Kate Seelye: Good morning. I’m Kate Seelye with the Middle East Institute and thank you for joining us today. We’re here today to discuss a topic that has been the focus of headlines since Christmas- and that is Yemen; the growing power and influence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the increasing fragility of the state as it deals not only with the Al Qaeda threat, but a Houthi led rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, economic problems and a severe water shortage just to cap it all off.
These problems and the regional and international threat they pose have existed for sometime but as is too often the case, it takes a crisis like an attempted terrorist attack to get Yemen the attention it deserves. When I called Ambassador Newton to invite him to join us for the talk today, he noted that he had not been asked a single question about Yemen by the media since returning to the U.S. in 2004…Now he’s being inundated.
So here we are all trying to make up for lost time and asking the question, “What can the US do to help Yemen address the multiple crises it faces that threaten regional stability?” Well, the Yemeni foreign minister was in town yesterday, discussing this very topic with US officials…today Brookings held an event looking at how to address the Al Qaeda in Yemen problem. We are fortunate because we have with us today two of the finest experts on Yemen - two diplomats who between them have some ten years of firsthand, on the ground experience working in Yemen. And today they are going to bring that insight and understanding to this very important discussion.
Thomas Krajeski served as ambassador to Yemen from 2004 - 2007 where he managed the full range of US-Yemen bilateral issues with special emphasis on counter-terrorism and development. From 2008-2009, he served as Senior Advisor to the US Ambassador to Iraq on Northern Iraq Affairs, where he worked closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government and the government of Iraq. Other state department positions included serving as Director of Career Development, as well as serving in posts in the United Arab Emirates, Nepal and India. In 2007, he received the President’s Distinguished Service Award for his service in Iraq and Yemen. He is currently a Senior Vice President at the National Defense University.
David Newton served as Ambassador to Yemen from 1994-1997, a culmination of years of experience in that country, having served there in the late 60s and later in the mid-70s, as Deputy Chief of Mission. Ambassador Newton enjoyed a thirty year career in the foreign service with postings in Syria, and Saudi Arabia, and State Department positions such as director for Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and economic officer for the Arabian Peninsula, among others. After his retirement, he had the pleasure of living in Prague where he ran Radio Free Iraq for six years until 2004. He is now a Middle East Institute scholar.
Thank you both so much for joining us today.
Ambassador David Newton: Well I do go back an embarrassingly long way, I see a lot of Foreign Service friends here so please don’t heckle me. Well, I went to Yemen straight out of language school. That was the place to go because Yemenis speak very good Arabic and in those days not many people spoke English. And if you can believe it, when I went there in January 1966 to give you a sense of how the place has changed, Sana’a was 50 or 60 thousand people per few buildings outside the old walls and there were 4 million Yemenis. Things really have changed. And even in those days, despite the midst of a civil war there was optimism; Yemen was opening to the outside world, finally.
I found myself going back at the end of 1972 as a deputy to our first resident ambassador. And then we had a lot of hopes; Yemen was really being discovered-it became in the 70’s and even 80’s one of the darlings of international development community. I had the pleasure of negotiating our aid agreement with Abdul Karim al-Iryani. And when I went back finally as ambassador of ’94 - end of ’97, democracy seemed to be taking off in the country to some degree and the government was taking a real effort to rationalize the economy with the civil service, working together with the World Bank. I’m afraid these days you don’t hear a lot of optimism about Yemen, and I doubt that if you go to the various talks around here that you will hear very much.
To make a couple of purely personal remarks, one of the things I told people that I discovered in 1966, the countries didn’t have to be developed in order for its people to be civilized. I’ve always found Yemen a civilized place, and if I would characterize Yemen as I have, I would say: generalize Yemenis as intelligent, energetic, highly political, fractious and strongly resistant to the rule of other people, whether Yemenis or foreign. And I don’t think much has changed about that in the years. If you know the history you know twice they fought pretty successfully against occupational-whether it was the Ottoman Turks or Egyptians. In those days, the government itself was quite weak and had little authority, but the country itself was quite stable because the tribal system was quite stable and Yemenis have always had a strong sense of identity. The republican government, of course in those days, was not stable, feuding among itself and was finally led to the overthrow of the first military president. When-as you know when President Saleh came to power, he was the third one--his two predecessors had been assassinated in particularly brutal ways; the conventional wisdom was he wouldn’t last more than six months. Well he’s lasted a lot longer than six months as you well know.
The rule in Yemen has coalesced the kind of the usual family regime that we’re so familiar with in the Arab world, whether it’s Syria, Libya, or for that matter-even Saudi Arabia. And certainly via a lot of skilled juggling he’s kept things going. But the problems, that I think you all are aware, are also growing very rapidly. And I wonder whether it’s possible for him, or indeed, for anyone else, to deal-to grapple with these problems. And beyond the stresses of modernization, I would find two developments that have been particularly destabilizing for Yemen. One, of course, ironically, is unification. Politically in 1990 and militarily in 1994, that has certainly exasperated regional differences. And the other one I would have to say is what I call the largely Saudi introduce bacillus of Salafism, which I find rather foreign to Yemenis. And it has created a whole new range of political security problems. Salafists, I think you know, have cooperated well with the president, and I think it’s because they have a common interest, cooperating with him. And historically many Yemenis have resisted any kind of cooperation with a president or with the central authority. So people who go to Yemen these days often mis-think Yemen it’s pretty medieval, but actually as I think you know, Yemen has changed a great deal and is not by any means medieval. Yemenis are now well educated. 70% of males are literate; unfortunately only 30% of females, but that figure is also growing. But on the bad side, the tribal system that provided so much stability to the country is badly fracturing. Senior sheiks for quite some time now have become citified, many of them corrupt and have lost a great deal of authority over their tribesman. Southern Yemenis feel occupied by the north, I believe, ever since ’94. And expectations of government service from the country are far outstripping the government’s ability to deal with them.
