Few international problems remain quite as intractable as does the current political instability and conflict in Yemen. This veritable Serbonian Bog has been largely abandoned by the international community, who routinely dismiss this quagmire of factionalism and dire poverty as a quasi-failed state that is the haunt of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. With international legations closed and almost all but the most tenacious journalists having withdrawn from the country, the plight of Yemenis and those ‘trapped’ in the country goes unreported.
Once there were Western diplomats aplenty who took an interest in the Arabian Peninsula and the history and heritage of the region. They were not obsessed with security, but were keen to master Arabic, Farsi and various other languages. Some possessed encyclopaedic knowledge of various clans and their traditions, and for all the mission and machinations of London and Paris sought to understand that which seemed so very different to the Occidental outlook. This gilded world lasted until the 1950’s when Arab-nationalism wreaked havoc upon the policies formulated by the Foreign Office, London and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Paris and was to see the gluttonous King Farouk toppled in Egypt and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal. London and Paris along with the newly created state of Israel endeavoured to engineer an emergency to act as a cover for military intervention only to find that their machinations earned the disapproval and censure of the United States of America and resulted in a humiliating climb down. The fall-out from the Suez Crisis was far reaching, bolstering Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, emboldening the Soviet Union to send tanks into Hungary and sowing the seeds of discontent and treachery that was to result in the murdering of the benign King Feisal II of Iraq and his family in 1958. One of Nasser’s disciples, Brigadier Sallah in September 1962 was to orchestrate and execute an Egyptian backed coup in Yemen, thus ousting Muhammad al- Badr – the Yemeni King and Imam, whilst the following year Abdul Salam Aref, another friend and admirer of the Egyptian leader, carried out the violent overthrow of Prime Minister Qasim of Iraq, an event that ushered in the era of the Ba’ath Party which ultimately was to lead to the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Arab Nationalism and rivalry, the Cold War and changing geo-politics has certainly not been kind to Yemen or its neighbours. In the years since the disastrous Suez debacle of 1956 Foreign Ministries in London and Paris have gradually withdrawn and the body of cultural knowledge they once possessed has gradually dissipated and been lost. Many modern British diplomats have never even heard about John Bagot Glubb let alone read any of the writing of the famed Glubb Pasha; his books, most notably Great Arab Conquests, should be required reading. Mention the likes of the Trucial States and Nuri -as Said and one is greeted with quizzical looks and blank stares. Now the few diplomats who bother to take an interest have the same profiles, invariably their Curriculum Vitaewill feature Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. Security, containment, terrorism or counter-insurgency movements would appear to be the sole interests of those who are assigned to ‘monitor’ Yemen. NGOs are equally thin on the ground and media coverage is near non-existent. To all intents and purposes Yemen has become invisible, a non-state, a land that has been allowed to drift off onto the dark margins.
Like Syria here is a land where a proxy war is taking place, a titanic struggle between the Gulf States and Iran, Sunni versus Shi’te Islam. In addition historic rivalries, especially in the interior of the country and the fact that the Yemeni Government’s writ has never really extended much beyond Sana’a and one has a situation that is indeed both highly complex and in a state of flux. Political expediency and a total lack of understanding leads most international observers to view things in a simplistic manner, put crudely: Yemen = Al-Qaeda. This analysis is not only erroneous, it is dangerous, because it appears to condemn and demonise the entire population. Whilst there is extremist activity, the majority of those living in Yemen are endeavouring to survive and whilst they are Muslims, this does not mean that they support militant elements. Foreigners invariably find it difficult to comprehend al-Din (the complete way of life) that is so integral to being a Muslim. Yemen is bedevilled with challenges not least the fact that it suffers from water and food insecurity and according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development only 15% of the population has access to electricity. Politically it has endured years for turmoil, with the ramifications of the 2011 Revolution still being felt. Internal strife and external meddling have become a way of life. The Yemen Times has calculated that between April and October 2013 there have been some 93 assassinations of security and army officials, with others since. Add to this anecdotal evidence of interference from countries such as Saudi Arabia and US drone strikes against supposed Al-Qaedaoperatives and the picture is decidedly depressing. Diplomats, NGO workers and Foreign Correspondents have up sticks and left and as a consequence reliable information has become even scarcer.
Whilst the world may be oblivious of what is going on, momentous events are taking place. Currently the town of Dammaj in the Sa’ada Governorate is being besieged, the siege having entered its 64th day. Houthis (a group of Zaydi Shi’ites) are indiscriminately raining shells and sniper fire down onto the Sunni residents. The Houthis who are believed to be receiving support from Iran routinely label the townsfolk of Dammaj as takfereen (extremists) and are intent on taking the town regardless of the cost. The list of deaths and casualties is climbing day by day. As well as the locals being besieged there are a number of foreign students who have been studying at the Dar Al Hadith Centre (a renowned centre of Islamic scholarship) who are unable to leave. An American student was killed by snipers two days ago and other nationalities including British citizens have been endeavouring to leave for weeks to no avail. The family of at least one British national has sought help from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London and to date has neither received a sympathetic hearing or practical assistance. The situation is desperate with food scarce and even the most basic of medical supplies are fast running out and yet the mainstream media appears indifferent to what is taking place. Iona Craig, Yemen Correspondent of The Times of London (who is based in the Sana’a) managed to encapsulate international indifference to the newsworthiness of the plight of the citizens of Dammaj when she commented; “I’ve pitched it all over the place. Zero interest.” To all intents and purposes Yemen would appear to have become a terra incognito and what is more the wider world appears ignorant or unconcerned about its fate.
Mark T Jones – London-based commentator on International Affairs
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