Chaos penin­sula Ghaith Ab­dul-Ahad in Ye­men

For nearly five years Ye­men has been bat­tered by a bloody civil war be­tween the Iran-backed Houthis and its Saudi-backed for­mer gov­ern­ment. Mean­while, the United Arab Emi­rates is us­ing the con­flict to project power be­yond its bor­ders

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - GHAITH AB­DUL-AHAD

Five years ago, Ay­man Askar was in a prison in south Ye­men,

serv­ing a life sen­tence for mur­der. Now he is a wealthy and im­por­tant man whose friend­ships cut across the many lines of the frag­mented civil war that has de­stroyed the coun­try. Askar has re­cently been named the chief of se­cu­rity for a large district in the south­ern port city of Aden – ap­pointed by the gov­ern­ment of Ye­men, on whose be­half Saudi Ara­bia has been bomb­ing the coun­try for three-anda-half years. But Askar is also a friend and ally of the United Arab Emi­rates – the most ag­gres­sive part­ner in the Saudi-led coali­tion fight­ing to re­store the gov­ern­ment of pres­i­dent Abd-Rabbu Man­sour Hadi, who was forced from of­fice by the Houthi re­bel­lion in 2015.

The Saudis have at­tracted the bulk of the world’s dis­plea­sure for their bloody in­ter­ven­tion in Ye­men, but the UAE plays a more force­ful role on the ground – and its al­lies in the south, in­clud­ing local mili­tias, Salafi fight­ers and south Ye­men sep­a­ratists who want to break away from Hadi’s gov­ern­ment, have been known to fight against the Saudis’ own prox­ies in the coun­try.

To­day Askar is al­lied with the gov­ern­ment of Ye­men and the UAE, but not long ago he was a mem­ber of al-Qaida, the en­emy of both. Thug­gish and heavy-set, with a bul­l­like head on strong, wide shoul­ders, he jos­tled his way up the power hi­er­ar­chy of prison life: he ran a gro­cery store in the prison yard and a PlayS­ta­tion lounge in one of the cells, and be­friended the strong­est gang in the prison – a group of al-Qaida in­mates. He prayed with them, at­tended their classes, grew his beard and started dress­ing like them, although his friends say he never joined the or­gan­i­sa­tion prop­erly be­cause he is too op­por­tunis­tic to pledge al­le­giance to a single cause.

When Houthi fight­ers from north Ye­men, backed by Iran, in­vaded the south and top­pled the gov­ern­ment in the cap­i­tal, Sana’a – forc­ing Hadi to flee south to Aden, and then abroad to Saudi Ara­bia – Askar was still in jail. But in the chaos that fol­lowed, al-Qaida fight­ers stormed the prison and freed its in­mates. Askar joined the re­sis­tance and fought against the Houthi in­vaders along­side his ji­hadi friends, dis­tin­guish­ing him­self as a ruth­less field com­man­der and di­vid­ing his time equally be­tween fight­ing and loot­ing.

A few months later, the Houthis were driven out of Aden by a com­bi­na­tion of local mili­tias, south­ern sep­a­ratists, gov­ern­ment forces and UAE and Saudi troops. Askar ex­panded his in­ter­ests be­yond ji­had, im­pos­ing a pro­tec­tion racket on the port and ex­tort­ing a com­mis­sion from ev­ery ship­ment that came through. The gov­ern­ment is­sued a se­ries of ar­rest war­rants, but he weath­ered them all. He soon be­friended the Emi­rati of­fi­cers who had ar­rived as part of the forces that took over the city – and he spent long stints in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, mak­ing con­nec­tions. He was re­warded for his friend­ship with a lu­cra­tive trans­porta­tion con­tract, and has since moved into the prof­itable busi­ness of loot­ing large swaths of farm­land around Aden.

Last sum­mer I met Askar as he en­ter­tained friends on his farm north of Aden. The farm was lush, green and quiet – worlds away from the crowded, suf­fo­cat­ing streets of Aden. With the bon­homie of a ban­dit, he joked and told sto­ries from his last trip abroad. He and a friend had rented three Mercedes vans with their driv­ers, to ferry them and their wives and chil­dren around the re­sorts of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, tak­ing them to wa­ter parks, beaches and seafood restau­rants.

“It was a week from heaven,” Askar told the friends gath­ered around him. “The chil­dren were very happy, and one could for­get about all the trou­bles of war.”

