Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Welcome, Americans, to Mysterious Yemen

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Welcome, Americans, to Mysterious Yemen

Article excerpt

YEMEN, THE likely source of the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing at Detroit, has just rudely intruded into the West's awareness. Militant sources there claim the attack by a young Nigerian was retaliation for extensive covert U.S. military operations in Yemen. Welcome to the Afghanistan of Arabia.

Thanks to the ineffective pyrotechnic device in his underpants, the wannabe Nigerian jihadist has and will inflict billions of dollars in security costs on the United States, and disrupt its vital air travel-all for a $2,000 economy airplane ticket. American-hating jihadists everywhere are clapping their hands in glee. Osama bin Laden must be smiling as the U.S. stumbles into yet another anti-American tar pit.

President Barack Obama has just declared Yemen a new hotbed of anti-American extremists.

Yemen is a magical, beautiful country, but it is not a place for the timid traveler or faint of heart. I first explored Yemen in the mid-1970s when it was just creeping into the 11th century A.D.

Located at the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, mountainous, verdant Yemen was the Biblical land of the Queen of Sheba, and the originator of perfume. It was an important bridge between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Sana'a, the walled capital, was straight out of the Arabian Nights. At dusk, a ram's horn would sound and its gates would close for the night. Beyond lay warlike tribesmen who would slit your throat for your watch.

Almost every man wore a curved tribal dagger in his belt. Mud-walled sky-scrapers filled the city, along with open sewers and teeming markets with eldritch names like the "souk of daggers" and the "souk of salt."

There were no hotels to speak of, so I slept in the dining room of one of the palaces of the former ruler, Ahmed the Devil, who much enjoyed nailing annoying people to his palace gate. Old Ahmed spent the rest of his time smoking hashish and cavorting with his well-stocked harem.

The state of North Yemen came into being at the end of World War I as the dying Ottoman Empire gave up its Arabian possessions. During the 19th century, the British Empire had gobbled up the entire southern coast of Arabia, creating South Yemen, with its strategic seaport of Aden, and turning the kingdom of Oman into a protectorate. South Yemen became a hotbed of Arab leftists and anti-British militants. In the 1960s, Saudi Arabia and Egypt battled for domination of Yemen. Both lost.

North Yemen has been ruled since 1978 by a military dictator, Ali Saleh. In the 1990s, the former British colony of Aden joined North Yemen, creating today's united Yemen. After some bloodshed, Saleh became ruler of united Yemen.

Oil was happily discovered, but has pretty much run out, leaving Yemen dirt poor and in dire financial straits. Saleh's regime, like other U.S.-backed Arab governments, is accused of extensive human rights violations and deep corruption.

The two Yemen's 23 million people have feuded for decades.

Yemeni Shi'i and Sunnis are at scimitar's drawn. The nation has deep tribal and clan divisions and rivalries. The south and north are at odds, with talk of secession by Aden. An assortment of anti-Western militant groups has found a home in lawless Yemen. On top of all this, Shi'i Houthi tribesmen on Yemen's undemarcated northern border are battling Saudi forces, backed by U.S. air power. Yemen's warlike tribes hate any outside authority, starting with their own government.

Yemen has also battled with neighbor Oman, which remains a virtual colony of MI6, British intelligence.

In a wonderful colonial punch-up during the 60s and 70s, Britain's fabled SAS commandos driving pink-painted jeeps (they blended perfectly with sand) battled Yemeni-backed nationalists in Dhofar known as the "Red Wolves of Radfan. …

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