So, forgive me if I try to give you a quick list of problems, which I would divide into the regional and the political, social, economic problems that the country faces. I’m not going to talk about Al-Qaeda, that’s a subject that my colleague is much better qualified to talk about. The first regional problem, I think you're familiar with, are the Zaydis in the north and the Al-Houthi rebellion. The Zaydis in a way have lost reason for being in Yemen; I mean they use to run the country. Their elite, the Qadis and the Sayyids were the people who ran the place, both under the Imamate and for some years after the revolution. But now they really have lost their influence--they feel neglected. And I think at least equally, they feel as if they're being squeezed out of the north by the gross fundamentalism of Salafism. And I think this is really a problem which they find existential and I think is the reason for some of the violence. And violence of course begets violence and the government's military campaigns, I think, have also caused more violence. Aden in the south, many of you know, feel occupied or controlled. After '94 they particularly resented. I think the security police and intelligence kernels and others that would come and take advantage of the confused land ownership position which came about because of the Marxist government down there. And they really feel, I think, many of them feel shut out. In a way-some ways, that's really not fair because the government has done a great deal to try to develop Aden. But nevertheless, they feel dispossessed.
Beyond the region in the south, of course, has a long insurrection against the British and against the southern Yemeni government. Hadhramaut is similar-the Haudhramis, however, always wanted to be autonomous and they were, even under the British--there was hardly any presence there. In fact one of the remarkable things about the fact that the area was British so long is, I would say, whether you pick the Yemenis revolution in '62 or the withdrawal of the British in late '67.
The south outside of Aden was much less developed than the north, even despite all the problems in the north. But the Hadhramaut has a long history of ties, first of all to Southeast Asia, where many of these families became prominent in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore-and some of course went to Saudi Arabia, most famously the Bin Laden family. But they also felt as though they had been mistreated.
The area east of Sana'a-Ma'rib, Al-Jawf, has long been a problem for any government. There are some particularly, unusually for Yemenis, long and fairly violent tribal disputes in the area. The area was royalist of course, for a long time after the revolution. There are also people who feel that they haven't been receiving the goods that they expect in terms of roads, clinics and so forth. But most of this is really beyond the ability of the government to produce. Merchants in Hudaydah are set by the corruptions and ties, and feel neglected. So, unfortunately for the government in Yemen, there are an awful amount of people that justified or otherwise, really feel that the government isn't doing enough for them.
These problems could probably be dealt with some difficulty. But I think it's the other kind of problems that cause the greatest concern to me. The first of these is population. Population in Yemen is growing at about 3.5% a year. According to the CIA Factbook, it's the fourth fastest growing country. But two of those countries, Kuwait and the UAE, have small indigenous populations and are pro-population. So there, right up there with Niger. And this means that a country with about 24 million now, there are 700,000 new Yemenis every year. Where these people can go and where they find employment is really up to me. I said there were 4 million when I went there in 1966; a quick statistic-median age, less than 17, 46% under the age of 14 and a fertility rate of 6.4 children of women of childbearing age.
No wonder then, that the second issue is the decline in the standard of living. Cities are growing even faster. 4.5% a year. And the government has made efforts, and I remember this in the late '90s, to get away from unsustainable subsidies, but they have not been able to, for example, been able to eliminate the subsidy on diesel, which is costing them two billion dollars a year. This is in a country with about nine billion dollars in exports, almost all of which is oil. Oil revenues, of course, are going down slowly. One good piece of news, in the end of November- Yemenis loaded their first liquefied natural gas tanker. But the NLG has only estimated bringing in one to two billion dollars a year for about 20 years. That's about $40 to $80 per Yemeni. That will help, but it certainly won't solve the fundamental problem.
Before 1990, before the Gulf War, and before oil really picked up, Yemen government was very poor, but Yemen as a country enjoyed very substantial emigrant remittances, especially from Saudi Arabia. Those pretty much ended with the 1990 war, but then oil picked up and the government became better financed and that has helped. But now, it's hard to see in the long term where Yemen is going to find the revenues that it needs.
Third problem I think I mentioned is fundamentalism is a serious problem growing in Yemen. I think for some people, people see Salafism as more modern than their traditional forms of Islam that may be some of the attraction. But, it’s also a fact of course, having Saudi Arabia as a neighbor is certainly a mixed blessing, and I saw this all the way back in the early '70s, these Hanbali, religious people coming in, very narrow-minded, not fitting in at all in Yemeni society. But they’ve had an effect, and I think people know that Saudi being a rich country, and one-always being concerned about Yemen for good or ill has regularly and still does give very substantial subsidies to sheiks and others, and this, of course, encourages them to go along on the religious side as well. And of course, this is strictly resented by the Zaydis in the North and also by the Adenis of the south.
The succession issue seems to be mixed up. It's an area of esoteric that people like to study-is the president when he finishes the term-will he succeed in being succeeded by his son or will it be by someone else? Families have a great deal to say about this. Everybody speculates about the person they think is second most powerful military man in Yemen: Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar-whom, I understand if I'm correct, is not a blood relative of the President. The President's mother had two husbands, he's the paternal nephew of-Ibn ‘Am, the second husband. And maybe, perhaps he's also the brother in-law. But he's a strong figure, an influential figure- he's, by all accounts a Salafist himself. Having studied in, I believe, Saudi Arabia or Egypt, so that adds an element of uncertainty and difficulty for the government to deal.
But of course, the one thing I think has gotten the most attention is the most warring, is the water situation. In the late '90s when I was there, the Dutch did a study, and predicted that water would run out in the Sana'a plane by 2008. Well, that hasn't happened yet, but it is happening. Water is now being trucked to Sana'a. It's not new to Yemen. Even in the '90s, in Taiz, I understood that, people got water out of their taps only once ever 45 days. But it's happening in Sana'a, which is a bad feature. I think we know that it's the massive use of agricultural water, the growing of qat which is causing a major problem- large overuse of the aquifers and the fossil water. But the government really doesn't have the ability to control the drilling of wells or the use-some people drill wells and then sell the water, but you can-I heard a suggestion not long ago, how they can all move to the Tehama when they run out. Those of you who know Yemen know how unlikely that situation is. But you can foresee a situation in which farms give up, rural incomes go down, people move into towns and Sana'a, a city that is also growing very rapidly, Sana'a also now has problems. It's a very difficult problem to deal with. Even if you could imagine, Yemen could desalt its water, you would have to, from Odeda transport it a couple hundred kilometers and up about 8,000 feet and you can think of-even with some natural gas-- what the prospects of that would be.
