Last May, a number of Saudi academics and I met in an old hotel in Berlin with a group of Western researchers on Middle Eastern issues. We were joined by Iranian researchers and we all participated in a ‘policy game’, or ‘political expectations game’ in Arabic. It was originally known as a ‘war game’ – but when Europeans became peace-loving people, they changed its name!
We split into different groups of Saudis, Iranians, Europeans, Americans, and Russians, as these are the main powers that have a strong influence today in the Middle East. A German researcher was among us. He was described as an expert in the region’s affairs, since he served as a diplomat and a member of the intelligence service there. He kept his identity a secret, despite participating with us in the ‘game’! He wrote his predictions as to what will happen in the region in both August and November. We had to discuss his expectations during two long meetings, and predict our own country’s political reaction to them, without changing anything in his scenario of what was supposed to be taking place.
Now, after seeing the Yemeni Vice President and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah jumping enthusiastically out of the plane that carried him back, once and for all, to the liberated Aden, I just wish I could meet that German expert again to tell him: “all your expectations regarding Yemen were wrong, and you have to reconsider your confidence in the Saudi military and political capacity”. He had predicted the fall of Aden in early June, as well as Taiz in mid-November, to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi forces.
No solution on the horizon
In the real world, Taiz is currently on the verge of being liberated, while Aden is fully liberated and the Bahah government has permanently returned there. However, the German’s only expectation that turned out to be true was that “no solution to the Yemeni political crisis is looming in the horizon”.
This is what I found to be the main concern of Vice President Bahah when I met him in Riyadh, two days before his trip to Aden. I wished then that I had accepted his invitation and accompanied him there. He was busy asking: Where is Yemen heading to, after the war? It is the right question to ask, and the influencing forces there have to develop a plan for the coming days, after the fall of the Houthis and Saleh.
A country like Yemen is tired of politicians and power-sharing between ruling families. It is time for Yemen to be managed with a mentality of development and productivity.Jamal Khashoggi
Yemen is a complex block that got more complicated after the 2011 revolution and the current war. The old rules are no longer valid, but their negative impact is still effective today – as seen in the assassinations carried out as a way to resolve disputes and political rivalry. We should not accuse the Houthis or Saleh’s governance of all the assassinations that have happened, or will happen, in Aden. Yes, they are the two main suspects but there are others also who may be responsible.
What is new in Yemen is the growing power of the youth aspiring to a better life, as well as the forces of the 2011 revolution that blamed the GCC for marginalizing their role in its famous initiative to end Saleh’s era, and keep him at the same time.
However, the GCC and more specifically the “Decisive Storm” operation led by Saudi Arabia, re-energized the Yemeni revolution forces when they emerged as leaders of the resistance. This was a necessary step to confirm the popular rejection of the Houthis and Saleh, and proved that the legitimate Yemeni government, represented by President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, was real.
On the other hand, the power of the tribes and their elders shrank, in a process that lasted for decades and began before the revolution in 2011. The influence of the tribes and elders has been replaced by political parties and ideology, which is bound to prosper if Yemen chooses the way of pluralist politics. The last tribal Sheikh in Yemen, the late Abdullah bin Husayn bin Nasser al-Ahmar, discovered this at an early stage when he famously stated: “My tribe is the Brotherhood”, referring of course to the Muslim Brotherhood. He established with them the al-Islah party – or the Yemeni Congregation for Reform – which celebrated its 25th anniversary last week.
Bahah and Bakri
The image of Bahah arriving in Aden, accompanied by Nayef al-Bakri – the controversial, yet popular former governor of Aden – reflects this change. It is a message to the Yemenis that it is time for youth and change. Bakri represents the resistance, as he was one of its leaders in Aden. He withdrew from the Yemeni Congregation for Reform to confirm that the national cause is prevailing now. Nevertheless, he kept up the spirit of the 2011 revolution when he collided with the mentality of power-sharing, which is trying to be restored even though the war has not yet ended.
When I met Bahah at the Conference Palace in Riyadh, from where he was running the battle to save Yemen, he was preoccupied with the dismissal of al-Bakri. He described it to me as “an issue that we do not need”, since it almost became a crisis in Aden after some tried to extend it to the regional level by getting neighboring countries involved. It also almost became an internal crisis since Bakri was able to get the youth support, and it would have reached the partisan level through Bakri’s affiliation to the Yemeni Congregation for Reform party.
I think that the forced crisis of Bakri’s dismissal is just a clash between two generations and two cultures: one led Yemen to its current status and the other wants to get Yemen out of it. This is why Bahah interrupted my questions about Bakri by saying: “I will not give up on this young man. If he doesn’t become the governor of Aden, he will be with me in the Ministry to serve Yemen as a whole”.
Bahah believes in a theory that is worth being taken into consideration by Yemen’s neighbors: “development in time of war”. He does not want to disrupt the development just because there is a war in Yemen. He explained his theory by saying: “the development and provision of services to citizens are what will prevent Yemen and its liberated territories from collapsing. If citizens see that the state is not working properly, they will lose confidence and hope, and will then resort to alternatives that will gradually turn them into local leaders and militias outside the framework of the state. Yemen will then become like Libya; the situation will get more complicated and consequently we will discover that, after the liberation of Sanaa or after the peace with the Houthis, regions that we left behind us have already collapsed”.
A country like Yemen is tired of politicians and power-sharing between ruling families. It is time for Yemen to be managed with a mentality of development and productivity.
This is why I found Bahah keen to be close to all influential Gulf countries, while wanting to act independently, something Saudi Arabia will probably be supporting. So if I were to return to Berlin, I would suggest that a productive economy, as well as politics, will be key in answering Bahah’s question “where is Yemen going?” It is, however, best to have this question discussed first between Sanaa and Riyadh.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on September 19, 2015.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi