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StrategyPage.com: Yemen: The Enemies Within

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Thursday, 14 September 2023

14 Sptember 2023


September 13, 2023: There are many reasons for Yemen’s multiple economic and political problems, of which the clearly dominant one is its epic level of corruption. Corruption worldwide is monitored and measured in the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. The Index measures corruption on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The nations with the lowest scores are currently Yemen (score of 17). Syria (13), South Sudan (13) and Somalia (12). The least corrupt nation is currently Denmark, with a CPI of 90, followed by Finland and New Zealand, each with 87. Nations with the most corruption tend to be poor and chaotic. The opposite applies to nations with low levels of corruption. Yemen has been identified as a chronic and long term victim of corruption.

One side effect of the chaos and corruption is the absence of a public health system. That means children do not receive vaccines for common, and sometimes fatal childhood diseases like measles. The disease had been eliminated in nations with a nation-wide health system that makes it possible vaccinate enough (often all) children to eliminate certain diseases, like measles. Worldwide there are many nations where measles persists because too many children are not vaccinated. Measles is sometimes fatal for the unvaccinated and so far this year 60 Yemeni children a month have died from measles. Even more children die each from a cholera epidemic that started in 2016 and continues.

Most of the Islamic terrorists in Yemen belong to AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) or the much smaller and more violent ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Both Islamic terror groups operate in the south and east. AQAP sometimes cooperates with southern separatists. AQAP and most southerners are Sunni Moslems while the rebels are Shia. Most southerners just want peace and some prosperity. There are enough devoted separatists in the south to provide sanctuaries and support for AQAP.

Yemen has Saudi Arabia to thank for the decline in weapons smuggling over the last year. The Saudis were subject to years of Shia rebel attacks on Saudi targets using cruise and ballistic missiles smuggled in by Iran. This was expensive for Iran and getting more difficult and expensive because of increased anti-smuggling efforts,

A major reason for rebels agreeing to a ceasefire was a decline in Iranian support due to lack of funds plus unrest at home. The Iranian weapons, cash, advisors and smuggling network supercharged the Shia rebels, enabling them to keep fighting the more numerous and better armed force arrayed against them. Iran has been openly supporting the Shia rebels since 2014 and later admitted that less visible support had been supplied since 2011.

Information based on interceptions by American and other warships in the naval blockade of rebel-controlled coastlines indicates that Iranian smuggling of weapons to the rebels continues but at a lower intensity, and consists mainly of infantry weapons rather than cruise and ballistic missiles used to attack Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are negotiating directly with the Iranians about the fighting in Yemen and how to reduce it. This is part of an effort, brokered by the Chinese, to improve relations between the Saudis and Iran and reduce the tensions in the Persian Gulf and Yemen.

All this smuggling cost Iran a lot of money, both for the smuggled cargos and personnel including shipyard technicians to modify the boats to carry smuggled cargo. The crews of these boats are also well paid for the risks of getting caught and jailed. Iran has been short of cash since economic sanctions were revived in 2020 and increased in 2022 because of Iran support for Russian forces in Ukraine. There were also higher costs for preparing the boats and bonuses for the crews limiting the amount of smuggled cargo that reaches the Yemen rebels. Those expenses were one of the reasons for the nationwide anti-government protests which began in September 2022 and continue. The IRGC (Islamic Republic Guard Corps), which guards the religious dictatorship that has ruled Iran since the 1980s, also handles Iran’s many foreign wars including Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and now Ukraine. Iran controls the leadership of the Yemen rebels, in large part because Iran supplies weapons. With that weapons pipeline disrupted during the last three months, the rebels responded by observing a ceasefire with their many opponents.

