Wilf Wilde at Wymington, January 18th, 2020
YEMEN, ARABIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST:
A POST CHRISTMAS REFLECTION ON EMPIRE AND OIL
YEMEN’S SAUDI PROPAGANDA STORY
I have been working on Oil, Empire and the Middle East for the last decade, especially since the so called Arab Spring of 2011. I have wanted to talk on Yemen since the Saudi air campaign begin in 2015, given the increasing public, NGO and Christian awareness of the scale of deaths there – maybe up to 100,000, mainly children. There is also the problem of British complicity and hypocrisy with both supplying the planes, weapons – and even more the supporting logistics – for the Saudi led war to invade and divide Yemen. I would like to tell an alternative story of what is going on in Yemen today – almost the opposite story to that which you would find in the mainstream media.
I will try to put this war in the context of the history of Yemen and Arabia not just since the outbreak of the so called Houthi wars over the last 20 years but also in the light of the last 100 years. For it not just in the last 5 years that the British Empire’s role in Yemen has been so appalling. The family dictatorship known as Saudi Arabia was created by the British State, as long ago as 1899. Nor is it just that the Western powers – the capitalist Empire as I call it – gets its oil or that we sell arms to get the money back, as President Trump has openly admitted. A conquest driven rogue State has not just been tacitly supported, but created, aided and funded, by the UK first and then the US to be used as a client state to further our and their imperial interests. It is difficult to avoid this conclusion if one bothers to study the history; but as far as I am aware none of the mainstream media has ever made this important historical point.
When the story comes down to the last few years and the so called Iranian led Houthi rebellion – the words Iran, Houthi and rebellion are all usually linked together in this same media narrative. This is a story which is largely one that has been provided for us by Saudi Arabia. Since October 2018 in particular, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, nobody should take what the Saudi regime says at face value. If nobody believes – certainly not the CIA which has publically announced the Saudi Crown Prince to be responsible – why should we believe the Saudi story on Yemen? It is a Saudi story that at best twists the truth and has gone virtually unquestioned in our mainstream media.
Vitally, when we know that our leaders lie to us consistently about their foreign policy, this should put us considerably on our guard when they talk on their domestic policy; on the economy and welfare, on migration, and on Brexit. So a nasty lesson about the nakedness of imperial power in Yemen – as in Iraq before 2003 – becomes a story about the deceptions practiced on us. I wrote about Iraq in part in my first book called ‘Crossing the River of Fire’. Now in January 2020, we have seen this murdering behaviour repeated again with the killing of General Suleimani in Baghdad. I wrote about the long imperial conflict against Iran (and Afghanistan) in my second book ‘Nowhere to Lay Our Head’, sub-titled the Empire of Oil. Sadly, we have far too many leaders like King Herod, who we shall look at in Matthew’s gospel later.
HOUTHIS ARE NOT REBELS – AND DON’T NEED IRAN
Looking back on my notes when I spoke at Wymington on the Middle East in April 2013, I called the talk – Elusive Revolutions. This was before the military coup in Egypt in July 2013 which has so obviously ended – probably for a generation – the Egyptian ‘revolution’. Likewise the phrase Elusive Revolution arose from my study of Libya which I said then was not going to have a revolution post Gaddafi – but would split into a militia driven war-lordism that would destroy most of Libya’s positive developments since 1968.
Yet the media still speaks of the Arab Spring ‘Revolution’ in Egypt as if there had never been a military coup in Egypt. The phrases – Libyan revolution or the Syrian revolution are still lazily used as if they also describe something. What the media propagandists mean to describe are protest movements – which were real and genuine – but they were not revolutions. Indeed I give you the new post 2011 thesis, if our governments or the media describe a so called revolution – especially in the Middle East – but also elsewhere, you can bet that there is no revolution. The ruling lie after Iraq has been to dress up regime change as revolutions. But in reality, the old order in the Middle East is not over-thrown and the capitalist empire has certainly not been overthrown. The rich have not been set down from their thrones. If they are sent away, as with ex Pres Hadi of Yemen from Sanaa to Riyadh, their riches are usually intact.