So, Yemen is facing some very serious resource problems. The US is, now once again I think-the way we've dealt with Yemen is a lot like Afghanistan, I think. It wasn't on the radar and we forgot about it and now we're remembering it. In the meantime, things have become a lot more dire for Yemenis. The amount of money the United States can provide is certainly significant, but it is not going to solve the problems. I think, in the end, if anybody is going to have to really help, it's going to have to be Saudi Arabia and the other countries with the GCC-a bit of a mixed blessing. I understand it is becoming a little easier for Yemenis to work in Saudi Arabia again, but obviously the easiest way one can help the Yemenis is by opening up the labor force again. Although, as we know, this would also pose security problems. But otherwise, it's very difficult to see how Yemen will get through its problems. I certainly wish it well, I'm very fond of the country and I think it's going to face some difficult times. Yemen, as many people have noted, as muddled through, before, some very hard times: a full-scale civil war in the '60s, the trouble with the south in '94, Egyptian occupation, which I witnessed first hand, and all the hard times it went through when the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Yemenis were suddenly expelled from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The Yemenis are coped in diversity very well in the past, but these problems are really going to test their metal. So on that positive note, I would like to be as optimistic as I was sometime in the past, but I really can’t quite bring myself to do so. But thank you very much.
Ambassador Thomas Krajeski: Thank you very much, thank you. It’s a daunting challenge to follow the so distinguished Foreign Service officer and Yemen expert as Ambassador Newton is. But, I think in my career I have followed him other places, so I’ll give it a try here at the Middle East Institute.
I don’t think most of you are here because some crazy Nigerian tried to stuff explosives in his underwear and take down an American plane. That, however, is why so many Americans, especially the media and others, are focused on Yemen right now. And, it is the Al-Qaeda that attracts our attention, but I think for many of you in the room who have followed the Middle East and have followed Yemen for some time, the challenges that confront Yemen, including a resurgent Al-Qaeda, are not new, and I’m not going to waste your time going through my standard NDU [National Defense University] PowerPoint. The military loves Power Points. I see you don’t even have PowerPoint equipment here, which is very good. No, I tell that State officers, don’t do PowerPoint, but in fact I’ve been working with the military for so long, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
I’ve been giving this Yemen, the next war presentation, in various iterations since I arrived at NDU in August, around town a bit, but mostly at NDU, Department of Defense, over at State Department, as we, in the U.S. government, and most particularly those involved in security, have indeed refocused on Yemen. The terrible incident at Fort Hood and the attempt to take down the airplane in Minneapolis attracted a lot of media attention and filled rooms throughout Washington, in the last few days. But, in fact, the previous administration and this administration have spent a lot of time thinking about Yemen; occasionally they spend a lot of time doing something about Yemen. Not enough, not always the right focus, and of course for us, the priority in Yemen is the defeat, once again, of Al-Qaeda, this time Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemenis don’t see it that way. I had breakfast with the foreign minister a couple of days ago, and we talked about his meetings here in Washington, and what he might expect. I have great respect and admire Abu Bakr al-Qirby very much, but I told him once again, the issue at the top of everyone’s agenda, in this town is going to be Al-Qaeda. And you, for better or worse, whether you agree or don’t agree, have got to put it at the top of your agenda, once again.
Ambassador Newton listed the other challenges that Yemen faces, and I would agree with him that these are far more serious long-term challenges to Yemen, to the stability, to the existence, if you will. If you are looking at existential threats to the Yemeni government and to the nation as it stands today, the challenges that David listed are far more serious, and we, the international community and the United States, need to develop, along with our Yemeni counterparts, a more effective strategy to deal with poverty and illiteracy and water and the other issues that confront them.
I want to go through, briefly, if I could, a little history, and forgive me, those of you, who know the history of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. I’m not an expert; I’m not an expert on Yemen, frankly. I’m a State Department operator. Those of you who’ve worked with me before, I’ve done a lot of different issues in my career; I’ve jumped from Kashmir to the Palestinians, the Israelis, into commercial issues in Dubai; I worked on the early days in Iraq with Bremer and Iraq. Most recently, I was with the Kurds. I tend to just get out in the field, ask Washington what the hell they want me to do, and try and go do it. So, I’m not a policy guy, and I’m not an expert. And, I deliberately refrained from becoming an expert in Yemen, as tempting as it is, because it is a fascinating and wonderful place to be, but I would sit with gentlemen like Abu Bakr al-Qirby and others and say, I really don’t care a whole lot about your history. I don’t really care a whole lot about your religion; I had to be careful about that one. I’m not looking at where you’ve been and why you were there. I want to know where we are today, and what we’re going to do tomorrow. And, here’s what I think, and here’s what my government thinks, and here’s what the priorities are that we have, and here’s what we’re willing to put into it, and what do we do tomorrow. It’s always a tough sell in any part of the world. But, in the Arab world, perhaps particularly, to take that tact, but I did it with them, I did it with the Kurds as well in northern Iraq, which was great fun, and that’s another discussion.
But, David touched on a couple of the factors that really increased, or really generated this violent extremism in a country. Really, you would not expect it otherwise. But, I think a couple of the factors certainly were the recruitment by the CIA, by the US government, by others of Mujahadeen, Yemeni Mujahadeen, to fight in Afghanistan against the Russians in the 1980s. Many hundreds, thousands perhaps, of Yemenis were recruited in this effort and spent many, many years being trained in Afghanistan to defeat the Russians and throw out the infidels, if you will. When that war ended, many of them came back to Yemen. I’m talking, not a huge number here, probably in the few thousands, back to Yemen, in the early 90s, right as Yemen is uniting, right as they’re about to fight a civil war into a situation where, they’re fundamentally changed. They are dramatically changed by their experiences in Afghanistan, and they come back to a country where it’s hard to find jobs, and they’re in a fighting mood, if you will, they’re easy to recruit.
