Yemen: At Last, Sort Of


April 12, 2023: Peace negotiations have made unprecedented progress in the past month. This started in February when truce talks between Saudi Arabia and the Shia rebels reached agreements on many issues. The ultimate goal was to agree on a new ceasefire. The first ceasefire began in April 2022 and was renewed in June and August 2022 for another two months each. UN-sponsored peace talks sought to obtain a six-month extension but the Iran-backed Shia rebels turned that down, insisting that the ceasefire was not working for them. The rebels demanded large cash payments and other concessions if there was to be another ceasefire extension. The government refused. Some fighting resumed after the ceasefire expired, mainly in the usual war zones; Taiz province in the south and Marib in central Yemen. While there were about a hundred since October 2nd, the Saudis did not resume their airstrikes, nor have the rebels resumed attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia or the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This turned out to be the result of direct negotiations between the rebels and the Saudis. This was the first time the rebels and Saudis worked out such a deal. Iranian influence on the Shia rebels is fading and many rebel factions were calling for some kind of peace deal and an end to a civil war that the rebels were losing.

On March 10th China succeeded in arranging a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This was all about the Chinese need for tranquility in the Persian Gulf so that China can continue to get half its imported oil from Persian Gulf states. Iraq had been trying to arrange such a peace deal for several years but lacked the standing and clout to get the deal done. Another factor was inept diplomacy by the Americans that was harsh towards Iran and reduced support for Arab resistance to Iranian threats. This pushed many Arab Gulf Arab oil states into an economic alliance with Russia to drive up the price of oil. This policy makes it easier for Iran to smuggle more of its heavily discounted oil to customers. That plan survived the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and even more economic sanctions.

In early April the Saudis and the Yemen rebels began negotiating directly with each other in an effort to negotiate a longer cease fire so that negotiations on a final peace deal could proceed. The talks took place in the rebel-occupied Yemen capital Sanaa. The goal is a workable permanent peace deal involving the Yemen-rebels, the Yemen government and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis want peace on the southwestern border with Yemen while the Yemen rebels want autonomy in parts of northwest Yemen where the Shia are a majority. This means many Sunni Yemenis will be part of this autonomous region. The peace deal must deal with Sunni Arab concerns. That touches on another problem; the Shia rebels in the northwest are not the only rebels in the country. The Southern Transitional Council, or SCT, represents the Sunni tribes in the south who have long backed dividing Yemen into the Sunni south and largely Shia north. For a long time, the northern Shia have fought to maintain some autonomy. In 2015 that escalated into a civil war as the Iranian-supported Shia captured the capital Sanaa and much territory south of the capital. Within a year this brought in an Arab coalition (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that supported the Yemeni government and national unity. That halted the rebel advance but did little to end the civil war. The Saudis and UAE had different goals in Yemen. The Saudis wanted to keep their southwestern border with Yemen peaceful while the UAE was more interested in new economic opportunities in the more prosperous south. The UAE provides financial and other aid to the southern separatists while the Saudis are more concerned about Shia violence against southwestern Saudi Arabia.

The continued popularity of dividing the country in two is partly about what little oil Yemen has, as it is in the south and that’s where the Sunni separatists are. Islamic terrorists (mainly AQAP) are also in the south and willing to help the separatists. Most southerners just want peace and some prosperity. There are enough devoted separatists in the south to provide sanctuaries and support for Islamic terrorists. Most southerners realize that a new (separatist run) government in the south would be as corrupt as the one they have now and the ones Yemen has had for thousands of years. As a result of all this and years of fighting, it is more difficult to bring foreign aid into the south, which needs it the most, because AQAP believes such aid, even though most is from Moslem countries, is tainted and should be prevented.

The basic problem is that too many Yemenis don’t want to be Yemenis. The country was a patchwork of independent tribes and cities when the English East India Company took control of some Yemeni ports in the 1830s and 40s to support and protect ships moving between Britain and India. The Ottoman Turks maintained their control over most of northern Yemen until 1918, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Britain took over from the Ottomans and established the borders of modern Yemen. But Yemen was still not a unified country. When the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two parts of Yemen finally united in 1990, but a civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take, and within a decade the north and south were pulling apart again.

