Yemen: Currency Retreats, Polio Returns, Fighting Persists


November 9, 2020: Seaborne trade and smuggling between Somalia and Yemen has resumed. Yemen has traditionally been the major trading partner for Somali outlaws. Kenya was OK for raiding but for doing business Yemen was the place to go. The Somalia-Yemen connection was never completely severed by the civil war that broke out in late 2014. For a few years the Arab naval blockade was very disruptive to lucrative smuggling activities. This included people smuggling (Africans headed for Saudi Arabia and points north) as well as imports of weapons and other contraband. There has been no serious Somali pirate threat (the seizure of large ships) since 2012 and the most active pirates now appear to be operating out of port towns in southeast Yemen. Iran has tried to take advantage of this by basing its smuggling efforts in northern Somalia rather than sending the smuggler boats all the way from Iranian ports.

The international naval blockade force off the Yemeni coast detected the base switch and paid more attention to smuggler boats moving between Yemen and Somalia. This traffic has been much reduced since the Yemeni civil war escalated in 2015 and the recent increase in traffic is often illegal operations. The Americans have maritime surveillance sensors that can accurately detect and track small boats. This makes it difficult for the smugglers to try and sneak across at night. The anti-smuggling efforts have reduced the volume of Iranian military supplies getting through. There have been far fewer attacks on Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles and explosives equipped UAVs. Saudi air defenses have detected and downed nearly all of these attacks. A few of the UAVs for through but not enough to do significant damage. No ballistic missiles have reached a target but some that were intercepted close to a large urban area had missile debris falling in residential areas. Few deaths occurred but this sort of thing reminded the average Saudi that the Iranians were trying to kill them.

Inside Yemen Saudi troops are taking casualties, but not so many that it has become a major issue back home. The Saudis have spent a lot of time and money to train and equip Yemenis to do the fighting. There are plenty of Sunni Yemenis (and a few Shia Yemenis) that are willing to fight against Shia rebel efforts to control half, if not all, of Yemen. The core membership of the Shia rebels are religious fanatics who have always been a problem in the north. These Shia tribesmen used the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising in Yemen to lead an effort to cleanse the entire Yemeni government of corruption. That was popular for a while until it was clear victory was not to be had, not with the GCC Arab Coalition backing the Yemeni government. This war, like similar ones in the last century, would be over by now were it not for substantial Iranian support of the rebels. Now it is clear that this Iranian support is mainly to open another front in their undeclared war on Saudi Arabia. Yemenis don’t want to be caught in the middle of this Iran-Saudi conflict but because of the fanatic core leadership of the Shia rebels and the Iranian support the struggle continues. In Yemen wars are often slow, without a lot of bloody battles. It is more like a chess game with lots of negotiations and deal making. Soon a suitable settlement is achieved and peace returns. The Iranians are obsessed with total victory and that has kept the violence going.

Polio Priorities

Yemen was declared free of polio in 2006 but now the dreaded disease is back. A growing number of infants in rebel held areas are coming down with polio because some Shia rebels have been spreading rumors that the polio vaccination is part of a Western plot to poison young Moslems. These rumors have been discredited by nearly all Moslem clergy, but these delusions are still preached by some fringe clerics and enforced by rebel commanders who refuse to allow foreign aid groups to bring polio vaccine into rebel held areas. This has been going on for two years. As a result the number of unvaccinated children has been increasing to the point where someone infected elsewhere can arrive and spread it to the unvaccinated. Where did the polio infections come from? Possibly Africa, even though all of Africa was declared polio-free as of July 2020. This comes after three years with no new cases of polio in Nigeria, making it the last African nation to become polio-free. With Africa now free of polio, along with Europe, the Americas and most of Asia, only Afghanistan and Pakistan still suffer from polio. In those two nations the same Moslem intolerance and paranoia that delayed Nigeria from becoming polio-free, and Yemen from staying polio-free, are still in play.

Another complaint of the anti-vaccination clerics is that the organization mainly responsible for the “polio free” movement, Rotary International, is an American fraternal charity whose members raised most of the $5 billion needed to eradicate polio by vaccinating enough children so that the polio virus no longer has a human host and, like smallpox, becomes extinct. This polio-free effort began in the 1980s and a decade ago ran into problems with conservative Islamic clergy who spread the rumor that the polio vaccine was actually a plot to poison Moslem children. This delayed eradication of polio in Nigeria for nearly a decade and still delays it in Pakistan, Afghanistan and now in parts of Yemen.