In Yemen where few speak of a revolution, but instead of a rebellion – and supposedly Iranian inspired at that – there has been the closest thing to a revolution that the Middle East has seen since 2011. Un-noticed largely when the protests from Liberation Square in Cairo had the media cameras rolling, the protests in Yemen were bigger, lasted longer and had more killed. And indeed a government was overthrown. But unlike Egypt, or Libya, or Syria both a portion of the military and some of the political parties came over to the protest movement. This was held together by the Houthi movement – named after its major leader killed early on in the wars largely against the Yemen dictatorship under Pres Saleh. These ‘rebels’ had also been fighting a border war in the North against the Saudis again since 2000. These border disputes with Saudi go back 100 years.
By September 2014, when the Houthis took the capital, Sanaa, threw out the replacement Pres Hadi and by Dec ‘17 killed the old military dictator (Saleh), who had been a one time ally (and had also been in cahoots with the USA for years), then they did a deal with some of the old parties including the socialist party, and took over the government. So in much of North and Central Yemen the Houthi are now the government of Yemen; or at least the government of old North Yemen.
But the West sticks to supporting a Hadi government that only exists in exile and in Saudi lies. How can you rebel against yourself? Of course all this rebel definition does is justify an attack- which amounts to a destructive invasion by the Saudis in the Northern border areas, especially.
THE HOUTHI WARS, IRAN AND THE SHIA
The Houthis are fighting a nasty war – and elements of a civil war too – with little money. Yemen did have oil and LNG revenues but these do not accrue to the Houthis now. So they are not angels and they kill people, so Western versions against them – and it is easy enough to find internal opponents – hold some water. But the largest chunk of the killing is done by the air attacks and the consequent famines and diseases. The Saudis have used cluster bombs not only against schools and hospitals, which are well documented; but less mentioned, against farmlands and fishing boats. The Saudi plan is not accidental collateral damage, it is a deliberate attempt to bomb their enemies back into a stone age economy – I deliberately use the phrase of US generals in Vietnam.
The irony of Yemen too is that the very threat the Saudi fear – the rise of the Houthi ‘rebels’ is exactly what they have been able to generate against themselves. Now their own cities, and airports and oil installations could be under attack. Far easier; blame all on the Iranians for your own errors.
The government that actually is, is called a rebellion. And the Houthi government that survives, badly as it does, is probably more akin to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government under President Morsi in Egypt, that survived until Al-Sisi’s military took over. This is another reason why the reactionary Gulf rulers hate it.
There is a Shia element in all this in Yemen – little to do with Iranian geo-political encouragement or Iranian missiles. The Houthis are Shia – but from a different strand than the Iranians (as are the Assad Alawites, which is another story). But crucially it was Ayatollah Khomeni’s theology – that great theorist of the up-rising of the Iranian poor – who influenced the first Houthi leader and revolts, ideologically. If there is a strong Iranian influence this is where it comes in. Like Counter revolutionary 16th and 17th Catholicism, these Saudis will find Shia Protestants under every bed. Iran is still rolled out as the substitute bogy even when the complications show that there are Sunnis too in new governments – in Syria, Lebanon and in Yemen.
As for the missiles, where the Saudis spend up to $6bn/ month on the Yemen war, the best critical analysts suggest that Iranian spending (their economy is under sanction you may remember) is a few hundred thousand dollars. Wikileaks has enlightened us that in the US’s own reports from Yemen until 2009, they were clear internally that the Iranians – then at least – had next to no involvement in Yemen. So the Iran led Houthi rebellion story repeated in nearly every news broadcast is in essence a great big lie. It survives like all big lies by constant repetition – and no analysis. To show how little the Shia/Sunni conflict is at the root of it all this war in Yemen – made so much of by the Saudis – just look to Libya. There are no Shia there – so the anti Iranian label won’t work in Libya. Never mind – blame the Turks or the Russians instead – and of course these latter two powers are also involved across the Middle East. Unlike Syria and Libya, where the imperial powers all fight each other by proxy, Yemen just has the Gulf powers (actually Saudi vs UAE not Iran) fighting each other – but much more openly.