Ay­man Askar is just one of the peo­ple who have done well from the war in Ye­men – a con­flict the UN has called the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, with at least 14 mil­lion peo­ple now es­ti­mated to be at risk of star­va­tion. In De­cem­ber, UN-spon­sored peace talks in Swe­den pro­duced a tem­po­rary cease­fire be­tween the Houthis and pro-gov­ern­ment forces in the Red Sea port of Hodei­dah, a cru­cial gate­way for hu­man­i­tar­ian aid into the coun­try. The Houthis have con­trolled the city since 2015, but it has been un­der as­sault for months by Saudi-UAE coali­tion forces, lead­ing to warn­ings of an even worse hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe.

If the frag­ile cease­fire holds, both sides will be re­quired to with­draw their troops from the port. A suc­cess­ful truce in Hodei­deh could pave the way for progress at the next round of talks, sched­uled for later this month. But the war is not yet over.

In fact, it is no longer even a single war. It be­gan as a con­flict with two clear an­tag­o­nists – the Saudi-led coali­tion al­lied with the gov­ern­ment ver­sus the Houthi mili­tia sup­ported by Iran. But the force and fund­ing of out­side in­ter­ven­tion – es­pe­cially from the UAE – has helped to frag­ment the war into mul­ti­ple con­flicts and local skir­mishes that will not nec­es­sar­ily be ended by any peace agree­ment. Ye­men is now a patchwork of heav­ily armed fief­doms and chaotic ar­eas, where com­man­ders, war prof­i­teers and a thou­sand ban­dit kings, like Ay­man Askar, thrive.

There is a re­gional war be­tween the north and the south – which were sep­a­rate and of­ten war­ring states be­fore 1990. There is a sec­tar­ian con­flict be­tween Zaidi Shias, such as the Houthis, and Sunni Salafis. Be­yond these ma­jor fault lines are many smaller con­flicts, in­flamed and ag­gra­vated by the money and weapons sup­plied by out­side forces to any­one seen to ad­vance their agenda.

The gov­ern­ment of Ye­men – with scores of min­is­ters and deputy min­is­ters – is dys­func­tional and cor­rupt, and since 2015 has been in ex­ile in a Saudi ho­tel com­pound. It has an army of more than 200,000 troops, although many of them haven’t been paid, or ex­ist as ghost sol­diers – names on a list, whose salaries are si­phoned off by their of­fi­cers.

The Saudi-led coali­tion it­self is rid­dled with con­flicts

and ri­val­ries, with each of its prin­ci­pal mem­bers fol­low­ing a sep­a­rate agenda and plot­ting against the oth­ers. In Taiz, a city in cen­tral Ye­men that has been be­sieged and shelled by the Houthis for more than three years, the fight­ers on the coali­tion side are split into more than two dozen sep­a­rate mil­i­tary fac­tions – in­clud­ing local mili­tias backed and spon­sored by the UAE, as well as al-Qaida and other ji­hadis. Some fight­ers switch sides ac­cord­ing to who is of­fer­ing funds.

Two years ago, when a tribal Sunni sheikh from Bayda – on the tra­di­tional fault line be­tween the Zaidi north and the south­ern Sunni lands – went to seek as­sis­tance from the UAE in his bat­tle against the Houthis, an Emi­rati gen­eral told him that the Houthi rebels “are no longer our pri­or­i­ties or big­gest en­emy”. The sheikh was told that if he wanted weapons from the UAE, he also had to fight Is­lamic State (Isis), al-Qaida and al-Is­lah – an Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal party that plays a dom­i­nant role in the very same gov­ern­ment the UAE has os­ten­si­bly sent troops to Ye­men to de­fend.

Now there are three dif­fer­ent forces fight­ing across the sheikh’s ter­ri­tory, each sup­ported by one or even two of the main fac­tions in the coali­tion: the UAE, the Saudis and the gov­ern­ment of Ye­men. Each army in this re­gion of ragged hills and black vol­canic stones has re­ceived mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of mil­i­tary equip­ment, trucks and salaries for the fight­ers. Mean­while, farm­ers in these same lands can no longer af­ford to buy petrol for their trac­tors; they strag­gle be­hind scraggy don­keys push­ing wooden ploughs while their chil­dren be­come fight­ers and mili­ti­a­men.