IRGC leaders were reluctant to give up gains made in Yemen and are unsure when or if they can revive support for the Yemeni Shia because of the growing economic sanctions on Iran as well as the demands of supporting Russia in Ukraine. Because of the sanctions imposed in 2017, the Quds force saw its budget cut by half ever since. This meant major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Yemen was always the least expensive Quds operation and did not suffer noticeable aid cuts after 2017. Yemen was the only IRGC operation that was able to attack arch-enemy Saudi Arabia directly and that counted for something. The Yemen operation was allowed to continue. This was only possible if the smuggled weapons from Iran kept getting through. The Iranian weapons smuggling has now been greatly reduced. This sharply limits Iran’s ability to directly attack Saudi Arabia by arming Shia rebels in Yemen. The Shia rebels in Yemen received over a thousand ballistic missiles and UAVs between 2016 and 2021. Most of these were aimed at southwestern Saudi Arabia. Less than one percent of those UAVs and missiles hit anything of consequence in Saudi Arabia. Iran sought to carry out a similar campaign against Israel using Iran-backed militias in Syria. That hasn’t worked so far because Israeli intelligence capabilities and airstrikes have been much more effective in Syria than Saudi efforts in Yemen, despite the facts that Israel and Saudi Arabia have similar aircraft, smart bombs and air defense systems.

Iranian smuggling efforts have been less effective over the last few years because the international naval blockade has been detecting and intercepting more of the Iranian smuggling efforts. The Saudis had already put a stop to cross country smuggling via Oman. The Iranians have not tried to revive it, in part because Oman has backed the halt to Iranian smuggling.

It wasn’t just weapons smuggling the Saudis helped stop. There was the khat produced in Yemen and smuggled into Saudi Arabia. Khat production has been a major problem for Yemen as well as the Saudis. Much of the Yemeni agricultural crisis is caused by the fact that Yemen's economic situation has been rapidly deteriorating since the late 20th century. This is largely because the government has done nothing to address the problems of overpopulation, water shortages and Khat. The last item is a narcotic plant that is chewed fresh, requires a lot of water to grow and is worth a lot of money in Saudi Arabia where it is illegal and has to be smuggled in. While Yemen contains most of the only arable land in the Arabian Peninsula, only one percent of Yemen is suitable for agriculture. Rather than produce food, most of the agriculture production is Khat and nearly all of that is smuggled into Saudi Arabia. In the last year Saudi Arabia has increased its efforts to halt the smuggling and that has had some success in disrupting the smuggling. During the first half of 2023, 26 tons of Khat and a ton of the more potent, as a narcotic, Hashish was seized and destroyed before it could get to Saudi Arabia. The Hashish is a concentrated form of cannabis, produced by removing the sticky resin, which is the most narcotic portion of the cannabis plant. Put simply, Khat is for relaxing while Hashish will get you high and largely unable to function. Saudi Arabia bans both Khat and Hashish as harmful to the welfare of the population. Most of the Khat and Hashish is consumed by young (adolescent and early 20s) Saudi males and expatriate workers. Alcoholic beverages are specifically banned by Islamic scripture while Khat and Hashish are not. Alcoholic beverages are bulkier and leave a scent of alcohol on your breath while Khat and Hashish do not. Khat and Hashish do have harmful side effects as they reduce inhibitions and the ability to safely operate vehicles or machinery of any kind. While the Saudi border guards are seizing more Khat and Hashish from Yemen, some always get through and most of the customers in Saudi Arabia can afford to pay more when supplies are short.