Back in 1979 when I started my PhD on the oil industry, I went out and bought two paperbacks by Fred Halliday: on Iran and on Arabia. I used the first extensively nearly 30 years later when writing on the history of Iran and the US policy of encirclement since 2003 for my second book. Although I have followed the oil industry for 40 years, I had not read the Arabia book until the new troubles in the MENA since 2011. Working in the industry and the City as an oil analyst, it was impossible not to see the shifts in Saudi policy for the global oil price and OPEC.
It was not until I studied Arabia’s modern history more carefully, however, that I realised how implicated British colonial and imperial policy has been in the creation of Saudi Arabia. A nasty corrupt aggressive and militaristic major oil producer bears the substantial imprint of British (and latterly US) foreign policy. As we watch twenty first century British foreign policy unfold in Yemen and Iran, Libya and Syria, it is worth remembering our own appalling history. Our little colonial implant and war in Aden likewise bears a substantial responsibility for the mess in Arabia, especially in the Yemen – with knock on effects for wars in Somalia too.
For the Saudi State of the twentieth century was a ‘conquest State’. There is no such thing as Saudi Arabia but an Arabia conquered by the Sauds. It still is a ‘family fiefdom’; the ‘world’s leading autocratic’ dictatorship’. The title of this State is revealing. It is a hangover from medieval absolutism – like Plantaganet England; or to make it more modern think of calling our modern UK, Windsor England. But England is not owned by its royal family and nor should be Arabia be claimed by the Sauds. This is a State where the British funded its conquests 100 years ago and have been happy to gain billions in arms sales as soon as Saud had some oil money. It is a Warlord State buying arms to make the Taliban warlords look small-timers or make Gaddafi look like a nomadic tent dweller. It is a Rogue State aided and abetted by us and ticks as many black boxes as did Gaddafi. The Saud war on Yemen is actually a war of greed, conquest and oppression.
As a result of wars of conquest, the Saudis have border disputes with all their neighbours. Most of all, Saudi Arabia has attempted to dominate Yemen. The Saudis have acted for years to keep a compliant and dependent conservative regime. In the ’60s when there was a potentially radical regime influenced by Nasser, the Saudis and the Egyptians fought a proxy war. For if the Yemen wobbles, it is Saudi’s Southern under belly that gets exposed. Modern Yemen as a Nation State is a creation of this colonial inheritance. It has been the playground first of GB imperial interests (Aden in the ‘60s was the 4th largest coal bunker port) and then of US oil shipping. Halliday’s book was called ‘Arabia without Sultans’; written in the hope in the 1970s that S Yemen and Dhofar in Oman would succeed in overthrowing the sultans (like Egypt and Mubarak in ’11). It is the oil money that has funded the Saudi fiefdoms and enabled not only it, but the other Gulf States to remain run by their Sultans. These conservative regimes, supported by imperial interests, will remain a block on all global progressive developments not only in Arabia, but across the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
A PEACE TO END ALL PEACE?
Historically, Arabia had always faced the Ottomans, Egypt and Iran as rivals. From the early 20th century, with GB still ruling Egypt (but under pressure) and in danger of losing control over Iran to the Russians, Arabia was a useful strategic addition to the imperial armoury. The Saudi State was thereby a ‘GB invention’. It arose largely because the British wanted a reliable client State to replace Ottoman rule. Saud’s brutal conquests of Najd, Hasa, Qatif and Jubayl were recognised as early as 1915 with the addition of the competing Rashidi emirate by 1921 which the British had backed previously.
After 1918 the British Empire had reached its largest ever territorial extent. It was an era when losses on the Western front justified the British conquests in the Middle East in Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. With the joint French and GB deal for Syria and Lebanon, Arabia fell into the British sphere of ‘paramount influence’. The regime and conquests of King Saud fitted GB requirements for a series of ‘protectorates’ and client rulers very well. It was a GB General who put his finger on the problem. General Wavell who served in the invasion of Palestine saw that the 1922 settlement was actually ‘a peace to end all peace’; setting the area up for endless wars. What became Saudi Arabia, as Saud proclaimed it in 1932, came from the conquest of 80 percent of the territory of Arabia (but less of the population) from his historic base in Central Arabia –Riyadh in Najd.
The ideology of the new Saudi Conquest State was what has become known as Wahhabism. It is important not just to see this in religious terms – as some ‘extremist Islamist’ movement. One crucial aspect, helpful to the British Empire, was that the re-unification of much of Arabia – to the greatest degree since the 7th century – did not depend on nationalism, independence or rhetoric of self rule against Empire, as in India.
Wahhabi religious rhetoric was to be the unifying concept of conquest. This had a historical as much as a religious base. For Saud’s family control of Arabia had its origins in the 18th century with Wahhabism’s attempt at ideological coercion. Although the Saud family had no historic links to Mecca or Medina, the control of the Red Sea province of Hijaz (which included the 2 cities) was imbued with a religious significance – claiming a Saudi importance to Islam it had previously lacked. Wahhabism also justified Saud’s centralising tendencies. A more traditional Najd based philosophy won out over the more cosmopolitan Mecca.
As with Saudi Arabia, the 20th century Middle East and North Africa – from Libya to Yemen via Iraq and Syria – was made in the wars, civil wars and imperial expansion of the Great Powers, between 1860 and 1945, and then afresh in the expansion of Global Capital after 1989. The area is being deconstructed and re-made afresh after the Iraq War of 2003 and the Great Powers have had another go at this re-making since the ‘Arab Spring’ after 2011.
WE ARE NOT BENIGN BY-STANDERS TO A ‘CIVIL WAR’
If one was dependent on the mainstream media for a view, however, on the so-called Arab Spring, one would see authoritarian dictatorships versus youths on the streets; repressive and ruthless regimes haphazardly shooting their own people. The West is a benign bystander keen to see more liberal democracies develop in the area making sympathetic noises about unnecessary killing or embarrassed side-steps around the criticism that they have made billions out of selling weapons to these oppressive regimes.
Any casual study of the actual history of these nations shows this to be yet again a propaganda version. Imperial struggles and domination, colonial rule, and now neo-colonial re-construction have so driven the modern history of Yemen, Syria and the Gulf states that the West, nor indeed regional enemies and allies, have never been benign bystanders. Yemen has especially shown increasingly clearly Saudi military involvement.
Oxfam for example in a 2012 report focused on the famine in Yemen but said little on the protests and nothing on the US led drone war. Nor (as ever) did they set the famine in the context of Yemen’s bitter and violent recent history. This finally become evident to me with the open Saudi war in Yemen in 2015. A united Yemen re-formed as late as 1990 yet again becomes the subject of Saudi greed and aggression in Arabia and the attempted manipulation of its borders, rulers, and alignments.
In Syria there has been a semblance of accuracy in the description of a ‘civil war’ – there was a genuine rebellion, especially in the South against Assad in 2011 – but it was rapidly manipulated by outside powers. In Yemen what is always described as a civil war is barely that; it is an attack by Saudi and its allies on the majority of the population who did not want a Pres Hadi ‘yes man’ client regime. It is only a civil war to the degree that Hadi and the Saudis have some local support, and because intervention and regional divisions have now divided it more, while the main resistance is led by the Houthis, who have a long history of so doing.
What in Syria went semi clandestine with funded intermediaries used as ‘boots on the ground’; in Yemen it has gone almost naked. For those who keep telling us that the Kings of Arabia wear some liberal clothes; Yemen shows us their true naked military aggression. So, it is not only in the selling of arms – the most open aspect of our past and present involvement – that the US and UK states, along with the Saudis, complicit in the attempted conquest and or destruction of Yemen.
The claim of Iranian involvement is largely propaganda – its actual commitments in Yemen are tiny. Indeed given the US reneging on its own ’15 nuclear deal, Iran would have every reason now to scale up its capacities in Yemen.
