by William A. Rugh, Ph.D.
A former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen sets out American options in how to deal effectively with Yemen’s president in a complex internal situation and defeat AQAP.-The Editor
The attempt by Omar Farouk Abu Mutallib to bring down an American airplane on Christmas day has focused Washington’s attention sharply on Yemen, the country where he received his explosive underwear and his terrorist training from al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration now faces the task of trying to deal with Yemen as the latest venue for harboring international terrorists who are considered to be a threat to American interests. Success in this will depend on developing a strategy to persuade Yemen’s President Salih to cooperate fully and effectively in rooting out the AQAP.
President Salih’s Priorities
Since I served as the U.S. ambassador to Yemen for three years in the late 1980s and met with President Salih many times, and I have watched his career since then, I know a bit about how he governs and how he deals with the United States, so I can offer some modest suggestions on working with him now.
President Ali Abdullah Salih is not an al Qaida sympathizer, and he has stated his willingness to be a partner with the United States in trying to counter elements in Yemen who support international terrorism. But he has many other concerns on his mind, that to him are far more important than al Qaida. He faces some very real internal threats to the unity and stability of his country. One is a violent insurgency of Zaydi tribesmen against his government that is based in the northern region around Saada (Sa’dah), led by Abdal Malik al Houthi who seeks Salih’s overthrow and the return of the Imamate that ended in the 1960s. Salih has been trying for five years to put down this insurgency but his military forces have failed to do so and it continues as a threat to his regime. At the same time there is a growing movement of hostile forces in the south, fueled by discontented tribes and individuals who feel Salih has not provided their region with the support they deserve. Tribes in Marib Province to the East continue to govern that area with a fair degree of autonomy, and merchants in the port of Hodaida (Al Hudaydah) on the Red Sea coast are grumbling about their economic situation. Yemen’s poverty helps fuel discontent with Salih’s leadership everywhere. On top of that, water has become very scarce in parts of the country and it must be trucked into capital of Sanaa every day. Unlike most of the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula that have substantial oil resources allowing the central government to provide generous welfare subsidies for their people, and thus help overcome any discontent with leadership, the Yemeni government does not have the resources to satisfy its population from the top down. Salih must therefore focus on keeping his critics at bay by other means.
When he first took power in 1978, Western observers deemed his chances of survival as relatively poor. His two predecessors had been assassinated within a short period of time, and Salih did not have a strong power base in the tribes. He was an army major unknown to most Yemenis and he seemed to be just another brief chapter in the country’s turbulent politics. But he surprised everyone with his political survival skills
During the Cold War, he astutely played off various parties to Yemen’s advantage, thus placating local critics and enhancing his own personal power. He accepted equipment and training from the Soviet Union for his military, and he accepted economic assistance from the United States and conservative Arab regimes. Yemen had a large USAID program and was one of only two Middle Eastern countries to have an American Peace Corps program. China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and several West European countries gave Yemen generous amounts of assistance.
Domestically, he demonstrated his ability not only to stay in power but also to fend off threats to his rule from different directions. He did not have a powerful military, law enforcement or security apparatus, so he used political tactics including financial incentives, to keep his critics and rivals at bay. When he came to power the presidency was unencumbered by democracy or representative government, but over time he gradually seemed to make minor concessions to his opponents. He allowed municipal councils and then an elected national parliament – but at first allowed only one political party, his own. I was there as ambassador at the time and when I asked him why he did not allow a multi-party system, he said Yemen only needed one party to express the “national will”. A few years later, in 1990, he did allow a multi-party system to emerge, and I had a chance to ask him why he changed his mind. He explained to me that he had realized that his opponents were growing stronger but they were hiding underground so by opening up a party system they would come out into the open where he could watch them better. He was not ideologically committed to democracy but simply decided on his own that it served his purposes to help him keep his job.