All this corruption and lack of unity is related to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa (northeast Africa) region, the normal form of government, until the last century or so, were wealthier coastal city states, nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming or a little of both. This whole "nation" idea is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity such as kingdom, emirate or modern variation in the form of a hereditary dictatorship. Yemen is still all about the tribes. The national government is a bunch of guys who deal with foreigners, and try to maintain peace among the tribes. Controlling the national government is a source of such wealth as there is in Yemen, as government officials steal part of any foreign aid and duties on imports or royalties from oil.

This lack of nationalism means a lack of cooperation or willingness to act in the public interest. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crisis is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of overpopulation, water shortages and Khat. The last item is a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal and has to be smuggled in.

Feuding, fighting and blaming others are the preferred methods for dealing with any problems. Before oil was discovered in Arabia nearly a century ago, Yemen had long been the most populous, powerful and pleasant part of Arabia because it was the only part of Arabia with regular rains. This was thanks to the annual Indian Ocean monsoon. Most of the oil deposits were at the north end of the Persian Gulf and Yemen lost out there. Yemenis had long despised the less affluent Arabians to the north, but since oil arrived the Yemenis have become despised and they did not take it well. Resentment, envy and a sense of entitlement have combined with the lack of unity to produce Yemen that is a nation in name only. Few others in the region have much sympathy for the Yemenis who are seen as the main cause of their own problems and the main obstacle to solving them. Since that is all you have to work with, it is no wonder that Yemen came to be such a perennial disaster area.

The concept of a unified Yemen was largely created by Cold War politics and how Britain handled a threat to their seaborne trade in the early 19th century. That was when Britain took control of Aden. This was partly to shut down the many pirates operating out of there, who were increasingly going after British ships traveling between Asia (India, Southeast Asia and China) and Britain. Only Aden was needed but the British made deals with the tribes that occupied most of southern Yemen coast and had long depended on Aden and other southern ports for supplies and such. Britain made Aden and the smaller southern ports more prosperous with new trading opportunities and provided more benefits for the interior tribes. Most importantly the tribes still had their autonomy, as well as British protection from outsiders. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 and over the next few decades larger, more efficient, steam powered metal vessels supplanted and replaced wooden sailing ships. That meant a lot more trade moving past. Aden and South Yemen became more prosperous.

When the British left in the early 1960s, as part of a widespread abandonment of colonies by European nations, there was some unrest and fighting in the newly independent South Yemen. This was because Aden was much less religious and traditional with a better educated population and it was no surprise that Aden and some other South Yemen cities were dominated by local communists. From 1970 until the fall of European communism in 1989, South Yemen was a communist state, subsidized by the Soviet Union, and the only such one in the Arab world.

Most of that enthusiasm for communism was centered in Aden and its suburbs. This is where most of the South Yemen population lived and where an even larger proportion of its GDP came from. A few other coastal cities had the same type of population and political attitudes, giving the urban population control of politics as well as the economy. The tribal minority, out in the desert and semi-desert inland areas, was much more religious and traditional. But over the centuries the urban and tribal populations had learned to get along and respect each other’s customs.

It was different in northern Yemen, where the urban population was not as dominant and the tribal population was economically better off and about as religious and conservative as their southern counterparts. The problem was the northern and southern tribes saw each other as “foreigners”. This is a common situation in tribal cultures, which includes the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet even then there was some enthusiasm for a united Yemen in the north and south.

With the collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991, the Russian subsidies stopped and unification was suddenly much more appealing. After a few years of haggling, and occasional fighting, Yemen was united by 1994. At that point there were still factions in the north and south who believed unity was overrated and that two Yemen’s was preferable. That is no longer the case, not with most of the population surviving on foreign food aid. Many of those hungry Yemenis have to pay Shia rebels for this “free food.” The foreign aid NGOs (non-government organizations) and the UN complain about this but the Shia rebels are armed and dangerous and the UN is not. Not armed that is.

There is resistance to admitting that Yemen is a failed state, one of those areas, like Somalia and Afghanistan, that were never united for long and are basically several smaller entities that are not really interested in unity with their neighbors who are supposed to be their countrymen. And then there is the corruption problem. Yemen has long been recognized as one of the most corrupt places on the planet and the civil war has not changed that because Yemen has long been at the bottom of the list.

April 8, 2023: The Saudi-led Arab Coalition in Yemen has lifted restrictors on what cargo could be shipped to Yemen ports. This is something the Shia rebels have long sought.

April 4, 2023: The UAE has started moving its remaining troops out of Yemen.

April 2, 2023: The Yemen government complained that Shia rebel checkpoints on the roads from the port of Aden to northern Yemen are still blocking the movement of about 200 trucks carrying food and other supplies to government controlled areas in the north. This appears to be the work of a rebel faction that disagrees with the peace negotiations.

March 30, 2023: The Shia rebels released their estimate of the casualties on their side during a decade of violence. The rebels put their total casualties (dead, wounded, missing) at 48,217, with about of them deaths and most of the casualties’ civilians. The Yemen government and the Arab Coalition have not released a similar casualty report yet. Past government casualty reports indicate the final number will be less than the rebel total.

March 18, 2023: March 17, 2023: Iran officially agreed to stop arming the Shia rebels in Yemen. Economic and political problems back in Iran has reduced efforts to smuggled weapons to the Shia rebels and this announcement makes an end to those shipments official. This new policy is popular with the Saudis and other Arab states. There are many Iranian specialists from the IRGC (Islamic Republic Guard Corps) Quds Force in Yemen. These are led by a retired Quds Force general who is the Iranian ambassador to rebel controlled Yemen, which is about a third of the country, including the capital. The rebels no longer need the Quds Force advisors or an IRGC officer as an ambassador. The truce makes it possible for the Iranians to safely fly out of Yemen. They had to be smuggled in originally. Iran expects all these friendly gestures to improve renewed trade between Arab states and Iran.

March 8, 2023: Yemen has other problems, involving epic corruption, that won’t be solved by an end to the civil war. It’s no coincidence that the least corrupt nations are the most successful. The most corrupt nations (currently Yemen, Venezuela, South Sudan, Syria and Somalia) are the poorest and often mired in civil war or chronic violence. The least corrupt nations (currently Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Singapore) are peaceful and prosperous.

This problem is most acute in Somalia, which explains why the latest annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index showed that Somalia is the most corrupt nation in the world. Somalia continued to be as corrupt as it has been during the last decade, with a corruption score of 12, which is why Somalia is stuck at the bottom of the list. Transparency International measures corruption on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The nations with the lowest scores are currently Yemen (score of 17). Syria (13), South Sudan (13) and Somalia (12). The least corrupt nation is currently Denmark, with a CPI of 90, followed by Finland and New Zealand, each with 87.

While the Middle East has a lot of corruption, there are exceptions. In the Persian Gulf the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is the last corrupt nation in the region, followed by Israel. Both Somalia and UAE’s corruption score have not changed much since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution when it was 8 for Somalia and 68 for the UAE. The UAE achieved the most favorable corruption score in the region because it has long depended on foreign trade to survive and to make money in that business you must be known as an honest trading partner. The UAE is also different in that it is a federation of formerly independent “emirates” that realized the wisdom of joining forces. Laws and customs vary somewhat among the emirates and some are more gangster than others. Overall, the UAE is a place where foreigners feel comfortable doing business. The UAE has also partnered with Turkey to provide foreign aid to Somalia. This has proved very difficult to carry out and Somalia is not a place most foreigners want to do business in. Somalia is also a federation of seven (including separatist Somaliland and Puntland in the far north) clan-dominated regions that have never achieved the degree of unity and prosperity of the UAE.


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