The Emi­ratis ap­pear to be the only al­liance mem­bers with a clear strat­egy. They are us­ing pri­vate armies that they have cre­ated, trained and funded in a bid to crush both ji­hadi mil­i­tancy and Is­lamist po­lit­i­cal par­ties such as al-Is­lah. Across the south­ern coast – where the UAE is al­lied with the sep­a­ratist South­ern Move­ment, which is op­posed to both the Houthis and the Hadi gov­ern­ment – the Emi­ratis have built a se­ries of mil­i­tary camps and bases, and es­tab­lished what is es­sen­tially a par­al­lel state, with its own se­cu­rity ser­vices who are not ac­count­able to the Ye­meni gov­ern­ment. Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and Hu­man Rights Watch have re­vealed the ex­is­tence of a net­work of se­cret prisons op­er­ated by the UAE and its proxy forces, who are ac­cused of dis­ap­pear­ing and tor­tur­ing al-Is­lah mem­bers, anti-Houthi fight­ers from ri­val fac­tions, and even ac­tivists and crit­ics of the Saudi-UAE coali­tion. Ye­meni min­is­ters have taken to re­fer­ring to the Emi­ratis as an “oc­cu­pa­tion force”.

The Saudis’ floun­der­ing mil­i­tary strat­egy has largely in­volved re­lent­less bomb­ing of civil­ians. Their block­ade of Ye­men’s ports has pushed mil­lions of peo­ple to the edge of star­va­tion. In the last cou­ple of years they have been re­duced to play­ing the role of a peace­maker be­tween their two al­lies, the UAE and the gov­ern­ment of Ye­men.

“We had hoped that the Saudis would in­ter­vene to stop the folly of the Emi­ratis, but they are lost,” a Ye­meni com­man­der based in Aden said to me last sum­mer. “The war is not go­ing well for them, and they can’t be both­ered with what’s hap­pen­ing in the south, so they have handed that file to the Emi­ratis.”

What the Emi­ratis have achieved in Ye­men – cre­at­ing pri­vate armies, prop­ping up se­ces­sion­ists in the south and con­spir­ing to de­stroy the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, while con­trol­ling strate­gic wa­ter­ways in the Ara­bian and Red seas – shows how a small and very am­bi­tious na­tion projects its power in the re­gion, and the world.

The dev­as­tat­ing civil war that be­gan in 2015 was years in the mak­ing,

but the big­gest spark was lit around 2011, amid the ex­u­ber­ance of the Arab spring, when a pop­u­lar protest move­ment drove for­mer pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh from power. Saleh had ruled through an in­tri­cate sys­tem of cor­rup­tion and pa­tron­age for three decades, but un­like other de­posed Arab dic­ta­tors he did not go to prison or flee the coun­try. In­stead, a del­i­cately ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment, bro­kered by the UN and Ye­men’s Gulf neighbours, al­lowed him to step aside and avoid pros­e­cu­tion while Hadi, his vice-pres­i­dent, took over. But while rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the coun­try’s var­i­ous fac­tions de­bated a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion in the cap­i­tal, in the north and the south some of these same tribes and par­ties were fight­ing to im­pose their will on the ground, tear­ing the coun­try apart and thrust­ing it to­ward an­other civil war.

Of these many feud­ing pow­ers, the Houthis, or An­sar Al­lah, as they called them­selves, were the most or­gan­ised and ide­o­log­i­cally driven. They be­lieved they had a divine mis­sion. Hussein Badred­din al-Houthi, the move­ment’s founder, was a Zaidi re­li­gious leader who at­tacked the cor­rup­tion of the Saleh regime and preached a mil­lenar­ian melange of anti-western ide­ol­ogy and Is­lamic re­vival­ism. (The Zaidis, a Shia sect largely lo­cated in Ye­men, rep­re­sent about a third of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, but their brand of Shi’ism is very dif­fer­ent from that prac­tised in Iran and Iraq.)

In late 2014, the Houthis marched down from the north and took over the cap­i­tal, Sana’a – with the aid of army units still loyal to Saleh. Af­ter Hadi fled south to Aden in early 2015, the Houthis stormed the city and sent him into ex­ile. One day af­ter he turned up in Riyadh, a Saudi-led coali­tion that in­cluded the armies of the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Su­dan and Egypt, with the sup­port of the US, UK and France, be­gan bomb­ing Sana’a on be­half of the ex­iled Ye­meni gov­ern­ment.

The Houthis forced Hadi out, but they never man­aged to fully oc­cupy Aden. Al­most overnight, the city was filled with local men wield­ing guns along with their “com­man­ders” – who gath­ered in schools, gov­ern­ment build­ings and squares. There was no struc­ture; friends, ac­tivists, neighbours or rel­a­tives co­a­lesced around a charis­matic neighbourhood leader, fi­nancier or thug. Some were Salafis, some south­ern sep­a­ratists, some al-Qaida, some just un­em­ployed youth. Of­ten there were no clear lines sep­a­rat­ing these groups. A com­man­der could be both a south­ern sep­a­ratist and a Salafi, and many of the young peo­ple who joined the ji­hadi groups did so not out of ide­ol­ogy but ha­tred of the Houthis and ad­mi­ra­tion for the ji­hadis’ dis­ci­pline and plen­ti­ful sup­plies of weapons. They were sep­a­rated by a thou­sand dis­agree­ments and united by one thing: fight­ing the Houthis.