GREATER YEMEN, BORDERS AND AL QAEDA
Like Syria, Yemen also has an ancient history, seeing itself as a single people from the 7th century and with a Greater Yemen ruling over Dhofar, to the East, now in Oman, and also in Asir and Najran to the North West, ruled by Yemen since the 14th century and taken by the Saud regime in the 1930s. Yemen was a natural unit even before the rise of Islam. Only a third of Yemen’s land area could be classed as fertile. In the N highlands a warlike people always pressed on what became the GB South. As early as 1955 King Saud had made it clear that a Yemen, united N & S, was not in Saud interests. This still took place in 1990 when direct Russian support for the S, which never amounted to much, ended. Osama Bin Laden too, like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, was no believer in the colonial borders set between them by the GB and Saudis in this case in Yemen; even if his own family had been successful migrants from Yemen to Saudi. Yemeni resentment ran deep against the family ownership of Arabia, gifted by the British to the Sauds and sustained by ‘US’ oil money. It was felt especially in conquered Asir. Of the 9/11 hijackers 15 out of the 19 were Saudis and 5 of the 15 were from Asir province. Bin Laden hoped for a new Arabia based on the Hijas re-gaining control of Mecca and Medina from the Sauds. The KSA regime would disintegrate into a Greater Yemen.
The Saudi strategy since 2015 would appear to want to create the reverse – an ever greater Saudi Arabia (KSA) and a smaller-part destroyed-Yemen. As Saudi pushed some of its own jihadists S into Yemen, this would give the nascent Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) something material to fight for. Hadramaut, in the East, stretches down to the Arabian Sea. Now back nominally in Yemen rule, it has defected before – a third of the area of Yemen and only 2m people. The suggestion has been that KSA is using AQAP here to eventually open up a new pipeline route for its oil down to the AQAP dominated port at Makkalla, so avoiding the Iranian Hormuz Straits and the Persian Gulf.
The nominal Saudi case in Y was made that it is intended to thwart the Houthi fighters, supposedly backed by Iran, from taking over the whole of Yemen. The Houthis capturing President Hadi in his own power base in Aden seemed to be their red line in 2015. For the US, being dragged into their major allies’ semi independent power plays, there is the suggestion that the security of oil flows through the narrow Bab al-Mandab strait is now their only major concern – but this still fits the Saudi and UAE objectives.
However, the US long stated objective for being involved in Yemen, under Obama’s drone war, was to defeat AQAP. This has not been achieved through the bombing; the opposite is the case. AQAP may have taken up to 50% of Yemen in the resulting vacuum at one point (rather akin to the ISIS move in Sunni Iraq). The USA and the Saudis are supposed to have a common enemy in AQAP and Houthis, who also fight each other by the way. With the Saudis well established links with the foundations of AQ and their original funding of ISIS this effective encouragement of AQAP in Yemen is entirely the opposite of what they and the US say they have been doing.
DESTROYING YEMEN AND THE NEW SAUDI KING
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that it was not ‘good for anybody to have Yemen…in total chaos’. As so often the Establishment can give the game away without intending to. In fact in the cynical games of power politics, Saudi Arabia tries to gain from putting the Yemen in ‘total chaos’. For the only real threat to Saudi power in the Middle East would come from trouble in the Yemen. For Saud’s traditional rivals are weak. Egypt – after the up-risings against Mubarak and the military coup of mid 2013 – is financially dependent on them, while the Iraqis and Syrian are hamstrung. In 2015 when the attack was launched, the Iranians were then inclined to be cautious in the context of their new nuclear deal with the USA. So destroy Yemen now – so that it can be no possible threat to Saudi? This is a game learnt from the Israelis – and tacitly endorsed by the USA – in Palestine. It would make a kind of brutal sense, especially since it can be claimed as a proxy war against the Iranians in the by-blows. Yet -as with so many of such interventions, the Saudis may create in Yemen the resistance they would most fear.
