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Gregory R. Copley

Gregory R. Copley

Historian, author, and strategic analyst — and onetime industrialist — Gregory R. Copley, who was born in 1946, has for almost five decades worked at…

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Media and Political Hysteria Over Yemen Hides a Deeper Strategic Matrix of Long-Term Importance

US and Western European political leaders have begun to focus on Yemen as a source of projected instability and as a haven for jihadist terrorism against the West.

This simplistic and overly narrow view has largely been a reaction to media reporting of the links of alleged (and unsuccessful) Nigerian-born terrorist bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to a radical Yemeni group, and to intense ongoing fighting between insurgents and Yemeni and Saudi government forces on the Yemen-Saudi border.

The reality is far more complex and far-reaching.

The situation has a long history which has been ignored — or which has lacked priority — as far as Western intelligence services have been concerned. The current reaction has been one in which the US and UK leaderships, in particular, have merely elected to follow the media outrage over the alleged links between Abdulmutallab and  “al-Qaida” training camps in Yemen. However, there is a contextual and vitally-linked pattern of activities and competition which engages, among others, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, Russia, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland, Yemen, Djibouti, Libya, and others.

Western states and the great Asian trading states are essentially unable, or unwilling, to enter comprehensively into the matrix, and have elected, almost as a distraction, to focus on current, specific factors, such as the “presence of al-Qaida” in Yemen. And even in that regard, there is a clear inability of the US, or UK, for example, to surgically deal even with the narrow problem which they have identified as being “terrorist training” in Yemen.

This overall complex is, moreover, intrinsically linked to the longer-term security and control of the Red Sea/Suez Canal sea lanes which are critical to global trade.

Within just the Yemen Republic context, to a significant extent, the challenges now facing Pres. ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh are a culmination of issues, which center around:

(i)  Pres. Saleh’s longstanding corruption, and in particular his links with Somalian and Puntland leaders to the significant detriment of long-term Red Sea security and Western (and other) interests;

(ii)  Iran’s active engagement in financing Shi’a and Sunni jihadist and rebel activities in Yemen and along its border inside Saudi Arabia; and

(iii) The shared decision by Yemeni, Saudi, and Egyptian leaders (supported by Libya) to isolate the Republic of Somaliland. This situation has favored the ongoing corrupt business activities of Pres. Saleh and his Puntland Somalian friend, Col. Abdullahi Yussuf Ahmed, former President of both the self-proclaimed Puntland region (which he “founded” as a quasi-independent state within Somalia) and of Somalia itself.

Linked with all of this is the question of the chronic instability in the recently-created state of Eritrea. Eritrea is supported by Egypt, Israel, and some Arab states, for different motives, including Egypt’s desire to use Eritrea to constrain and contain Ethiopia, which Egypt sees as a potential regional threat (because of Ethiopia’s control of the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which is Egypt’s lifeline). Eritrean Pres. Isayas Afewerke, already locked into a power struggle with Ethiopia and particularly with Ethiopian Prime Minister (and Isayas’ former ally) Meles Zenawi, has been happy to work with Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi to fund a range of terrorist activities against Ethiopia, potentially leading to a renewal in 2010 of conventional war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The forthcoming and pivotal May 2010 Ethiopian Parliamentary elections may be a trigger point for revived Eritrean conflict with Ethiopia, and Eritrea has already — in January 2010 — begun brief military incursions into Ethiopia and has been transporting clandestine supplies of weapons and explosives into the heart of Ethiopia, even into the capital, Addis Ababa, for use by anti-government forces sponsored by Eritrea.

That is part of the current context to be borne in mind when looking at Yemen itself, and the position of Yemen Pres. Saleh.

The Western media gained a hint of Pres. Saleh’s longstanding linkage with Puntland when, during Yussuf’s Presidency of Somalia in November 2008, a Yemeni ship captured by pirates was suddenly freed without ransom being paid. Significantly, most of the pirates operating off the Horn of Africa are from Puntland, and, following the collapse of Somalia into civil war, the Somalian fishing fleet fled the Somalia coast for safe-haven in Yemen. There, however, it was impounded by Pres. Saleh. Pres. Saleh’s son, and the son of former Somalian/Puntland Pres. Yussuf, now jointly own and run that fleet of fishing vessels, among their other joint enterprises.

Former Pres. Yussuf — who, as “President” of Puntland, conducted frequent raids and terrorist operations against the neighboring Republic of Somaliland — is now a guest of Pres. Saleh, living in exile in Yemen. Not surprisingly, Yemen has shown considerable solidarity with Egypt in maintaining both an Arab League and African Union boycott on trade with Somaliland, ending millennia of cross-Red Sea trade in hides and other materials, and in the recognition of Somaliland as the sovereign entity which historical and legal precedence shows it to be.

But in the overall situation, at its heart, Egypt, Saudi Arabia (and the Persian Gulf emirates, and Iran are engaged in an attempt to dominate the Red Sea, which is vital in various ways and in varying degrees to their national survival. Much of the trade viability of the Persian Gulf is linked with the ability to utilize the Red Sea/Suez SLOC.

Within the context of this competition between the Arabian Peninsula states and Iran over the Red Sea is the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and now Yemen) for control of much of the Arabian Peninsula itself, as outlined in the November 17, 2009, report by Yossef Bodansky on Iranian involvement in the declaration by Saudi Shi’a clerics of the “Republic of Eastern Arabia”. And also engaged in this competition is Israel, itself a Red Sea and Indian Ocean state by virtue of its sea frontage on the Gulf of Aqaba and its projection of naval power into the Indian Ocean.

Iran has long been a major sponsor of Islamist insurgent and tribal groups in Somalia, regardless of whether these groups have been Sunni or Shi’a Muslims. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has attempted to compete for regional influence in the Horn by funding a massive proselytization of Ethiopians, to increase the numbers of Muslims over the historically Orthodox Christians there, in stark disavowal of the Prophet Mohammed’s strict injunction that Ethiopians should not be attacked or forced to convert to Islam because of the refuge and respect which an Ethiopian king — the King of Axum — had given in 614 CE to some of Mohammed’s followers and to one of his wives when they were being pursued by Mohammed’s enemies.

Significantly, and to varying degrees, Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have allowed and even encouraged instability and division to occur along the Red Sea littoral — with regard to Eritrea, Yemen, and Sudan — in order to gain strategic leverage. Libya, long a Red Sea power aspirant (in order to gain leverage at Egypt’s rear, and over its Red Sea/Suez Canal seaway), has also pumped money and weapons into the Red Sea disputes, particularly in support of Eritrea and Somali elements opposed to Ethiopia. Libya, of course, demonstrated its ability to disrupt Red Sea/Suez sea traffic — to the massive detriment of Egypt and the trading states — when it used the mine-laying ship, Ghat, to drop floating mines in the Red Sea in 1984.

In the midst of all of this, Ethiopia is moving toward parliamentary elections in May 2010, and Eritrea and its allies (Egypt, Libya, and others) have been stepping up military pressure on the Ethiopian border, and even shipping weapons and explosives clandestinely into Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. It is not inconceivable that a significant military clash could occur between Ethiopia and Eritrea before the May 2010 Ethiopian elections.

Thus, it is not just Yemen, or even the Arabian Peninsula, which is under severe pressure from unrest and insurgency, but also the entire Horn of Africa, including Somalia, Somaliland (which has been able to hold the line thus far), Eritrea, and Sudan. And with this, the entire security of the Red Sea/Suez sea lines of communications (SLOCs), so vital to Asian, European, and Australasian trade, is also under threat.

What is also of significance in this is the fact that the Republic of Somaliland — one of the few areas of stability in the region — is not yet recognized by the international community even though it meets all of the legitimate criteria of sovereignty as determined by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). This situation is very much in the hands of Egypt, which — because of its fears over Ethiopia and the fact that Somaliland is a key transit access for Ethiopian trade — has refused to allow the AU or the Arab League to recognize Somaliland’s sovereignty, and the UN will not recognize a state until the regional body (in this case the AU) first recognizes it.

