street in Sana’a towards a large building when I realized that several soldiers in concealed emplacements were aiming rifles at me, and one of them came out to say they’d shoot me dead if I proceeded. The building ahead was the palace of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president these 30 years, and a typical Arab one-man ruler.
Ever since the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, President Saleh has been losing such control as he had. Government habitually consists in buying the loyalty of the tribes, and he’s been running out of money for it. Toughened by centuries of tribal and religious warfare, Yemenis have been volunteering in quite large numbers to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they have formed a high proportion of Guantanamo inmates. Released, they take to the field again. So al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been making the most of the opening to be building up its power. The bin Laden family has origins in the Hadramaut area, and it has always seemed to me likely that Osama is hiding out there among his own tribe.
Saleh came to power in the wake of the damaging civil war in the 1960s that threw out the Imam, Yemen’s traditional ruler. The Houthi, a Shia tribe about 5,000 strong, are starting another civil war that may well be more damaging. Iran is promoting it, arming and subsidizing the Houthis in the expectation of extending the Shia reach. It’s a move in the Cold War Iran is waging with Saudi Arabia. On behalf of the Sunnis, Saudi Arabia is bombing and shelling the Houthis. The terrain facilitates defence rather than attack; fighting is not between professional or well-trained soldiers, so casualties remain low for the time being, but about 150,000 people have already become refugees.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as this franchise calls itself, is a Saudi off-shoot, and its links to the Saudi royal regime are invisible. It may be that the Saudis want AQAP to do their dirty work in the confrontation with Iran. Those engaged in this three-way contest between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and AQAP can’t be left alone to come up with whatever bloody or bribed outcomes they can. With or without Saudi backing, a rooted AQAP presence in Yemen is a serious new danger, to be met with skilled intelligence work, Predator strikes, and special services capable of operating in this wild and closed country. It’s a tall order.