In 1992, as Ambassador Newton mentioned, we’ve got tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands perhaps, of Yemenis being tossed out of Saudi Arabia, mostly, again, young men. Not all, most of them having spent many, many years in Saudi Arabia, some of them having been born in Saudi Arabia. So they bring back with them this Salafi philosophy; they bring with them a more extreme or radical Islam, and they don’t have jobs either. So, and then you have a few leaders, guys like Zindani, who are still around there, others who are there recruiting, building, and establishing an Al-Qaeda presence in Yemen. Not under the radar, I think among the intelligence community such, there was a knowledge that Al-Qaeda in Yemen, we didn’t even call Al-Qaeda in those days, there was a growing violent extremist group, growing in Yemen as it was elsewhere. Really, it wasn’t until 1997 and the attack on the two embassies in Nairobi and in Tanzania that we focused our attention on this Yemen connection, as the investigations into those attacks developed, a lot of the lines, people, equipment, other things, went back to Yemen. That’s when the FBI, CIA, others, began to build a small presence, a larger presence in the Intel community in Yemen, working more with Yemeni security, Yemeni Intel, to take a look at this group, basically to try to track down those who plotted, planned the attacks on our embassies in Africa.
2000, we have the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, dramatic event that certainly attracts a greater attention by the United States. Indeed, I mentioned having breakfast with the Foreign Minister, Barbara Bodine was at the breakfast as well, and she was there during the time of the Cole, and I think there’ve been movies made about this. It was quite dramatic, as we literally sent hundreds of FBI agents, investigators, into Aden, into Yemen to investigate, and it was only then, I think that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government began also to focus on the threat that Al-Qaeda posed. Not so much in Yemen, there had been no threat against the government, no attacks in Yemen. President Saleh is a genius at balancing different constituencies, and I think he saw these groups and their tribal connections, whatever connections they had as a group he could deal with; he could negotiate with them; he could balance them. They weren’t posing a threat to him; they weren’t posing a threat to his government. But, we’re the United States; we’re big; we’re very direct, demanding, and Ali Abdullah Saleh pays attention to this as well. And so we have a greater cooperation with Yemeni security, and again a beefing up of our presence, you know a dramatic increase in our presence on the ground in Yemen, focused primarily on finding, capturing, or killing the perpetrators of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole.
9/11, 2001 of course is the seminal event for us. Just a sideline, I was the Deputy Director for what was called in those days the Office of Northern Gulf Affairs. I know Ambassador Mack and others are quite familiar with that office. It was also referred to as the pariah State office in NEA. I was very reluctant to take it; I had wanted a job on the Egypt desk instead. But, they pushed me over and said, no, you take this job because you’ve just come out of Dubai for four years where our focus is on Iran. We’re a new administration; we’re going to open to Iran, and we want you at State Department, you geniuses to figure out how we, the new administration, the Bush administration can increase our s with Iran, with the notion of actually pushing things forward. Very positive, O.K., I took the job. A month later, the towers went down, the Pentagon was attacked, and our focus on Iran vanished, and I spent the next two and a half years doing nothing but Iraq.
And for Yemen, 9/11 was, again, a critical date. Vice President Cheney visited Yemen in December of 2001, and he basically delivered, as I’m sure Vice President Cheney is quite adept at doing, a rather blunt ultimatum to the government of Yemen. President Saleh reminded me of this a couple of times as I would try to get tough with him, and he’d say basically, I’ve dealt with Cheney. I’m not going to have a problem with you. But in fact, the Vice President’s point was, take a look at what’s going on in Afghanistan; we’re in a global war against terror. It’s here in Yemen; Al-Qaeda is here in Yemen. We’re going to get it; we’re going to get it with you, or we’re going to get it without you. I would advise you to be with us. And, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is a very astute politician, and I do not mean that glibly, this is a guy who understands the way the world works, shook hands with the Vice President, and said, we will be your strongest partners in this war. We will fight with you, shoulder…I’m quoting exactly here, “We will fight with you, shoulder to shoulder, against these terrorists.”
And from that point we saw, again, a dramatic increase not only in, our presence actually was shrinking a little bit by then as the Cold investigations were wrapping up, beginning to wrap up, but we saw an exponential increase in our cooperation, Intel, security, with the Yemeni government and our own presence as well. I’m not going to go into the details of all of that; obviously, though some of it now is becoming public. I think the most public event of those next couple of years in our relationship was the targeted assassination of al-Harithi. I forget his first name, but he was the leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen; he was taken out by a U.S. drone, and a hellfire missile in the desert, out in Ma’rib, I believe it was, or up in al-Jawf, up in that area. This was a combined U.S.-Yemeni operation to take him out. We had an agreement with the Yemenis that we would say nothing. The United States government would take no credit, would take no responsibility, we would basically turn any comment over to the government of Yemen. The agreed story was he’s got explosives in his car, and either somebody killed him, or they went off, so it goes.
Unfortunately, the war on terror being where it was in December of 2002, our administration made the decision that we would publicize our involvement in this, and I believe it was Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who went on television, and I think with pictures, showing the black blot in the desert, which was all that was left. He said, this is a lesson for all Al-Qaeda leaders around the world, wherever you are, we’ll find you, we’ll kill you.
Their government was not pleased with us for doing this, and cooperation became more difficult after that. Intel-sharing is always difficult, anybody in this room who has ever dealt with Intel-sharing knows how hard it is, even if it’s us and the Brits, it’s not easy. It’s tough with a country like Yemen; there’s not a lot of mutual trust. So, when an event like this happens, one that’s extraordinarily sensitive, that level of trust drops, and it harmed us. In 2003, we had the arrest and trial of the Cole plotters, including Jamal al-Badawi, one of the great escape artists in Yemeni history. He escaped from the Aden prison in 2003, was recaptured in 2003, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, in 2004, just as I arrived there.
As I arrive in 2004, our policies are starting to shift. There is a general recognition among analysts that Al-Qaeda has been, if not defeated, because, how do you define victory, as we have learned, but in fact it has been decimated. It has been disrupted. It has been largely pushed out of Yemen, and its effectiveness, its ability to carry out attacks, or to plan, plot attacks the United States, or our interests around the world, we believe was basically nil. I did not consider Al-Qaeda a threat in 2004. When I was there, I had the opportunity to travel quite a bit around the country, including to Ma’rib and Shabwa, and up into al-Jawf, and while we had a few threats against the embassy in those first year or two, we never could tie them back to any organized group. We did not think it was within Yemen threat. Our major security issue with the Yemeni government then was to try to stop the pipeline of foreign fighters, the recruitment of Yemenis to go, via Syria mostly, into Iraq and fight in Iraq. My instructions when I was out were to make this a more normal relationship. We need to go beyond the security and the Intel relationship with the Yemenis. We’ve had a great success with them. We need to focus on development, economy, building democracy, opening systems. We still had a fairly substantial training program for Yemeni CT forces. We had a small FMS program, purchasing weapons. If you remember, this is the first year of the al-Houthi insurrection, as we called it then, and I think we still call it - largely an internal manner, very small, the government of Yemen confident they were going to be able to take it out. They wanted more of our help; we were frankly unwilling to help them directly in this fight. The main thing they wanted from us was armored personnel carriers because their soldiers were being picked off as they went up the mountains up into Sa’dah by the sharpshooters.
The South is not an issue, in 2004. It’s a political issue; it’s an economic issue, but there’s no sense that there’s a southern secessionist movement, in Yemen. That somehow there’s a political threat to Ali Abdullah’s government emanating from the South. Indeed, I had many arguments with him and with key advisors that you need to develop the South faster, specifically Aden port. And yes, you’ll have a political challenge, but it’ll be a legitimate political challenge at some point. If you don’t do that, you may end up where he is today, with a rather serious and possibly violent political challenge emanating from the South. So, Al-Qaeda is basically not on our agenda, not high on our agenda in Yemen.
That changes in 2006 when 23 of the Al-Qaeda escaped from the maximum-security prison in Sana’a, an escape that actually occurred. There was a suspicion, I think. Unfortunately, not without justification, that there had been a great deal of cooperation. Perhaps these guys were let out. I saw the tunnel; we actually participated in the investigation of the escape to some extent, and I am convinced that while there certainly was a degree of negligence, corruption in the prison, a fear in the prison, and some really stupid prison policies, i.e. putting all these guys in the same suite, closing the door and letting them do whatever they wanted to, including digging a tunnel to the mosque, there was no high level collusion in this. I think President Saleh was genuinely distressed. When he learned of this escape, I happened to be with him the day after, as we were concerned about it, and he was calling in various officials from the security. And, I thought he was going to shoot them, but he did not. It’s a new Yemen.
Immediately, Al-Qaeda begins to reform, including Jamal al-Badawi, who’s now escaped for the second time from a Yemeni prison and others, get out into the countryside, using tribal connections, old connections, managed to lay low. A number of them, about half of them, were captured or turned themselves in. A couple of them blew themselves up in a September attack against oil facilities in Ma’rib and the port, at the port up near Mukalla, and a couple of them were killed in a shootout. During the attack on the oil facilities, there was also planned attack on the Hada residence compound, which is where a lot of the embassy staff lived and where a lot of foreigners lived. That attack was thwarted, and the guys who planned it were killed in a shootout in Sana’a. But, half of them remained, and I think they began to form the nucleus of the resurgence of Al-Qaeda. Jamal al-Badawi is captured again in 2007. His sentence, however, is promptly commuted from death to 15 years.
And then, shortly after I left, shortly after we had achieved what was, sort of, our headline development goal with Yemen, which is what we managed to get them into the Millennium Challenge Account, in the threshold of the Millennium Challenge Account. It was a very difficult go. Thirty million dollar initial program, focused on rule of law and anti-corruption in Yemen. I accompanied Saleh to the White House in March of 2007, made the announcement with President Bush. Three months later, he decided not only to commute Jamal al-Badawi’s sentence, but to release him into the custody of tribal elders in Ma’rib. No U.S. administration, no U.S. official could then write a thirty million dollar check, so the MCC was immediately cut, and relations with Yemen got a little harder.
So, since then, we’ve seen the challenges that David had described: building up Al-Qaeda again, resurgent in Yemen. The United States, because of the underwear bomber, focused on defeating Al-Qaeda once again in Yemen. There is a lot of talk here in town about what we should do now. For Yemenis, as I said, Al-Qaeda’s not the priority, even today. Ali Abdullah Saleh has more serious things to deal with, in his view, but he also understands that the big bear in Washington is once again on his back about Al-Qaeda, so he’ll make it a priority again. And, we’ll throw a whole lot of money at this; I’m hearing 170 million in foreign military assistance. We’ll increase our trainers. We’ll work harder with counterterrorism. Intel cooperation will pick up enormously, and all kinds of things that we can do out there. And, we’ll find these guys, Al-Qaeda, and once again we’ll capture them, and we’ll kill them. And, it’ll take two years, and Al-Qaeda in Yemen won’t be a threat again. I will bet that; I’ll take a bet from anyone in the room. That’s how we’ll focus.