The level of destruction is not in doubt. 2.5 million(m) have left their homes; up to 500k fleeing to already war torn Somalia and Sudan. Out of 24m people, 13m are said to be hungry; up to 6m starving. There have been maybe at least 12,000 (k) direct civilian deaths in the war and perhaps up to 100K who have died through starvation, cholera and disease; 20k in 2019 alone. The Saudi aim would appear to be to get Yemenis to turn against the Houthi militias. It has partly succeeded. So the government can be presented as rebels as they do not have – not surprisingly – universal legitimacy. If we hear all about the child deaths in Yemen from the NGOs , we are told far less of leaders who practice a huge deception.
The new war in Yemen after 2015 does not only follow from the long time enemies of the Saudis in Yemen – the Houthis – beginning to gain more ground. It also stems from the internal changes in Saudi with the arrival of the new King Salman in Jan ’15. He quickly fired the foreign minister, moving men into top positions more closely tied to the USA. For all the propaganda written in the MM about the King’s reformist attitudes to women, like allowing them to drive, he has been a brutal dictator, arresting much of the old regime on ‘corruption’ charges. Saudi’s new leadership represents a military authoritarian right wing trying to eradicate its more moderate – but still conservative – rivals. This is a policy that may only push opposition in a more violent direction. There have been new crackdowns on dissidents of every kind, from liberals and Islamists, on the Shiite minority and on the vast immigrant workforce. The King has attempted to ride on a wave of patriotic war fervour.
Given all this, the USA has been feeding the Saudi military at some huge gain to itself. Obama acted as if the US was not a participant in the Yemen war. Yet it was under his rule not Trump that $115 billion in weapons deals were made with the Saudis; agreeing to provide it with 84 new jet fighters, 160 new helicopters and heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and anti-tank missiles.
KHASHOGGI, THE CIA AND POLITICAL MURDERS
What I am trying to do throughout this talk is to unveil the lies we are told about the meaning of Yemen’s so called civil war. We have seen the Houthi lies and the AQAP lies; the myth of Saudi Arabia – now we need to look at the Khashoggi story.
The political murder of Jamal Khashoggi in October ‘18 at last and at least brought to greater public attention the role of Saudi as a Rogue State par excellence. The media presented him largely as a ‘dissident journalist’, an ex court insider turned critic; of what, was never so clear, though the war in Yemen did sometimes rate a mention. (though he had supported the use of cluster bombs). Khashoggi was far more than this: the only non-royal Saudi who knew their ‘intimate dealing with AQ and had befriended bin Laden..He had then become adviser to the Saudi ambassador to London and Washington, Al Faisal, who was Saudi intelligence chief from 1977 until 10 days before 9/11, when he resigned. One of the reasons that Hersch suggests Obama had Bin Laden murdered rather than brought to trial is that he knew too much about both the US and Saud involvements before and after 9/11. Khashoggi mixed then with Saudi, US and UK intelligence.
In the 1970s he had joined the MB and was still praising it to the end – which would have made him an ally of Turkey and Qatar (also under a sanction blockade from the Sauds and Gulf States (and Hadi’s ‘government’) since the middle of 2017. Khashoggi never had much time for western-style pluralistic democracy. He had championed the virtually non-existent so called ‘moderate’ opposition in Syria. Still, the Sauds hated MB advocates – they had made sure of Morsi’s removal in Egypt and financed Al-Sisi. It was one of the reasons they were happy to carry out the murder in Turkey. Most dangerous of all, Khashoggi could be a leader of regime change in ‘Saudi’ Arabia, if the USA got tired of buying off the Sauds, as it had for Saddam and Mubarak. (The Saudi had noted with great concern the way the USA deserted Mubarak). According to the dictum of keeping your enemies closer, a few weeks before the murder, Crown Prince MbS, Mohammad Bin Salman (day to day ruler), had made a traditional offer of reconciliation, offering Khashoggi a place as an adviser if he returned to the KSA, which he refused.