Eritrea’s historical source of revenue has been as a trading and entrepôt for Ethiopian imports and exports, and this was a natural rôle for it when it was a province of Ethiopia [for years Eritrea was known within the Ethiopian Empire as the Bar Negus: the Kingdom of the Sea. When Eritrea, independent from Ethiopia after the collapse of the Dergue in 1991, attempted to blackmail Ethiopia into accepting the new Eritrean currency, the nakfa (introduced November 1997), which was not internationally tradable, as payment for Ethiopian coffee for onward export — Eritrea, as a trader, was the fourth biggest coffee exporter in the world, based on through shipment of Ethiopian coffee — Ethiopia ceased trading through Eritrea.

Eritrean leader Isayas had not bargained on Ethiopia, landlocked following the loss of Eritrea, being able to trade through routes other than the Eritrean Red Sea port of Massawa and other lesser ports, and found Eritrea bankrupt when Ethiopia began trade through Djibouti, and subsequently Somaliland. Eritrea, almost overnight, became bankrupt, and Isayas faced the need to distract an increasingly hostile population.

This led to significant control of the Eritrean population (which continues today), and to the 1998-99 Eritrea-Ethiopia war, which, when concluded, failed to bring about a resumption of Ethiopian trade through Eritrean ports, leading to the continuing situation of desperation in Eritrea, and the likelihood of yet another conflict.

The situation is ultimately detrimental to Egypt, given that the isolation of Ethiopia (and Somaliland) actually contributes to the insolvency of Eritrea, which Egypt (and others) have been using as a buffer to keep Ethiopia landlocked. The potential threat to Egypt’s Nile waters from Ethiopia is, in fact, not addressed by keeping Ethiopia landlocked, and nor is Egypt’s absolute strategic need for a stable Red Sea SLOC (leading to and from the Suez Canal) better guarded by having Ethiopia kept landlocked.

Within all of this, the US, and many other NATO states, along with Japan, Australia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and others, have committed major naval forces to the Red Sea/Horn of Africa region of the Indian Ocean in an attempt to suppress regional piracy, all of which (virtually) comes from Puntland and is supported by former Puntland/Somalia Pres. Yussuf, who is now a guest of Yemen Pres. Saleh. At no point have the NATO powers thought of addressing the piracy issue by tackling Yussuf and Saleh head-on, or through direct punitive attacks on the Puntland piracy havens.

Moreover, the US and the NATO states — as well as the other maritime powers now projecting naval force into the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa — have neither the resources nor will to deal decisively with the pirates in their land havens, the villages of Puntland, or with the Iranian- and salafist-backed insurgencies now underway on the Arabian Peninsula. Only France, with a significant history of sustaining forces in the region (particularly Djibouti) has shown some real independence of action.

Thus, the advantage, strategically, remains with Iran, which is destabilizing the area through proxy forces. Much is being made of the so-called “al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP), which claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on December 25, 2009, of US Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Certainly, there is a link between Yemen — now the modern state encompassing the ancestral home of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden’s family — and the global al-Qaida phenomenon. The reality, however, is that al-Qaida, and bin Laden, although ostensibly salafist Sunnis, have long had distinct Iranian connections. Moreover, there is more than one group in Yemen and Saudi Arabia claiming to be part of al-Qaida. The Western fixation with categorizing and naming amorphous and transitory groups as though they were permanent and organized fixtures, based on their claims, leads to attempts to see the regional situation in black and white terms.

Within the Yemeni context, as well, is the continued rivalry between north and south, between the factions which once gravitated toward the control of Sana’a (and the former Yemen Arab Republic), and those which once gravitated toward the control of Aden and the old Arabian Sea (Gulf of Aden) sultanates.  There were, in fact, nine sultanates which signed protectorate agreements with the United Kingdom in the early 20th Century to form the British Aden Protectorate, and, after several geopolitical transitions, and with the departure of the British from Aden, the area became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY: South Yemen). The PDRY became a major Soviet proxy state, and attempted to project power against Saudi Arabia, and the Sultanate of Oman.


Then, the unified group under PDRY and Soviet control was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf (PFLOAG), which conducted a major insurgency across the Omani border, into the Dhofar region, against the old Sultan of Muscat & Oman, Sultan Sa’id. This led to a major Cold War confrontation, with the British backing of Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id al-Said, who had overthrown his father. This was a protracted insurgency which Oman won. Significantly, Oman largely embraces a distinct form of Islam, the Khariji sect, which rejected both Sunni and Shi’ite formulas; the Ibadi branch of the Kharijites became (in the Prophet Mohammed’s lifetime) Oman’s official religion, making it the only Kharijite country in Islam.