Not all the re­sis­tance fac­tions were so dis­or­gan­ised. The Salafis, who set up their base in a foot­ball sta­dium, were ded­i­cated, zeal­ous and dis­ci­plined, and soon emerged as the most pow­er­ful el­e­ment of the anti-Houthi re­sis­tance. “The Salafis had taken the de­ci­sion to fight the Houthis even be­fore they en­tered Aden,” one Salafi sheikh, who com­manded his own force, told me a few months ago. “For us the war was to de­fend the Sunni na­ture

of so­ci­ety. We fought the Houthis as a re­li­gious force. Ev­ery­one fought un­der our com­mand: re­li­gious fac­tions, south­ern­ers, street thugs and even al-Qaida. Some­times the kids would stop fight­ing if they didn’t have in­ter­net and they couldn’t check their Face­book.” For sec­tar­ian and ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons, the Salafis be­came the con­duit of weapons and money sent by the Arab coali­tion, em­pow­er­ing them fur­ther.

The war had com­bined the se­ces­sion­ist zeal for south Ye­men in­de­pen­dence with Salafi and ji­hadi anti-Shia sec­tar­i­an­ism. It was an ex­plo­sive mix, and it swept over the city. Any north­erner was a sus­pect, and hun­dreds were de­tained in the sta­dium, ac­cused of be­ing Houthi agents. In De­cem­ber 2015, two mass graves were ex­ca­vated nearby.

The Houthi oc­cu­pa­tion of Aden only lasted for four months.

Af­ter they were driven out, the sep­a­ratists of the South­ern Move­ment had high hopes. For the first time since 1994 – when the north eas­ily crushed the south­ern army to end a bid for se­ces­sion – the city was free of any north­ern con­trol. All the se­cu­rity forces were in the hands of south­ern­ers, and they had weapons and a strong ally, the UAE, which had taken con­trol of the south­ern front.

With the Emi­ratis as their back­ers, the peo­ple of Aden be­lieved their city would be­come the next Dubai, with elec­tric­ity, wa­ter and jobs. The en­thu­si­as­tic gov­er­nor, a for­mer gen­eral who had re­turned from Lon­don to help re­build the city, told me com­pa­nies would pour into the city; Aden would re­sume its for­mer glory; its port, which had been stag­nat­ing be­fore the war, would re­claim its sta­tus; and em­bassies would re­open. In the months af­ter the Houthis’ de­par­ture in 2015, the Emi­ratis were cel­e­brated as lib­er­a­tors, their flags sold on mar­ket stalls, and pic­tures of the rulers adorned street corners and weapons.

In the streets, the re­al­ity was dif­fer­ent. “Lib­er­ated Aden” re­sem­bled other cities dev­as­tated by civil wars that fol­lowed the Arab spring, with rust­ing, burned tanks and ar­moured ve­hi­cles perched on hills, over­look­ing a city of scarred streets and gut­ted build­ings, top­pled on top of one an­other like crum­pled con­crete wafers, and im­pov­er­ished peo­ple left home­less and turned into refugee squat­ters in their own city. The de­feated Houthi mili­tia was re­placed by dozens of oth­ers in a city with­out wa­ter, elec­tric­ity or a sewage sys­tem. The war be­came the main em­ployer, and the streets filled with fight­ers rid­ing in the back of pickup trucks mounted with heavy ma­chine guns. Com­man­ders from the dis­united re­sis­tance groups were de­mand­ing their share of the spoils from a bro­ken and des­ti­tute city.

The most pow­er­ful of those com­man­ders, men like Ay­man Askar, se­cured con­trol of the ports, fac­to­ries and any in­sti­tu­tion that gen­er­ated an in­come, im­pos­ing their pro­tec­tion racket. The smaller com­man­ders con­tented them­selves with loot­ing pub­lic and pri­vate prop­erty, es­pe­cially if the lat­ter be­longed to north­ern­ers.

‘When the bat­tle [for Aden] was over we were left in chaos,” the Salafi sheikh told me. “The city was di­vided into sec­tors, and each force or mili­tia was con­trol­ling a dif­fer­ent part and clash­ing with the oth­ers.”