Although Ali Abdullah Salih in 1978 was president of only North Yemen, and he faced some serious challenges to his regime from tough politicians in South Yemen, he overcame those and by 1990 he managed to engineer a merger and become president of a unified Yemen. When in 1994 the southerners decided they had been shortchanged in the merger, they tried to secede, but he successfully put that down in a brief civil war. But today he is coping with southern discontent again.
Al Qaida in Yemen
Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is a new threat and it also concerns President Salih, but until very recently it has not directly attacked his government. Dealing with al Qaida terrorists is important to him but it is a much lower priority than coping with the existential threats posed by the insurgency in the north and the discontent in the south. The truly dangerous terrorists affiliated with al Qaida probably number only in the few hundreds, but they have help from various powerful elements in Yemen who support them for their own reasons, including some tribal leaders and individuals. Yemenis went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight with mujahideen against the Soviet Union, and when they returned home after that some of them formed cells hidden in the Yemeni countryside where they nurtured contacts with al Qaida and hopes of helping its cause. Their ranks were augmented a few years ago when Saudi Arabia crushed al Qaida inside its borders and the remnants of the Saudi al Qaida branch fled to Yemen. But their focus has been outside Yemen so Salih worries less about it.
Salih’s government has at various times over the past decade arrested, tried and convicted al Qaida suspects, but many of those have later escaped from jail or been pardoned and released by him. He is playing what he seems to believe is a carefully calibrated game of keeping them at bay and preventing them from harming his interests, by sometimes cracking down on them and sometimes easing up. His approach is short term and tactical, focused on the threat of the moment. Always he is mindful of the domestic political context, namely what other political forces in Yemen are connected with them and how he can best deal with them as well. For example, Salih has treated Abdal Majd al Zindani, an Islamist political leader and a long time opponent, in different ways depending on circumstances, at times bringing him into the government to co-opt him, and at other times portraying him as the enemy and privately describing him as a lunatic. At the moment Zindani is associated with al Qaida, and Washington has now put him on its list of terrorists, so this complicates Salih’s effort to cope with him.
Over the past decade, President Salih has at various times cooperated with Washington on counter-terrorism efforts, but the record has been uneven. When al Qaida-affiliated terrorists attacked the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, and an FBI team came into his country and demanded to take over the investigation, Salih rejected that as an intrusion into his sovereignty. Washington was not happy when detained suspects were later free and resumed their activities. After 9/11, realizing that the Bush administration had made the Global War on Terrorism its highest priority, President Salih agreed to allow American drones to operate in Yemeni airspace against al Qaida on condition that they do so secretly, so as not to give his Yemeni critics a chance to accuse him of subservience to the United States. So when Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in 2002 publicly bragged that a U.S. drone had killed an al Qaida leader in Yemen with a Hellfire missile, breaking the promise of secrecy, Salih was furious.
After the December 25, 2009 attack on an American plane, Salih publicly declared that he would work with the United States to combat al Qaida in Yemen. But he still wants to be very careful not to appear to be Washington’s puppet. Already Zindani has complained that the United States wants to impose an “international occupation” on Yemen, and Salih is very sensitive to that charge.
The Obama administration can be successful if it handles its counter-terrorism effort in Yemen with sensitivity to Salih’s concerns. There are several ways to do that.
First, it would be very counterproductive to deploy American combat troops to Yemen. Yemen’s mountainous terrain and fiercely proud Yemenis would present the U.S. military with at least as much trouble as they are encountering in Afghanistan trying to deal with terrorists there. Nasser failed in the 1960s when he sent the Egyptian army to Yemen, and the U.S. would not have an easier time. More importantly, a direct U.S. military intervention would exacerbate the very grievances that help persuade some Yemenis to support or tolerate terrorism against us, and it would seriously complicate Salih’s ongoing effort to cope with his internal critics. American technical support for Salih’s counter-terrorism efforts would be useful, but we should do our best to undertake it very quietly and unobtrusively.
Secondly, we should launch a major diplomatic effort to encourage the other Arab states of the Arabian Peninsula to help in the effort against al Qaida in Yemen. They have the ability to make a difference, and they should have an interest in doing so, but their role needs to be carefully thought through because it is complicated.