September 11, 2023: In the south (Aden) the government is having problems with illegal Ethiopian migrants who are fleeing the civil war in Ethiopia. Yemen, like many other Arab states, has made arrangements to return illegal migrants who are discovered and arrested. Such an arrangement exists with the Ethiopian government. The problem is that the Ethiopian government will not accept Ethiopian refugees who are from areas that are rebelling against the Ethiopian government. When the banned Ethiopians learned that they would not be returned but would not be released from custody, some became violent and that left some people dead or wounded. The angry refugees also blame the people smuggling gangs who charge each refugee a large fee to take care of transportation and deal with border guards. The smugglers do not offer refunds if the refugees are caught and taken into custody. Yemen is a primary entry point for many refugees from Africa. Currently about 40,000 refugees are stranded in Yemen, often for several years. The majority are from Somalia and Ethiopia and willing to take free transport (by air) to their home countries. The smuggling route crosses the Gulf of Aden, which means a 750-kilometer voyage by boat to get to Yemen. This is short enough for small cargo and fishing boats to easily travel back and forth. For thousands of years there has been sea traffic on this route and over the last few decades that has involved more smuggling, usually of drugs and illegal migrants from Somalia or Ethiopia. The people smugglers typically overload boats for the two-day voyage across the Gulf and in a typical year hundreds of refugees are lost at sea. The people smuggling business changed after 2014 as the Iran backed Yemen Shia rebels, normally outnumbered, and outgunned by the government forces, took advantage of the post 2011 revolution to start a civil war to put a pro-Iran government in power. This disrupted the people smuggling operations because Saudi Arabia and its allies enforced a naval blockade on Yemen to stop Iranian from smuggling in weapons. The blockade often turned back the people smuggler boats after arresting the smugglers on board to gain more information on the smuggling gangs. Some illegals still got to Yemen but the Saudis had increased security on their border with Yemen. That meant most of the refugees, except those who could afford a more expensive detour, were stuck in Yemen. That situation worsened in 2020 when covid19 restrictions further limited the movement of illegal migrants into Saudi Arabia. While most foreigners had already fled Yemen, the Somali refugees in Yemen were giving up on the efforts to go north and seeking ways to get back to Somalia. In 2015 there were over 300,000 Somalis in Yemen, most of them there illegally. Foreigners, particularly illegal migrants, became a target in Yemen during the civil war because that conflict prevented Yemeni people smugglers from moving their clients north to the oil-rich Arab states and beyond. The most hospitable and accessible refuge for Somalis in Yemen was Somalia. So far most of the Somalis stuck in Yemen have returned to Somalia despite the continuing violence there. The civil war in Yemen has been a lot deadlier than the al Shabaab violence in Somalia, killing a lot more people and creating a lot more refugees.

August 27, 2023: In the south (Lahij province) Shia rebels clashed with militiamen from the STC and Southern Resistance for three hours. The Shia lost fifteen dead while their opponents lost 19 men.

August 24, 2023: Saudi Arabia denied accusations that their border guards had shot dead hundreds of unarmed Ethiopian refugees trying to cross the border from Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Saudi border guards regularly encounter armed Ethiopian smugglers trying to bring in drugs and alcohol. This usually leads to a gun battle the smugglers usually lose. The Ethiopian are arrested and eventually tried and executed. The penalty for drug smuggling in Saudi Arabia is death by beheading. Each year over a hundred Saudis and foreigners are arrested on drug charges. Using and selling drugs does not lead to beheading but to prison for Saudis and, for many foreigners, expulsion instead of prison. Smugglers are executed by beheading with a large sword. Most Ethiopian smugglers cross the border without being detected, which is why they keep coming and, if detected, often fight to the death. Being captured by the Saudis means you are eventually beheaded.

August 17, 2023: The Iranian foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia to negotiate a peace deal with Saudi Arabia. China negotiated this meeting, which resulted in Iran and Saudi Arabia agreeing to halt attacks on each other. This included the elimination of Iranian support for the Shia rebels in Yemen.

August 14, 2023: UN staff have managed to maintain the ceasefire around the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. This peace deal allows ships carrying foreign aid to unload their cargoes without being shot at by Shia rebels. The aid is loaded on trucks and distributed throughout northern Yemen. The southern port of Aden handles aid shipments to be distributed throughout the south.

August 11, 2023: In the south, five UN staff were released by AQAP after being help captive since early 2022. The STC negotiated with AQAP leaders to arrange for the hostages to be released.

August 10, 2023: In the south (Abyan province) Islamic terrorists ambushed a military convoy with a roadside bomb that killed four military men belonging to the STC (Southern Transitional Council).


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