The Saudis worried that like Gen Hafter in Libya, both long based at Langley Virginia, Khashhogi was another potential US/CIA asset. One journalist friend relates that in Washington in 2005, a senior Pentagon official spoke to Khashoggi’s of a ‘plan they had to take ‘the Saudi out of Arabia’. (this fits rather well with my own historical analysis). It involved establishing a council of selected Saudi figures in Mecca to govern Arabia under US auspices after the US took control of the oil. (note the recent public sale of a small part of Aramco; the harbinger of bigger things?) He named three Saudis the Pentagon team were in regular contact with regarding the project. One of them was Khashoggi. ‘ The US had clearly been working on a different Arabia’, as it had been looking at regime change in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. An MBS nightmare of a Khashoggi-led political opposition, linked both to his own and Western intelligence services was about to become a reality, unless a political murder could get him out of the way.
THE UAE IN THE SOUTH
We tend to hear a lot about the Saudis in the North, a rather confused story about AQAP (because the truth is the opposite of the line to take) and even less about the South, though we do get pictures of damage and fighting from Aden. The South has effectively been run by the Emirates since 2017, locally by the self styled Southern Transitional Separatist Council, with its own militias. (this is a title rather similar to those in Libya from ’12). This area is close to Pres Hadi’s home base; he comes from the province of Abyan, next door to Aden. In ‘12, after the Yemen Spring overthrew dictator Saleh in a much less heralded coup than Mubarak’s overthrow in Egypt, Hadi was put in power for two years. In ‘14 he refused to go. Then the fight for the N and S was on with a vengeance. Today after more protests from mid 2014, the Houthis took the capital. Today can’t and wouldn’t even rule his own province if he returned from Saudi.
The divergence of interests and objectives between the two principal partners in the so-called ‘Saudi’ coalition, really Saudi and the UAE, is increasingly impossible to mask. (Do you remember the poor young Durham Univ PhD arrested for looking at security issues in Abu Dhabi?) In June ’19 the UAE withdrew the bulk of its military, in effect leaving the northeast to AQAP and up to 90K in various militias. In August ‘19, the separatist militias overran Aden, forcing the flight of few ministers loyal to the make belief regime of Hadi. This event laid bare for anyone asking the right questions, and with ears to hear the answers, what has been going on in S Yemen since 2015. Hadi accused the southern militia and its patron, the UAE, of carrying out a “coup.” The Hadi regime’s interior minister who also fled, condemned what he called Saudi Arabia’s “silence for four days, while our partner in the coalition is slaughtering us.” A final partition of the country between a S controlled by the separatists and a N controlled by the Houthis would be compatible with the UAE’s interests.
The Saudi monarchy so far has opposed any regime in Yemen that it does not wholly control. Meanwhile, way before the events of this year and going back to the start of the Houthi wars, Washington policy makers have only viewed the war in Yemen through the prism of its drive against Iran and its bid to forge an anti-Iranian axis centred on Saudi and other Sunni Gulf oil sheikdoms. The US government – reflected in the corporate media, viewed the events in Aden as another indication that the UAE may be separating from this axis. In 2019 a joint agreement was signed between the UAE’s coast guard and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on security in the Gulf. The UAE has likewise failed to join Washington and its regional allies in blaming the sabotage of tankers off the UAE’s coast on Iran and has not agreed to join the naval escort force that the US proposed for the Persian Gulf. The Emirates’ rulers are concerned that if war breaks out and Iran fires missiles at its territory, it could provoke a mass exodus of foreign workers, who account for 90 percent of the sheikdom’s population and do all of the work in the UAE. The threat of war would send foreign investments as well as tourism plummeting. Remember that the US has a strategic Air Base in Abu Dhabi called Al Dafra which could be used to carry out strikes against Iran.
REMINDING AGAIN: THE US AND UK AS ARMS SALESMEN
According to the Wall Street Journal, Pentagon war planners have directly approved and help select every target selected by the Saudi military. US warships have also aided the Saudis naval blockade.
The UK government singled out arms exports as a key priority post-Brexit. 50 percent of all UK weapons and military equipment exports in 2013-17 went to the Saudis. These sales have not ended during the Yemen War, but have risen. In 2007 – 11 the Saudis only took just over a quarter of UK arms exports. UK arms licences to Saudi since the invasion in runs at more than $6 billion/year.