The Shia rebels are also having problems with some of their clergy up north. Most of the rebel leaders belong to the very conservative Houthi sect of Shia Islam. This religious extremism is one of the things that kept the Yemeni Shia tribes troublesome for centuries in largely Sunni Arabia. The Houthis managed to dominate the other Shia tribes in the north as well as the non-Houthi Shia tribes. After six years of war and growing poverty and hunger the less-radical northerners are losing patience with the war effort. The Saudis have been offering guns and cash for those tribes willing to switch sides or simply declare their neutrality. Either of these moves invokes the ire of the Houthis and threats of reprisals. That is less effective now because the Saudis can provide effective air support, directed by small groups of Saudis on the ground advising the dissident tribes and calling in the air strikes. The Shia tribes have always improvised and now some of the more radical, and inventive Houthi clergy are reviving the “polio vaccine is poison” rumors to discredit the Saudis and disloyal tribes in the northwest.

Currency Collapse Continues

For the last year the Yemeni economy has suffered accelerating decline and the best measure of that is the falling value of the Yemeni rial. Currently it costs 840 rials to buy one dollar. This is down from 720 rials per dollar in July. That’s what it was in late 2018 and a lot of foreign exchange was spent to get it back under 700 rials per dollar. In early 2020 it was 623 rials per dollar but has been rising ever since. The currency collapse has been accelerated in early 2020 when the rebels banned the use of new rials issued by the government based in Aden. Enforcing the ban is seen as another money raising opportunity for the rebels. The distinctive new southern rials can be seized in the north and used by the rebels to buy things from the south.

At the start of the civil war (early 2015) it cost 250 rials to buy a dollar. By early 2018 it was 425 rials and six months later it was 650 rials. This was not unexpected. In early 2018 Saudi Arabia transferred $2 billion to the Yemen Central Bank to support the exchange rate of the Yemeni currency and keep food (and other) prices down in Yemen. This worked at first and the value of the Yemeni currency immediately rose ten percent (against the dollar). That did not continue because the Shia rebels had looted the Central Bank of at least four billion dollars in rials in 2015 and that contributed to a rapid decline in the purchasing power of the rial as the rebels spent more of this loot. Then there were the counterfeit rials.

At the end of 2016 the U.S. and Germany revealed that they had detected and disrupted an Iranian currency counterfeiting operation that had already produced several hundred million dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency. This was apparently used to bolster the Shia rebels while at the same time weakening the Yemeni government and their Arab allies. The Iranian currency counterfeiting was carried out by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). Laws were broken in Germany to obtain the special materials needed to make the counterfeit bills. The remaining stocks of the counterfeit rials were apparently dumped into the Yemeni economy before everyone got to know how to detect the fakes and refuse to use them. The Shia rebels had always planned to use currency manipulation as a last-ditch weapon. By late 2016 the Shia rebels made financial preparations to abandon the capital (Sanaa) and that included withdrawing over a billion dollars’ worth of Yemeni currency from the economy and moving the cash north to the rebel homeland Saada province. At the same time a lot of portable assets (computers, electronics of all sorts, some machinery) are being bought or “seized in lieu of revolutionary taxes” and also moved north.

November 8, 2020: In the north (Sanaa) fighting east of the capital city went badly for the rebels, who launched an offensive to push back the encroaching government forces. That attack failed, even though it included four explosives equipped UAVs. The government forces had artillery and air support. He UAVs were shut down and the ground attacks were repulsed.

November 6, 2020: Saudi Arabia reported that two more Shia rebel UAVs had been shot down in the southwest (Asir province). Another such UAV had been detected and destroyed yesterday. The rebels had not publicized these attempts, as they usually do.

November 1, 2020: In the southwest (Taiz province) Shia rebels were again under attack by government and Saudi forces. These small-scale offenses have, since 2018, pushed the rebels back to the point where are only a few rebel-controlled areas left in northern Taiz province. In 2019 the rebels were present in about 30 percent of the province and now it is less than ten percent. Taiz city has been under government control since early 2018 and by 2019 the rebels no longer controlled any territory on a permanent basis. Taiz is the third largest city in Yemen and the province occupies a strategic location. For that reason, the province has seen nearly constant fighting for nine years now and it but is no longer the most active combat zone in the country.

October 29, 2020: The U.S. provided details of recent major captures of Iranian weapons on their way to Yemen and Iranian oil illegally headed for Venezuela. The major weapons seizures took place in November 2019 and February 2020. Since then the weapons, which had been scrubbed of any national origin information, were closely examined. The stateless smuggler boats and their cargo were eventually linked to Iran. Some of the missile components were identical to those found in missiles clearly marked as Iranian. Some of the captured smugglers were persuaded to reveal details of their operation. The U.S. recently seized 1.1 million barrels of oil on an Iranian tanker and sold the oil.

Iran continues to get weapons, ammo and missile and UAV components into the Shia rebel stronghold in northwest Yemen. Despite having access to Oman, which shares a 293-kilometer border with Yemen, the Saudis have managed to make the Oman smuggling route much less effective than the water route through the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. That route is guarded by the naval blockade and Iran has to spend a lot of money to hire experienced smugglers that can get past that.

In the southeast Yemen (Mahra province) the Oman smuggling route is controlled by the local Mahra tribe, which lies astride the Yemen/Oman border. Marah province borders Saudi Arabia in the north and Oman in the east. The Saudis and Omanis have locked down their mutual border. The Yemen/Oman border has received help from Saudi troops who have been in Mahra province since 2017. The Saudis were only concerned about the Iranian arms smuggled to the Shia rebels via nearby ports in Mahra and Oman. Most of the Mahra smugglers cooperated, if only because long-term it is better to do business with the Saudi government than be at war with them. The Iranians paid well for moving arms across the border but the Saudi troops operated checkpoints and patrols that made it difficult to get the smuggled weapons to rebel-controlled territory 300 kilometers to the west. The Oman government helped by arranging talks between the Saudis and Mahra tribal leaders from Oman and Yemen. Eventually a deal was worked out and Iran lost regular use of the Oman land route to the Yemen rebels.

While Oman maintains good relations with Iran, it also maintains even better relations with the United States and Britain. The Saudis are an ally, so Oman does not take orders from the Saudis but does get along with them. Such is not the case with Qatar, which sides with Iran, in part because of family feuds with the other Arab monarchies. Arabia is ruled by monarchies and the royal families have numerous links via past marriages, with the other Gulf dynasties and the resulting family feuds as well.

Qatar is a smaller Gulf state that actually borders the Gulf. Oman controls one side of the Strait of Hormuz (the entry to the Persian Gulf) but is, like Yemen, outside the Gulf. Oman is sometimes accused of siding with Iran and Qatar but that support is not strong and often changes. Ultimately Oman sides with the ethnic (fellow Arab) and distant Western allies against Iran. Only Qatar has been accused of being too cooperative with Iran. The fact is that most of the smaller (than Saudi Arabia) states bordering the Gulf have long-standing business and personal relationships with Iraq that have survived many changes in the Iranian government over the last century.

These relationships between Iran and the Arabian states was made clear in 1981 when the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) was formed. Its members (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) appeared to have the wealth and military power to deal with threatening local (Iran) or foreign (China, Russia, India, the West and so on) threats. At the moment the religious dictatorships in Iran is seen as the major threat. Not the Iranian people, but the Iranian religious fanatics who are now openly disliked by most Iranians.

Within the GCC smaller members are willing to work with the Saudis when the cause is critical enough. Such was the case with the original Arab Coalition being formed and entering Yemen in 2015. The UAE and Saudi leaders of the coalition still had disagreements and these grew until the UAE withdrew most of its forces in late 2019. Iran takes advantage of these feuds as much as possible and the Arab monarchies are aware of this weakness but find themselves unable to completely suppress the grudges and all the problems this personal animosity creates.

October 27, 2020: In the rebel-controlled capital (Sanaa) the sports minister of the rebel government was assassinated by gunmen who shot up his car. No one claimed responsibility and the rebels were silent on the motives. There has been growing unrest in the capital where most of the population no longer supports the rebels and just wants the civil war to end.

October 25, 2020: In the last two days the Shia rebels have fired ballistic missiles and sent five explosives laden UAVs against King Khalid airbase and other targets in southwest Saudi Arabia. None of the missiles or UAVs reached their target and all were apparently detected and shot down.

October 18, 2020: In Yemen a new Iranian ambassador was appointed, replacing one that had left Yemen in 2015 when the civil war escalated. The old ambassador was for the pre-civil war Yemen government. Hassan Irloo, the new ambassador, is a known officer of the Quds Force. Like the Quds commander who serves as the ambassador to Iraq, Irloo does not report to the Iranian Foreign Ministry but to the IRGC headquarters. Before he got the Yemen assignment little was known about Irloo except that he was a Quds officer who was rising in the ranks for accomplishments that were kept secret. This is common with Quds commanders, mainly because Quds is seen as a terrorist organization and successful Quds commanders tend to be responsible for a lot of death and destruction carried out in the name of Shia Islamic domination of the world. In reaction to that Israel and the United States have been tracking down and killing the more notorious Quds commanders. Irloo had to be smuggled into Yemen and that was accomplished by the end of October. The arrival of Irloo is reassuring for the rebels, who have been on the defensive for more than a year. Despite that the legitimate Yemeni government has internal problems that the rebels may be able to take advantage of.

Up north another Iranian ballistic missile was fired by the Shia rebels towards a target in Saudi Arabia. This missile, like nearly all fired into Saudi Arabia, was shot down by Saudi Patriot anti-missile systems.

October 16, 2020: The government and rebels completed a two-day long prisoner exchange of a thousand prisoners. There are a lot more prisoners and in 2018 the rebels and government agreed, in general, to arrange an exchange of the 15,000 prisoners held by each side.


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