US President Joe Biden has recently appointed Mr. Timothy Lenderking as his special envoy to Yemen, a seasoned diplomat who once served as the second-in-command at the United States Embassy in Saudi Arabia, and he is no stranger to the region.
As Lenderking prepares to take on his role, I thought it would be helpful to offer him a gift consisting of two reading recommendations, the first is this article, and the second is a book written almost 100 years ago by the Lebanese-American traveler Ameen Rihani. Rihani’s highly engaging book titled “Muluk-ul ‘Arab (Kings of Arabia)” is often recommended to all those want to know more about the Arabian Peninsula. In the opening chapters of Kings of Arabia, Rihani recounts the events that took place as he was preparing for a long journey to the Arabian Peninsula, starting from its south, and he happened to go a bookstore in New York that sells Arabic books and there he met a man who seemed Arab from his thick accent. Rihani asked him about his home country and he answered that he was from Yemen. This delighted Rihani and he informed him that he was planning a trip there himself and he asked the man to tell him more about Yemen. The man answered, “Our country is very beautiful, with valleys, mountains, fresh water, and many tribes…” Rihani followed this with a question about what Yemen was known for to which the man answered, “we are known for fighting.” The man’s answer caught Rihani by surprise, prompting him to ask, “who do you fight with?” and the Yemeni man replied, “we fight with Turkey, and when we’re not fighting with Turkey we fight with Britain, and when we’re not doing that, we fight amongst ourselves.”
This is what Rihani wrote in the introduction of his book over 100 years ago. The book is full of interesting information about the writer’s visit to Yemen. Objectively, after 100 years, Yemen, especially during the last third of the twentieth century, is no longer an “Imamite” like it was in the past, and it has changed in many aspects. Some tribes, especially those who favor fighting, have almost disappeared, and new tribes have emerged in their place including nationalistic, Baathi, Islamic, and even socialist tribes. The people of Yemen also attempted to modernize their country, yet their elite failed to reach the goal of establishing a modern nation state. These Yemeni tribes seem to be caught in between the past and the future, which means that no real change has been achieved. The former regime refuses to let go of power, and the new regime is facing many difficulties preventing it from taking the reins. In the midst of all this tribal and territorial tension, and with many attempting to impose the ways of the past in every aspect like the Houthis, the people of Yemen continue to suffer and lose their lives.
During what I would call the “nationalism” stage, the ruling Yemeni elite aspired to play a regional role much greater than Yemeni capabilities. After the liberation of Kuwait, a text emerged revealing a meeting between delegates Abdul Karim al-Eryani and Ali Salem al-Baid, both appointed by Ali Abdullah Saleh to meet with Saddam Hussein. In short, at the end of the meeting with Saddam Hussein, al-Eryani said, “We would like the Iraqi borders to extend to the middle of the Arabian Peninsula and be parallel to the borders of Yemen!” This means that the Peninsula will be divided into two parts, as al-Eryani suggested, the northern side is Iraqi and the Southern side is Yemeni. It seems that the Yemenis suffered from baseless delusions of grandeur and bizarre aspirations and ideas that are entirely disconnected from reality. For verification and documentation, you can find the document published in Sawt al Kuwait newspaper and a copy of the newspaper is in the National Library. The situation in Yemen is very challenging. Many of the ruling elite of the densely populated, resource-poor country seem to be preoccupied with delusions of “socialism” that on one hand decide to nationalize even small fishing boats, and on the other, they seek to unite neighboring countries under the banner of an Islamic movement. One of Yemen’s most challenging issues is dealing with its elites.
If Lenderking decides to enable the Houthis to take control of Yemen with the help of the Iranian regime, the war will not end. Since the Iranian regime seeks to use the Houthis to their advantage by serving their expansionist project in the Arabian Peninsula, this means that the situation will only escalate, and the crisis will not be resolved. Additionally, the move to remove the Houthis’ US Foreign Terrorist Organization designation while continuing to describe Yemeni leaderships as terrorists is nothing short of naïve and politically shortsighted. Such societies highly look up to their leaderships and this move will fail to serve the intended purpose. The bottom line is that Houthi decisions are influenced by Iran, as Martin Griffiths, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, discovered. In fact, it is clear to see that the recent escalation over Marib is merely an Iranian ruse to gain more bargaining power with the new administration in Washington.
So far, three international envoys have been lost and uncertain about the best course of action in terms of handling the Yemeni crisis, and all their efforts were of no avail. I do not believe that Mr. Martin Griffiths will be the last to fail in mediating to end the war. If Lenderking is well-informed of the Yemeni issue, then there is no doubt that he knows that the slogan that spread across the streets of Sana’a (Death to America, Death to Israel), is a slogan that originated in Tehran. It is safe to say that Lenderking’s mission is not going to be an easy one.
Many people in the region share the concern of the new US administration repeating the same mistakes committed during the Obama-era with all its shortcomings and failed policies. This will cost the region a steep price that it might not be able to recover from. There is no debating the foolishness of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For this reason, it is important to make sure that Mr. Timothy Lenderking is fully aware of the region’s concerns.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese outlet Annahar al-Arabi.