The inimitable Gary Brecher:
The Saudis, with sleazy friends in Langley and unlimited cash to throw around, have incredible control over world media. They do such a good job of suppressing news about their long war with the Shia of Yemen that, until I lived there and got the story first hand, I didn’t even know that the Shia of Najran had actually risen up in armed rebellion in 2000. And it was an incredible story of a glorious, though doomed, rebellion.
In 2000, the Shia of Najran got sick of being told by their Saudi Provincial Governor (a Saudi princeling, naturally) that they were rafidii (“nay-sayers”) and takfiri (“apostates”). The Najrani grabbed their guns, scared off the Saudi national police and drove Prince Mishaal into hiding in the Najran Holiday Inn. You can still see the Holiday Inn; it’s as good as a Gettysburg monument to the locals, though the bullet holes have, unfortunately, been covered over.
The Saudis’ strength comes from three provinces , Al Qassim, Ha’il, and Riyadh—that make up the Najd, the uplands, the turtle-back of the Arabian Peninsula. What’s happening now, as Saudi planes bomb Houthi bases, is the latest of a long, chronic war between the Najd and Yemen.
Oil made the Najd strong in the 20th century, but even before it was discovered, Yemen was weakened by invasions, first the Ottomans and then the British. The Sunni of the Najd were lucky enough to be ignored—what did they have that was worth taking, before the oil was found?—whereas the Yemeni had two very valuable, stealable assets: coffee, and ports along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
There was a time when Yemen was the world’s only coffee exporter (Mocha is a town in Yemen, on the Red Sea) and though coffee was banned as a dangerous drug by Murad IV, he couldn’t make that Prohibition work, because the Turks were addicts from their first sip. They needed that caffeine buzz to help them look over maps and think about new provinces to conquer. And when they looked at Yemen, they saw a 2,000 km long coastline that could be dotted with Ottoman naval outposts, and they drooled—probably drooled coffee grounds all over the map. They wanted the coast. That was them all over; show them a landscape painting and they were calculating how many Janissaries it’d take to conquer it, how many new taxes they could squeeze out of their kaffir subjects to raise a new army and seize whatever your hotel-room artwork showed.
And they didn’t mind casualties. You can rank armies by their aversion to KIA; the IDF clearly goes at the top (it’s their great, fatal har-har weakness), and the Soviets and Ottoman rank near the bottom for sensitivity to body bags coming home. The Pashas started ordering their unlucky Egyptian lieutenants to make grabs for Yemen in the early 1500s. They made the classic mistake in judging the odds of going into Yemen, thinking that because it was localized and anarchic that it must be weak. Early in the 16th century a half-smart Ottoman pasha made this “cakewalk” prediction:
“Yemen is a land with no lord, an empty province. It would be not only possible but easy to capture, and should it be captured, it would be master of the lands of India and send every year a great amount of gold and jewels to Constantinople.”
Wrong on all counts. In the first half of the 16th century, the Empire sent 80,000 troops to Yemen. Only 7,000 of them ever came home.
The Ottomans had their own 16th-century version of the US Army’s “lessons learned” ritual after a failure, and their review of this debacle was brutal:
“We have seen no foundry like Yemen for our soldiers. Each time we have sent an expeditionary force there, it has melted away like salt dissolved in water.”
Army prose was a little more literary back then.
The Ottomans kept trying, sending one doomed army out from Egypt after another. They always were a land-hungry, over-extended empire, jerking off to maps rather than consolidating what really mattered.
Yemen wasn’t nearly as easy to take as it must’ve looked to the Ottoman policy-pasha wonks looking over a map of the Peninsula in Constantinople.
By 1634, the last Ottoman forces were permitted—“permitted,” you’ll note—to leave Mocha, the Yemeni coffee-packing port they’d coveted for almost a century. The Shia of Yemen, who seemed so leaderless and weak, had defeated them completely, though the endless wars with the Turks had also weakened the Yemenis.
What the Turks never got was that the Shia highlands of Yemen weren’t a “land with no lord,” but a land with a hereditary Imamate, a theocratic military leader like Hassan Nasrullah of Hezbollah. Nasrullah is a perfect modern Imam, a sectarian icon, which may be why he looks like Gerry Adams after six months on an all-donut diet. Moqtada al Sadr in Iraq has a similar role.
An Imam isn’t supposed to interfere too much in clan business in normal times. His most important job is to unite the sect when it’s under threat. The Imam is a mobilizer above all, which the US found out the hard way when they messed with Moqtada in Baghdad.
When the Shia of northern Yemen mobilize, like they have now, they always move outward from their stronghold in Saaba Province in the same directions: either North toward Najran and Abha, or West to the Red Sea (Jizan), or South to Aden.
As long as they stick together under a strong Imam, they’re hard to beat. But after the Turks left in the mid-17th century, the Yemenis faced a much smarter empire: the British. Very few countries held off that Empire for long. Between the Americans’ victory in 1783 and Irish independence in 1922, not one country was able to eject the Empire.