The real question for us is, what do we do otherwise with Yemen? What do we do to help Yemen address some of the challenges on the economy, in literacy, in education, in infrastructure, all of the issues that Yemen faces? Water is number one. Abdul Rahman al-Iryani, the Minister of Water and Environment and one of the heroes of Yemen- I really, really like this man, said he can double Yemen’s water supply in one year, using PVC pipe. That’s all he needs, PVC pipe, no sophisticated technology. Just give us pumps and get rid of ditch irrigation on the countryside and use pipe irrigation. You know, 70-year-old technologies, 50% of water would be saved by doing that. He also believes they should charge for water, which, you know, water is a gift from God, that only God can charge, it’s really very difficult. But, they should charge for water because right now you’ve got the farmers, and I disagree, I don’t blame this on qat.
Indeed, qat right now is one of the few generators of income in Yemen, right now, especially for the farmers. It keeps them in the fields; it keeps them out of the city. It’s a great cash crop for them. It’s one of the few efficient economies in the whole country. Qat trade works like clockwork, and they could use it as an example for the rest of the economy. It’s not about the qat, it’s about how they grow the qat in Yemen. And, qat is a social problem; qat is an economic problem, but everybody at 1:30 in the afternoon goes looking for qat and sits for three or four hours and chews it. It’s a social issue with more children using it, and women, and I think Yemeni society, especially the women, are building an opposition to qat that may eventually slow it down.
Finally, I’ll say, as we look at this relationship, and I agree with David 100%. It’s not just going to be us, it’s got to be the neighbors in the Gulf. If Yemen fails, if it dissolves into Somalia, and I do not think this is going to happen tomorrow, or next week, or next month, if it happens. The direct threat is Saudi Arabia. Yemen, after all, is Osama Bin Laden’s third front, after Iraq, after Afghanistan, Yemen is the third front. And why is it the third front? Well, because that’s the doorstep to Saudi Arabia, and the new caliphate. Crazy as that might sound, the Saudis should be very, very worried. They have started to put more money on the table. They, like the other Gulfis, Kuwaitis, Maratis, and Qataris in particular, have all come forward and pledged. They’ve all come forward and looked at what they might do. They lack the systems, and Yemen lacks the systems to take a huge amount of money and make it work in education and health and infrastructure. But, they understand it. They have difficult relations with the government in Sana’a, all of them do, most especially the Kuwaitis who do not forget 1991 and Ali Abdullah’s support of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. But, they understand that this is their problem, so it’s not just us.
We need to do a whole lot more. We need to put more money in and more people in. People are a problem, the Yemenis don’t want boots on the ground, and that includes civilian boots, not just military. We’re not going to be able to do a civilian surge in Yemen and send 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 American contractors, international contractors in Yemen to work on these issues either. There will be a pushback if we try that. Military is out of the question in my view. We just simply cannot. We can increase trainers and increase support, but if we get beyond a few hundred in Sana’a, the reaction inside the country, I think, will be very strong.
So, I just don’t know. I’m not pessimistic; I’m not pessimistic because Yemen’s been around a hell of a long time. I’m not pessimistic because if you look at its history; it’s gone through a lot of iterations. It’s always had dramatic challenges and threats. They’ve managed to go along. The Yemeni people have a wonderful sense of themselves, of their position. I hesitate to say nation, because it’s still a new nation, but there is a Yemeni identity that has persevered through their history. I think it’s worth partnering with them.
My final line is a talking point I used every time I came back to Washington, any time I got a visitor, which is: we spend a couple of billion bucks now, and we’ll avoid spending 500 billion in ten years. And, we’ll avoid losing American lives in Yemen, because if a place collapses, we will have to go there, as we did in Afghanistan. Anybody’s who’s been in Yemen, anybody who’s met a Yemeni, understand how hard that fight will be. I think we can prevent it. I think working with the Yemenis we can prevent it and working with their government. Thank you.
Ambassador Newton: I see, if they run out of water, a real social problem. It’s a great crop for transferring wealth from cities to the rural areas.
Ambassador Krajeski: On the water, if they don’t get a hold of water by conserving, and that’s really their only option, their only option. Rain is not going to get them out of this. They can’t go to D-Cell, if they go to D-Cell, you mentioned one problem, which is how do they pump it up the mountains? The second is, they’re basically going to convert their oil and gas into water, and their oil and gas is a hell of a lot more valuable being sold on the international market than it is changing it into drinking water, which is what they do in D-Cell.
Kate Seelye: A lot of really important issues raised. One issue not raised is political reform, which many say is key to solving some of Yemen’s problems. I think that the way we’ll do this is take several questions in a row, three questions at a time. You guys might need a notepad because we’ll take three questions at a time and then have both of you address them.
Questioner 1 (Ambassador David Mack, Scholar, Middle East Institute): I want to pick up on one of Tom’s last remarks, which is the importance of support from Yemen’s Gulf Cooperation Council’s neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula, since this is on their doorstep. And, there’ve been one of two positive developments that might lead us to think they will do this. The policies of Riyadh and Sana’a are about as close as I ever remember them being right now. And, secondly, I understand that Abu Dhabi has allocated $650 million, which is not small change, for development programs, and more important, instead of just shoveling the money over to the central government, they’ve actually picked, I think, eighteen projects and sent eighteen UAE project directors to work with Yemeni authorities on that. And, isn’t this a case where we need to stop thinking about us being in partnership with the Yemeni government and think in terms of us being part of a coalition which includes countries that are far better able than we are both by available resources and by the fact that they will appear less intrusive to Yemenis and other Arabs than we will?
Questioner 2: [Inaudible] somewhere called Yemen the first narco republic. I wonder if we couldn’t get better about reconstruction and aid efforts by using Indonesian contractors, Malaysian contractors, Turkish contractors, Nigerian contractors. Gringos aren’t welcome. Muslims might be. My question is, the al-Houthi rebellion, to what degree is that supported by Iran? Overtly or covertly, if you can say?
Ambassador Newton: On the last one, I haven’t seen, I mean, I’m not in government now, I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that the Iranians are involved in the al-Houthi rebellion, but it’s quite possible that it could pick up because they resent Saudi Arabia’s role and we’ve already had a response from Ahmadinejad. Not so easy to get there for the Iranians, and, although, Zaydism, I think, is changing, traditionally has had relatively little in common with Twelver Shi’a Islam, much more in common with the Sunnis in Iraq.
