The U.S. and Gulf are confused over Yemen and Iraq

Raghida Dergham
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The return of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to bloodily shaping the country’s history has not come overnight, on the eve of the house arrest imposed by the Houthis on current President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi before they allowed him to flee to Aden - the capital of South Yemen before reunification. Ali Abdullah Saleh, since he agreed to step down three years ago, has been planning to return to power either on the Houthi bandwagon or through elements in the military establishment, not to mention deploying his huge influence and financial assets to buy loyalty and empower his party, family, and son to retake power at any cost.

Another man in the Arab region preparing behind the scenes and plotting in secret to return to his devastating role in Iraq’s history is former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The common denominator between Yemen’s strongman and Iraq’s strongman is that they both left power as a result of regional and international pressures and bargains in which the United States and the GCC countries, as well as Iran, played important roles. The difference is that the Iraqi event attested that Tehran had to sacrifice Nouri al-Maliki in what appeared as signs of strategic accords between Iran and key Gulf powers, especially Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States. By contrast, the event in Yemen is a clear indication of the absence of accords and reconciliatory strategies.


The Iranian role backing the Houthis in Yemen emerged in parallel with the Iraqi event, in tandem with the determination of Ali Abdullah Saleh to enter into an alliance with the Houthis and Iran to settle scores with Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, which had helped remove him from power. The two men have an ugly agenda for Iraq and Yemen. If the Gulf leaders are serious and vigilant, they must develop a comprehensive strategy for both Iraq and Yemen, two majorly important countries for the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. Otherwise, the GCC countries will pay a heavy price, and not just Iraq and Yemen.

The common denominator between Yemen’s strongman and Iraq’s strongman is that they both left power as a result of regional and international pressures and bargains in which the United States and the GCC countries, as well as Iran, played important roles

Raghida Dergham

This week, a U.N. Security Council expert team said in a report that Saleh had amassed close to $60 billion in 30 years as Yemen’s president, through corruption, embezzlement, and commissions imposed on oil companies. According to the experts, he has stashed away these funds across 20 countries using other figures and companies as fronts.

The experts who report to the U.N. Yemen sanctions panel told the Security Council that Saleh facilitated it for the Houthis and al-Qaeda to expand their control in northern and southern Yemen, and that he continues to run a broad network of financial, security, military, and political interests in Yemen that allowed him effectively to avoid the effects of the sanctions imposed on him under U.N. Security Council resolution 2140. The panel’s report said, “It is also alleged that Ali Abdullah Saleh, his friends, his family and his associates stole money from the fuel subsidy program, which uses up to 10 per cent of Yemen’s gross domestic product, as well as other ventures involving abuse of power, extortion and embezzlement.” “The result of these illegal activities for private gain is estimated to have amounted to nearly $2 billion a year over the last three decades,” it adds.

Changing loyalties

These funds were instrumental in changing the partisan loyalties to the extent of forming “unexpected alliances between former enemies, such as the Houthis and former President Saleh; the weakening of dominant political parties like the Islah party; the departure of leading political and influential figures like Hamid al-Ahmar and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar from Yemen; an increase in al-Qaeda activities in the south and Hadramaut; and an increased call for separation by the south,” the report argues.

So how did a panel of experts with a specific mission manage to understand the equations and developments in Yemen, while Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia were not able to ascertain and prepare for what was obvious in Yemen?

The question is important to identify whether the flaw is fundamental, or whether it was an exception, and - as it is being said - was possibly related to the health of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and the transition in the kingdom.

Either way, what happened is extremely dangerous, not only for Yemen, but also for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. However, if the events in Yemen are the result of a deliberate policy based on mutual attrition, then this is an unwise policy similar to the unwise policy on Syria. Its risks would be twofold for Yemen and the Gulf region, led by the Saudi kingdom.

Mutual attrition

Indeed, mutual attrition or destruction has failed in Syria, and has helped destroy the present, future, and even past of the nation - if we consider the archaeological and cultural heritage of the country now in ruins - at the hands of the regime and the terrorists like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front, with local, regional, and international enablement from which no-one emerges innocent. Attrition is a foolish policy because it helped terrorism grow, and created an opportunity for ISIS to proliferate until it drew attention away from what is happening in Syria.

If an international team was able to obtain detailed information and produce a logical and realistic analysis of the Yemeni situation, while the Gulf countries - as it is claimed - were taken by surprise by the events in Yemen and are still unable to develop a strategy to deal with them, then this is a frightening testimony of the utter lack of intelligence and analysis capabilities in the Gulf region.

The international report to the U.N. Security Council stated that according to a confidential source, al-Qaeda is taking advantage of such sensitivities and is recruiting Sunni tribesmen to fight on its side against the Houthis. The report also states, “The geographical proximity of Eritrea to Yemen lends itself to licit and illicit activities, and several trusted interlocutors mentioned confidentially the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) training of Houthi forces on a small island off the Eritrean coast.”

Close ties

According to the same report as well, there is a close relationship between Saleh, his family and al-Qaeda. The report quotes sources as saying that Mohammad Nasser Ahmed, the former Minister of Defense, saw al-Qaeda leader Sami Dayan in the-then President Saleh’s office with the president, in 2012. This is in addition to the quasi-alliance between Saleh and the Houthis.

That’s right. The paragraph may need to be read two or three times to comprehend the strange alliances in Yemen today, with a central role played by a former president who wants to return to power. He is completely disregarding the sanctions imposed on him under a U.N. Security Council resolution, moving ahead with a clear strategy and goals, with a calculated cost.

If the Gulf countries have a deliberate strategy to address the agendas of Saleh, the Houthis, and al-Qaeda - the three are enemies and not allies - then this strategy requires elucidation. The GCC countries appear today in a state of loss, denial, and dithering. This carries a bad message on multiple levels.

Today, Saleh in Yemen, and tomorrow Maliki in Iraq both intend to return to power. Both have partners or allies in Iran. In Yemen, there is a transitional alliance between the Revolutionary Guard in Iran, Saleh, and al-Qaeda for transient mutual interests, and a structural alliance between Tehran and the Houthis. The Houthis can claim to be the party that defeated a major regional power like Saudi Arabia, and that it can threaten it at its border. The Houthis are the group that toppled a legitimate government and put Yemen on the road to secession and fragmentation. Yet this is not the sin of the Houthis alone, because of the failure of the Gulf and the U.S. in Yemen contributed greatly in stoking its internal tragedies and exacerbating geopolitical risks beyond its borders.

Faltering policies

U.S. and Gulf policies are faltering in both Yemen and Iraq. Iranian policies in Iraq and Yemen will either produce strategic advantages with huge benefits for the regime in Tehran, or could implicate Iran in one quagmire after the other, from Yemen to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

The pace of the coming shifts in the balance of achievements vs. implication will be dictated to some degree by the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China).

No one knows accurately if these negotiations are on the brink of collapse or are on the eve of making history. If they produce an agreement, this would be the first time both the West and the East agree to give a non-nuclear state the right to possess military nuclear capabilities in return for postponing the manufacturing date of said capabilities. In turn, this will give Iran the euphoria of belonging to the nuclear club, which will most likely increase its confidence in fulfilling its regional ambitions, however, there is a small possibility that reining in regional ambitions would be part of the nuclear accords.

However, if the nuclear deal fails, the United States will lay trap after trap to implicate Iran in regional quagmires, to create Iran’s own version of Vietnam in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.The region is entering a critical phase soon, during which men addicted to power are aligning with tribes taking advantage of alliance in the regional absence of strategies.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Feb. 27, 2015 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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