By the end of 2015, the war against the Houthis had be­come bogged down by the ri­val­ries among the al­liance mem­bers, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of mili­tias con­trol­ling ar­eas of the coun­try, and the ex­pan­sion of al-Qaida in the south. The dreams of the peo­ple of Aden that their poor city would flour­ish with the help of their rich Emi­rati brethren had sub­sided into re­sent­ment and frus­tra­tions. The Salafi sheikh was con­vinced that some­thing had to be done.

Like many of the Ye­meni com­man­ders, the sheikh had be­come a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to the UAE, en­joy­ing the hos­pi­tal­ity of his new pa­trons and tak­ing respite from the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion in Aden. Dur­ing one of his vis­its to Abu Dhabi, he said, he had met an el­derly pro­fes­sor and ad­viser to Mo­ham­mad bin Zayed, the UAE crown prince and the head of its armed forces. The pro­fes­sor had coined a new phrase, “the Gul­fi­ca­tion of the Arabs”, which was be­com­ing pop­u­lar among the rul­ing elite in Abu Dhabi. For the rest of the Arab world to suc­ceed, ac­cord­ing to the pro­fes­sor, they needed to fol­low the model of the Gulf monar­chies – for­go­ing democ­racy and pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tion in re­turn for pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial pros­per­ity and se­cu­rity. The Salafi sheikh was an in­stant con­vert.

One night in Abu Dhabi, not long af­ter meet­ing the pro­fes­sor, the sheikh sat down in his lavish ho­tel room and be­gan to write a long let­ter to his Emi­rati al­lies: a road map for sav­ing the south of Ye­men and the Saudi-led in­ter­ven­tion. Af­ter prais­ing Al­lah, the brave Emi­rati sol­diers and their wise com­man­der Mo­hammed bin Zayed, he be­gan to list the prob­lems threat­en­ing the Emi­rati ad­ven­ture in Ye­men.

In a 16-point man­i­festo, ti­tled the Road Map to Sav­ing Aden, he called for the for­ma­tion of a new se­cu­rity force com­posed of re­sis­tance fight­ers, the cre­ation of a new in­tel­li­gence ser­vice, and the im­ple­men­ta­tion of “Gul­fi­ca­tion” by ban­ning po­lit­i­cal par­ties and, ideally, elec­tions. “We had to de­feat al-Qaida and use the south as an ex­am­ple of how to im­ple­ment the new strate­gies of the Gulf,” he ex­plained.

He warned that se­ces­sion­ist pas­sions were grip­ping Aden, and sug­gested the UAE should take ad­van­tage of the mo­ment by spon­sor­ing a loyal fac­tion of the sep­a­ratists – in part to pre­vent an­other power,such as Qatar or Iran, from co-opt­ing the South­ern Move­ment.

“Look, I work for the Emi­ratis as an ad­viser and I wanted them to suc­ceed,” he told me. “Our fates are en­twined: if they fail and de­cide to leave, it will be a dis­as­ter and Aden would be de­stroyed. I know that I need the Emi­ratis and I am de­pen­dent on them – and at the same time, I am not naive. I know they have their own project, and they have their own self-serv­ing goals and agen­das, but there is noth­ing wrong with co­op­er­at­ing with them.”

Af­ter he re­turned to Aden, the sheikh worked with an Emi­rati gen­eral to train a new se­cu­rity force loyal to them and ca­pa­ble of tack­ling the in­creas­ing ji­hadi threat. While pub­licly ev­ery­one was pay­ing lip ser­vice to help­ing Ye­meni gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions and re­build­ing a mod­ern army, the re­al­ity was the Emi­ratis wanted their own client force that they could con­trol with no in­ter­ven­tion from Pres­i­dent Hadi, who they saw as an ob­sta­cle – es­pe­cially since he al­lied him­self with the Emi­ratis’ en­emy, al-Is­lah.

“The ex­ist­ing Ye­meni army and po­lice were cor­rupt and failed in­sti­tu­tions. The Emi­ratis wanted a new force,” the sheikh said. “The plan was to train and equip a force of 3,000 men, but we ended up with a force of 13,000, so we di­vided them into four bat­tal­ions.” The over­all

Un­der siege Pro-gov­ern­ment sol­diers guard the Al Ja­maliya neighbourhood of Taiz gov­er­norate, in south-western Ye­men ANADOLU AGENCY

AN­DREW RENNEISEN/ GETTY

Vi­cious war Iden­ti­fy­ing a ca­su­alty of the fight­ing at the Hodei­dah, which has been un­der Houthi con­trol since 2015

GILES CLARKE/GETTY

Star­va­tion A mother holds her se­verely mal­nour­ished child at a hos­pi­tal in Aden, south­ern Ye­men

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