So, your first point, yeah, I agree with entirely, and I think the degree to which I was trying to say that, I think it’s essential that we work together with them, but it doesn’t mean that we have to let them take the lead either. And, it’s good that they’re doing that. To some degree, it’s a mixed blessing. UAE has always, I think, been pretty sympathetic to Yemen because Sheikh Zayed traced his ancestry. And even, I remember, when we first went there in 1973, they sent over a bunch of drill rigs. We were drilling, and we provided the drill riggers, and we put the USAID sign and the Abu Dhabi Development sign on the same trucks, and we went around. That’s clearly the way to go.
Yemenis are accustomed to foreign contractors, and they were happy in the 70s and 80s, I think, that they got so much attention from the development community, but they fell out of favor because of all the problems they found. Corruption, I think, was a particular problem as well. You know, Europeans and others coming in, I don’t think, creates a problem. I agree, entirely, a massive U.S. presence, military or civilian, would be a huge mistake, and one I really don’t think we’re going to make. But, I think the Foreign Minister said he needs four billion dollars a year for development. I would worry a little bit about Nigerians coming to work and giving them contracts.
You know, I think, ever since Vietnam, we’ve been very careful about thinking about alternative governments for very good reason. We thought about that as well in Iraq, I think. You know, if there are huge problems facing the President, I’m not sure if there’s anyone else who could do any better, so I think one should be pretty careful on this issue.
Ambassador Krajeski: The questions on the Houthis and Iran. It’s clear, and there are a couple in the room that know this issue better than I do, that certainly the genesis of the issue had nothing to do with Iran whatsoever. It was basically a political fight in the parliament in Sana’a in which the party to which the al-Houthis belonged, a fringe part of it decided they were going to table a measure in the parliament calling for the return of the imamate to Yemen and declaring Ali Abdullah Saleh’s illegitimacy as the ruler of Yemen because he was not descended from the Prophet. Needless to say the President and his party were not pleased, and these guys were tossed out of parliament, and rather than having some sort of a political negotiation, they headed up back into the hills in Sa’dah and in 2004 started shooting at people.
Some of the Zaydis who are interested in the Twelver philosophy, and this is as far as I know, went to Iran and studied in Iran, a few of them. There may be some money coming out of private institutions in the beginning. Whether there is now, I don’t know. When you talk about Iranian support, you have to first define, which Iran? Who are you talking about? I do not think there is much Iranian support, and I think it was a mistake by Ali Abdullah Saleh, by the government to try to persuade us and others that this was Iranian-backed, thinking that that would get our attention and our support in fighting them. Yes, some of the equipment, some of the training that we’re doing there will be used, it has been used, in the North. But, I still think this is internal and that Iran, other than liking to stick Saudi Arabia, as Ahmadinejad did, really doesn’t have an involvement in it.
The GCC question, you’re right on, and you know this issue well David. They have to take the lead. I think Ambassador Newton noted that it’s a double-edged sword for some of them, certainly with the Saudis, concern over an increase in Salafi influences as more Saudis come in. There’s a lot of Saudi money coming in now, outside of the government, private investment in Mukalla, if anybody’s been to Mukalla in the last couple of years, there are new buildings everywhere, most of them empty- office buildings, apartment buildings, private houses, all of them built by private Saudis. There’s a lot of money coming into the Hadhramaut, most of the Saudis. Many Saudis, of course of the Yemenis will claim all Saudis, originated in the Hadhramaut. Saudis disagree a little, but Osama Bin Laden’s family being one of the more prominent ones that originated in the Hadhramaut and then emigrated to Saudi Arabia. So there’s a lot of that private money coming back as well.
When I was in 2006, we had a donors’ conference in London, half a billion bucks pledged, the great majority of it from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Kuwait. The Emirates have obviously upped the ante since then. They do have some capacity, and I think there’s less sensitivity in Yemen to Emiratis and their contractors, whoever they might be. We would like to see these contractors going to Yemeni firms, employing more Yemenis. Real problem we have with contractors, not just in Yemen, in Iraq I saw this every day- is the contractors come in to do a big project, and they hire Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to come in an do the work, when there are tens of thousands of Yemenis who need jobs. The mutual suspicion is there, there are issues, but I do think the GCC is stepping up, and that we should focus on what we do best as well, and note to the American taxpayers and the audience that I don’t know who’s going to pay for this.
There was always attention paid to Yemen, always. When I was there before then, Abu Zayd was there every month. The security guys paid attention. They knew we had to do more, but when I asked for more, he’s got Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, you know, you’re playing in the NEA, as I like to say, I’m looking at my NEA friends here, you’re playing in the American League East. I mean, this is a tough league to get assets in. So, Yemen just wasn’t a priority. It’s a little more of a priority now. Let’s see what happens.
Questioner 3 (Steve Buck, MEI Member): I think I’ve already got the answer from your comments, but I’d be interested in your comments on Saleh talking about Al-Qaeda. And secondly, the Yemenis and the Saudis are very together right now, but is the Saudi campaign, the military campaign, really such a great idea? And finally, it seems to me that the implication from what you’re saying, wouldn’t a very simple thing for us to do is to really demarche the GCC countries and have a conversation with them, particularly the Saudis, about letting many more Yemenis back in, because that’s the simplest thing to help the economy?
Questioner 4 (Dale Dean, Retired Foreign Service Officer): I was wondering if you could talk a little about the relationship Al-Qaeda has with Yemeni tribes and to the extent to that it’s supportive, whether there’s anything we can do to break that.
