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
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
Vicious war Identifying a casualty of the fighting at the Hodeidah, which has been under Houthi control since 2015
Starvation A mother holds her severely malnourished child at a hospital in Aden, southern Yemen