I cannot emphasise enough that even if we forgot the bad history we do not just sell arms – we are part of the blockade that helps cause the famine – but our technicians literally under service contracts keep the Saudi planes in the air. The estimate is that under present circumstances any bombing campaign would be halted by un-flyable planes within weeks.
AND OIL PRICES 2014-20
What we have seen therefore is a complex mix of rival Empires and of local interests involved in Yemen, at the cost of the Yemeni people. The UK and US don’t like the Houthi regime because it threatens – now literally after the drone campaign of September 2019 – the dirty oil regimes we have taken 100 years to establish. After the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS and the oil price rise to $100 in late ’14, the US elite spent a lot of time talking down the oil price and claiming a new one US self sufficiency – also untrue by the way.
Ironically since 2018 in particular the political murders of Khashoggi and this year of Iran’s General Soleimani and the ability of the Houthis now to strike at the heart of Saudi oil production, the oil price has been moving up again. In nearly every case the Saudi and US effort seems to lead us in the diametrically opposed direction to the one they claim to be leading us towards. Either this is monumental incompetence – it could be – or the Empire’s objectives, rather like King Herod, as we shall see, are the opposite to what they claim.
Having finished with a bible reading from Matthew’s gospel chapter 2, and the thoughts, questions and answers that came out of this I have also appended my own reflections on the passage, some of which we discussed.
POST CHRISTMAS REFLECTION: LIES AND POLITICS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Even before the murder of Iran’s General Suleimani in Iraq in early January ‘20, I wanted to end this talk with some theological reflections on Empire, the gospel and the Middle East. When I went to our local midnight communion the given readings were from Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 2. Reading around I felt the biblical passage spoke volumes about the little changed nature of the lies, fears and politics of the region.
I have never especially liked the nativity stories; maybe it is because I have heard them so many times and maybe because they are wrapped in cotton wool and anti septic; for me, the power of the incarnation story can get lost. I prefer to read it at other times of the year. And I rarely go to midnight communion, but this year there was no family staying with us until after Boxing day, so I went I must admit with somewhat of a closed mind.
When I listened to the story again, I was staggered. It felt like it had not come out of a book of fairy tale romances, but straight out of John Le Care. Joseph is not the rather peripheral figure so often in the background while the mother and child take centre. Here his 4 dreams are the ways in which God communicates and inspires.
King Herod is so clearly shown to be a liar. The Biblical story is clever. Unlike me condemning MbSalman for Saudi lies on Yemen and Khashoggi, or Donald Trump for his lies on Iran, or Tony Blair for his lies on Iraq, the story shows us the lie without accusation – in the gap between his words and his actions. And the angel knew what Herod was going to do before he did it. Here is a world of lies and fears so like our own Middle east.
The wise men did not trust Herod and neither did Joseph. It may have taken an angel and at least 3 more dreams after the original one concerning Mary in Ch 1. I think the angel was working on divinely inspired imaginations. And Joseph runs off in the night. He feared – correctly – Herod’s strong armed response in Bethlehem so much.
The corruption of the entire Jerusalem establishment is seen too. The Wise men unwisely looked for a king in the capital city – you would look in Washington or London for a political ruler with some wisdom wouldn’t you? Instead we have hubris. Herod knew this was no new King but the establishment feared a new Messiah – the Christ – it’s Herod’s term. The people wanted a Messiah; they didn’t want Herod. Dangerous people, messiahs.
Rulers like to operate not only through lies but through secrets. Herod wants the wise men to be like his secret service agents – go and then report back – but as one translation puts it they tricked him.
Irony of ironies the people who believed they were the chosen people had in effect to let their new potential leader go back to Egypt. To go forward the true Israel had to go into reverse – back to the place where they thought they had escaped from as slaves. Even when Joseph returned to Israel, he still didn’t trust the new regime in Judea, so he went to Galilee instead – further away from the centre of power.
Be careful when leaders lie, be careful when they use official secrets, be careful when they promise what they are unlikely to deliver. And be careful as they kill anyone who gets in their way.