But in 1840, at their peak, the British were beautiful to watch. They were masters at handling a complicated, clannish country like Yemen. They never made the mistake of rolling in and claiming the whole place as the Turks had. That only united the locals. Instead, they did what they were good at: using proxies, fomenting divisions, creating distractions—the original force multipliers. And even when they lost battles or campaigns, they left their enemies weakened, often for good.
In 1840, they realized they could use Aden as a coaling port for the fleets that kept their Indian operation, the big money-maker, in business. And that was that; they needed Yemen, and they were going to get it. They landed at Mocha almost exactly two centuries after the Turks evacuated it.
The British used another Imperial strategy now forgotten: forced immigration by subject peoples. Aden, the focus of their ambitions in Yemen, became a “world town” in the 19th century, with about a thousand Arabs swamped by South Asian, SE Asian, and African immigrants. Those were the perfect inhabitants, with no links to the locals and entirely dependent on the Empire’s protection to avoid being killed by the angry Yemenis.
Aden stayed fairly quiet, in Yemeni terms, until the 1960s, when Britain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia fought a dirty, complicated Yemeni war. Aden blew up, with grenade attacks on British officials, who had a witty riposte in the form of torture centers that pioneered many of the techniques you’ll remember from Abu Ghraib, with emphasis on sexual degradation and nakedness.
The British got called on these torture centers—they were a little sloppy, not in form, during the 1960s—and left in 1967. The real action moved up north to Houthi territory, where Nasser, hope of the Arab world in the 1960s, decided that a modern, Arab-nationalist regime in Yemen would be a big move for him, Egypt, and the Arabs.
Arabs were getting very “modern” at that time. It’s important to remember that. You know why they stopped getting modern, and started getting interested in reactionary, Islamist repression?
Because the modernizing Arabs were all killed by the US, Britain, Israel, and the Saudis.
That was what happened in the North Yemen Civil War, from 1962-1967. After a coup, Nasser backed modernist Yemeni officers against the new Shia ruler. The Saudis might not have liked Shia, but they hated secularist, modernizing nationalists much more. At least the Northern Shia kings ruled by divine right and invoked Allah after their heretical fashion. That was much better, to the Saudi view, than a secular Yemen.
And the west agreed. To the Americans of that time, “secular” sounded a little bit commie. To the British, it sounded anti-colonial and unprofitable. To the Israelis, it raised the horrible specter of an Arab world ruled by effective 20th-century executives. States like that might become dangerous enemies, while an Arab world stuck in religious wars, dynastic feuds, and poverty sounded wonderful.
Why do you think the IDF has not attacked Islamic State or Jabhat Al Nusra even once?
So all the factions we call “The West” jumped in to destroy these Yemeni officers: British commandos and pilots, Israeli military advisors, CIA bagmen, NSA geeks, and mercenaries from all over the world.
Egypt lost something like 25,000 soldiers in Yemen; you don’t fight a British/Saudi/American/Israeli/Islamist/Royalist coalition like the one they were facing without losing big. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when it lost the Sinai, Egypt had no interest in bothering about Yemen and called its surviving troops home.
If you look at a control map of Northern Yemen in 1967, when the war ended with Egypt’s total defeat, you see that the Egyptian forces and their Yemeni allies still controlled some of the southern areas around Taiz (which was just taken by the Houthi last week), while the Royalists, the conservatives, controlled all of Saada Province and the north, the areas across from Najran.
So the Houthi, whose core strength perfectly maps the Royalists’ areas of control in 1967, draw their strength from these same conservative areas. As for the modernist, secular Yemenis, they’re just gone. Emigrated, or died, or saw their children seduced by the madrassi.
That scenario was repeated all over the Middle East during the Cold War, and it has a lot to do with how messed up the place is now. “For Allah and the Emir”; when Time ran that headline in 1963, that slogan sounded quaint and kind of touching. . . . It sounded like a nice alternative to Nasser, nationalism (and its much more dangerous corollary, nationalization) or, worse yet, Communism.
So the West put its weapons and its money in on the side of “Allah and the Emir” over and over again, against every single faction trying to make a modern, secular Arab world, whether on the Nasserite, Ba’athist, Socialist, Communist, or other model.
The Houthi are as conservative and devout as the Saudis who are using every plane they’ve got to bomb them at the moment.
In fact, their favorite poster is a devoutly blood-thirsty souvenir of Tehran in the Khomeini years:
God is great.
Death to America.
Death to Israel.
A curse upon the Jews.
Victory to Islam.
Of course, the Houthi, as Shia, worship the wrong version of Allah, from the Saudi perspective. But that didn’t bother the Saudis, or the Americans, or the British, or the Israelis, back in the 1960s when they all joined hands (in a very non-peace-and-love way) to wipe out the modernizing Yemeni.http://pando.com/2015/03/28/the-war-nerd-a-brief-history-of-the-yemen-clusterfck/