The geopolitical importance of Oman should not be overlooked, despite the fact that the country and the Sultan have been quiet during the current crises: Oman controls the southern shore of the Strait of Hormuz and a vital part of the Arabian Sea coastline.

It is not insignificant that the new — and cautious — Iranian-Russian alliance is jointly and severally interested in projecting power deep into the Indian Ocean and through the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Russia’s historical involvement (as the USSR) in the PDRY (and to a lesser extent the YAR), and in Somalia have not been forgotten. Neither has Iran’s military involvement during the 1970s in support of Oman against the PDRY — the Shah and Sultan Qaboos cooperated closely — been forgotten in Tehran. Further, the historical links across the Strait of Hormuz are profound: Baluchistan, now divided between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, was once Omani territory.

These are all links which are of profound significance, and yet they are unrecognized by current analysts who insist on dividing consideration of conflict and political phenomena along the lines of modern nation-state boundaries.

Iran’s determination to proceed with its proxy drive into the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, and the Red Sea has been compounded by the declining ability and will of the US to sustain its position in the region, and by the strength and cooperation of the new alliance with Russia. Clearly, Russia and Iran remain cautious of each other, but have mutual objectives at this point, and a history of seeking influence over the Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea/Horn.

As Holy Roman Emperor Charles V said of the French King, Francis I, in the 16th Century: “My cousin and I are in complete agreement: we both want Milan.”

Clearly, the Yemen/Red Sea/Horn of Africa/Arabian Peninsula situation cannot be divorced from the Northern Tier — the area including Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and so on. Attempts by Western media and policymakers to treat the Yemen situation as separate, and a “new theater”, once again ignore the complex integration and internally competitive dynamic of the entire region. Bearing in mind the Iranian southward projection, and Pakistan’s rôle as a key littoral maritime player in the Arabian Sea (and key partner in the US-dominated Combined Naval Task Forces (CTF) 151, the joint statement issued by the Iranian, Afghanistan, and Pakistan governments on January 16, 2010, was instructive. It said that, as the Xinhua news agency report of that date noted, “Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan affirm that the three countries bear a shared and common responsibility for security and stability in the region, and reaffirmed the commitment to playing their due rôle in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said on January 16, 2010, that Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan were the most important neighbors for establishing peace and stability in Afghanistan, adding that peace in Afghanistan meant peace in the region. Minister Qureshi said that the Islamabad trilateral meeting decided to move forward in line with the tripartite summit in Tehran in 2009 to adopt regional approach to find out solution to problems in the region. He said that intelligence chiefs of the three countries will also meet in Tehran soon to discuss cooperation in intelligence sharing.

All of this is reflective of the changing fortunes of the great powers in the region. Power vacuums, or perceived vacuums, lead to surges by other aspirant powers. That is what is now happening in what this writer has termed “the North-West Quadrant of the Indian Ocean”, which includes the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea/Gulf of Aqaba/Suez.  Additionally, all the action in this neighborhood has a hugely important global impact on the transportation of oil and gas and the VLCC tankers that carry the assets.

There is a great deal of shuffling which is reminiscent of the beginning of the 1960s, and the British withdrawal orchestrated by socialist Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a process which led to the Soviet surge into South Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The local players have no option but to try to rebuild their security in the knowledge that their superpower allies — in this case, the US — may not offer security support into the future.

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS.
Extract from Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis
© 2009 Global Information System, ISSA

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  • Anonymous on January 20 2010 said:
    In my opinion, an intelligent person should not spend a minute a day being concerned with what is taking place in those countries named in this article.
  • Anonymous on January 20 2010 said:
    Why is that Ferdinand? Did you actually read the article? This neighborhood has a hugely important global impact on the transportation of oil and gas and the VLCC tankers that carry the assets.
  • Anonymous on January 21 2010 said:
    Thanks to the author I do agree most his analysis. Supporting the Republic of Somaliland could be the key to the stability of horn of Africa, specially if the objective is to defeat the pirates and diminish the influence of hardliners in the South of Somalia. As far as AQAP, I think cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Yemen governments and religious scholars can neutralize their influence and effectiveness. Any outside intervention will only make it worse.

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