Friday, November 20, 2009

Yemen Becoming New Front Between Al Qaeda & Hezbollah?

I was Political Officer in Jidda in the late '70s in the US Embassy and was accustomed to receiving long missives from the US Amb to Yemen, Tom Scotes, who would dash off three half-dozen page analyses of the Yemeni political situation [which I also covered from a Pol/Mil slant] every week, or so it seemed.

Finally, Amb Tom Pickering from Jordan arrived in Jidda with three black Chevy Suburbans armed with antennae thirty feet high and announced that he wished to drive to Sana to visit Tom Scotes and would myself and the MilATT like to hitch a ride? I took one of the Jidda Suburbans with a broken-down M16, which I had learned to handle in Vietnam, and Tom's son Tim hitched a ride with me as we motored in CB contact with his pop to the Yemeni border. Tom Pickering was a driven man---his nickname was Black Bart---and he blew off an invite from the governor of Najran to get an early start across the unmarked Saudi/Yemeni border and many adventures ensued, including my discovery of Jews settled in a valley north of Saada of whom I have some photos which I will dig out and attach someday to my writings. They are not mentioned in the Economist article above which discusses the area we traversed, but they are one more piece on the zany chessboard that is Yemeni politics, or rather civil strife.

Back in the seventies, Sana's rule stopped at Saada and the hundred miles between Saada and Najran were royalist territory, loyal to the crazy Imam whose exploits amazed travellers like Freya Stark and others. Tim and I were hailed by two hitchhikers in the area not by a raised thumb, but with the usual lowered rifles pointed at us. We picked up the passengers and dropped them off twenty miles later and the M16 was not needed.

Yemen is a country I have visited a half-dozen times or more between my Foreign Service days and my stint as an Amoco Entry Strategist. It is a [barely] functioning medieval society with the Zaidi[Shi'a] and Shafei[Sunni] dichotomy only two of the many cultural/religious rifts splitting the country into a kaleidoscope of clans, tribes, and isolated satrapies. Osama Bin Laden's family hails from the Hadramaut in the southern part of the country which is again trying to affirm its independence from the capital in Sana, itself perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited urban settlement in the world---longer even than Damascus.

Supposedly, Shi'ism had its origin in Yemen from a Jewish convert at the death of the Prophet when the first succession crisis in the new religion arose, and spread rapidly eastward among the Kharajites in Oman and then up the Gulf to Basra and later Baghdad. Certainly, the peninsulars didn't like the Umayyads' move to Damascus and later to Cordoba. Persia/Iran didn't become Shi'ite until the Safavids almost a millennium later, but the Fatamids in Egypt were the genesis of Shi'ite power for a while, throwing off heterodox offshoots like the Druse in Lebanon and Iran [the "Old Man of the Mountain" who founded the sect of the Hashishiim or "Assassins" was an eastern Drusi living on a mountaintop near the Caspian, so the Lebanese Druse claim]. But I digress....

Suffice it to say, as the Economist article linked above outlines a bit, that Yemen is both western-oriented politically and also an unwilling battleground between Iranian-backed, Lebanese-trained Hezbollah and their Houthi allies versus the Al Qaeda strongholds further south in the former PDRY, a godforsaken hellhole where smuggling and piracy are the two main economic sources of income. It appears that Eritrea across the Red Sea from Yemen is also an Iranian base of operations, important because the nearby Bab el Mandeb is a chokepoint for all Red Sea Suez Canal traffic just as the Straits of Hormuz is for Persian Gulf trade and traffic.

The Saudis regard Yemen as their single greatest national security concern, ever since the Treaty of Taif in 1930 deprived Yemen of the Asir and other parts of what is now the southwest part of Saudi Arabia. Even though 15 of the 19 crazed Muslim terrorists who destroyed the WTC in 9/11/01 were carrying Saudi passports, their names showed they were of Yemeni ethnic or tribal affiliation as is Osama Bin Laden and there is no doubt that US and Saudi national security dovetail in this respect.

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