In the past, all the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula have been helpful to Yemen in one way or another but there are problems with their involvement now. In the 1980s, most of them, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates provided very substantial economic assistance to Yemen, and Salih’s ties with Iraq were close. Yemen has the largest population on the Peninsula, and for decades Yemeni workers supplied the oil-rich Gulf States with labor they badly needed. Osama bin Ladin’s father went to Saudi Arabia to seek his fortune and found it there. Thousands of other Yemenis went to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states where they stayed, sending to relatives back home millions in remittances that were very important to the Yemeni economy.
President Salih knew that this relationship with his neighbors was valuable but he was always careful to try to avoid dependency or the appearance of it. He was especially wary of Saudi Arabia, his immediate neighbor to the north. In addition to direct economic assistance to Salih, he knew that the Saudi government was at the same time providing direct payments to leaders of tribes that straddled the Saudi-Yemeni border, and that made him nervous. Most of that border remained undefined, and ongoing efforts to draw the line failed, causing Salih further to distrust Saudi intentions. When I was ambassador in Yemen Salih regularly expressed to me his strong view that Washington was “taking its Yemen policy from Riyadh”, instead of regarding Yemen as a sovereign nation that deserved to be treated with due respect on the basis of mutual bilateral interests. When I paid my farewell call on him in 1987, he spent the entire time complaining to me about the Saudis. He needed Gulf Arab help and he took it, but he was sensitive about outside interference.
In 1990 Salih made a huge strategic blunder that in effect collapsed his carefully constructed arrangement of vital foreign economic assistance that came from his Arab neighbors and from many another quarters. When Saddam invaded Kuwait and all of the other states of the Arabian Peninsula supported the U.S. confrontation with Iraq in demanding that Saddam withdraw, Salih stubbornly continued to support Saddam. Arab and American efforts to persuade him to join the coalition against Iraq failed, and the result was essentially that all foreign economic assistance from the West and from the Arab world, that had been huge every year during the 1980s and had sustained Yemen’s economy, dried up overnight. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states also expelled thousands of Yemeni workers who had been sending large remittance payments home every month. The reasons for Salih’s support for Saddam in the face of strong American and Arab pressure remain obscure; there has been some speculation that Salih did it because he was benefiting financially from his loyalty to Saddam, but that remains speculation. In any case, his decision cost Yemen most of his foreign subsidies that were very substantial and never resumed, although today he does get small amounts of outside aid.
Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states of the Peninsula – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman – who are joined in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), could help Yemen combat al Qaida in several ways. They could all welcome Yemeni workers to fill their labor needs, as they did in the 1980s. Most of them depend heavily on foreign labor, and hiring Yemenis would help meet that demand and it would provide Yemenis with jobs and Yemen with revenues to bolster its sagging economy. In addition, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE could use some of their oil wealth to provide direct economic assistance in substantial amounts to Yemen as they once did.
Beyond that, a collective effort to fight al Qaida by all of the security services on the Arabian Peninsula working together, sharing information, planning joint strategies and focusing on the problem as one that affects them all, would be helpful to them and to the United States. Yemen is not a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council so Yemenis do not participate in the regular meetings and ongoing communications among GCC interior ministers who are responsible for internal security in these countries, but Yemen could be invited to join those deliberations if the GCC wanted to take that step.
Ambassador (ret.) William A. Rugh, Ph.D. is the author of Arab Mass Media and many articles on Middle Eastern subjects, as well as two books on public diplomacy. He was a U.S. Foreign Service officer for 30 years, and served at embassies in six Arab countries, including as American Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1992-95) and Ambassador to Yemen (1984-87). He held several public diplomacy positions, including Area Director for Near East and South Asia (1989-92), and PAO in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He was President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization (1995-2003) and is currently the Edward R. Murrow Visiting Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the board of directors of the Public Diplomacy Council.