Ambassador Krajeski: I’ll focus on the Al-Qaeda first. Al-Qaeda links with the tribes. This is a complex issue. Yemen, in my opinion, disagrees if you will, is one of the least ideological places I’ve ever been. There is no real support for an Al-Qaeda ideology, a return to the caliphate, whatever the hell their ideology is. I can’t figure it out sometimes. But, there’s almost zero support, especially, in my view, and I do not pretend to know the tribes, and anyone who does you’re wrong, but I do not think that there is a great deal of support for a philosophy and ideology that Al-Qaeda might represent. What tribal leaders see these guys as are levers that they can use to put pressure on the central government to get more. Kidnappings of foreigners back in the 90s were a great example of this as well. This is a much tougher game, but they protect these guys, not because they have to, it’s not like in Iraq where they the Al-Qaeda really started taking over towns, they protect them because it’s a bargaining chip with Ali Abdullah Saleh, and that’s what he sees it as.
Now, there are a few outliers who aren’t associated with the tribes. To operate in Ma’rib, you’ve got to have some degree of tribal support. You’re not going to move around Ma’rib or Shabwa or Jawf without somebody knowing about it and somebody who could stop you as well. So, when he’s says he’s going to negotiate with Al-Qaeda, a lot of that is just PR. But most of it is, he is negotiating with Al-Qaeda, he’s always negotiated with Al-Qaeda, and he does it through the tribes. When he’s releasing these guys, when we were talking about the release of Guantanamo prisoners for example, this release program, which he saw as sort of a parole program, and they release them to the custody of tribal leaders. And, they make a deal with those tribal leaders, related or not, family relations or not, they make a deal with the tribal leaders, you know, you keep Muhammad under control, and you’ll get, you know, sometimes it’s basic stuff: you’ll get money, you’ll get guns. Often times, it’s that you’ll have that school built, and we’ll make sure the road is built up to your village or the well is dug or the pipe is put in, as well. It’s that simple. And, I think on the Saudis in particular, the Saudi relationship is complex.
Ambassador Newton: Yeah, I spent five years in Saudi Arabia, these are two people who do not particularly like each other, historically, or understand each other particularly well. I think, with regard to the Saudi fighting in the north, they want to be very careful. Yemenis are tough fighters, and the Saudis may be better equipped, as an army than the Yemeni army, but they do not really have any military experience or any strong motivation, I think, to fight, and, they want to be very careful. And, one of the problems, of course, is it seems the Saudis complained to the Houthis that the Saudis were allowing the Yemeni army to come around behind them, using Saudi territory. And, the Saudi effort seems to be to turn a couple of kilometers or more into, move all the people out, and turn it into free fire zone.
Well, you’ve got a border that’s going through a number of tribal areas, and there are tribesmen on both sides of the border and were already serious complaints on the Yemeni side when the Saudis began to militarize the border and not just have a post there, but actually put up a wall there. So, I understand why the Saudis feel they have to protect their people, but I think they want to be awfully careful not to get in over their heads. If you forgive, because I majored in history, a historical comment: in 1904 when this famous Ottoman commander fought his way up, Sana’a was besieged by the Yemeni tribesmen under the name of the Imam, and he commented famously, “If I had soldiers like this, I could conquer half of Europe.” Well, tribesmen don’t travel well, but when they’re fighting on their own turf, I think you want to be very careful. Demarche to the GCC, I think we are talking to them [inaudible]. We have to continue to let them know that this financially is really beyond us to take on all of these problems. We need to play a significant role, and I think we will, but it’s in the GCC interest.
Yemen, historically, has been a population reservoir, going back to the Arab conquest. I mean, there are a lot of Yemenis, and they’re pretty energetic, and I wouldn’t want to have them particularly as enemies when you have these very lightly populated GCC states. So, it’s very much in the interest of the GCC with their revenues to try to deal with some of these problems and help the Yemenis. Now, maybe I’m not objective, and I’m sympathetic to the Yemenis, but I think it is in their interest.
Ambassador Krajeski: No, I think so too. Regarding Yemeni labor, it’s a hard go. There were, many, again, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis working throughout the Gulf before 1990. Many of them were sent home after the invasion of Kuwait. Not everyone in Kuwait; the Saudis were sent home. There is a suspicion of Yemenis bringing in radical Islam, bring in violent Al-Qaeda violent tendencies to these countries as well. But, I think, in principle, employing Yemenis throughout the Gulf is a good policy, something they should pursue. I understand how difficult it will be to reemploy however many hundreds of thousands again, and the security issue.
Kate Seelye: All right, well I think we’ve got time for two more questions. Here’s a question from Christie Delafield of the National Conference of State Legislatures: What is, or could be, the role of Shura or other forms of representation in governance in Yemen going forward? Do we have any questions about the political system to follow up on this? If not, you know, I might note that there’s a lot of fear, the millions we’re going to invest in Yemen will of course will be used by the Saleh government not necessarily to fight Al-Qaeda, but to entrench power and to continue his battles against the Houthi rebels in the north and the repression of the secessionist movement in the south. Is there anything that we can do to incentivize political reform, and, you know, bringing in of the other tribal leaders and political groups?
Ambassador Krajeski: If we all agree, and if we get the money, the funds, the programs put together to go beyond defeating Al-Qaeda and to address some of these other issues, the major barrier to that will be the government of Yemen. It will be the unease among the donor states about investing millions, billions of dollars, of their taxpayers’ money, wherever that comes from, especially from the United States, into Yemen. When one looks at the history and practice of the Yemeni government in managing its own development, corruption is a huge problem in Yemen.
Secondly, the political system needs to open up. And, it was opening up in 2004. We had a presidential election in 2006. You could smile. Ali Abdullah Saleh actually had a genuine, credible opponent. There was a rather vigorous campaign for a couple of months in which the opponent’s speeches and his campaign rallies appeared on government television, uncensored, from beginning to end. And at the end of the vote, we had international observers, the vote was reasonably well managed and well done, and I’ve seen some that aren’t. I have a comparison. And in the end, Ali Abdullah only won 72% of the vote, and he was furious, that he only got 72% of the vote. I tried to explain to him what a great thing this was, and it was opening up. It has closed in the last couple of years, again. The suspension of parliamentary elections, the closing down of the only independent newspapers in the country, there has a real backward step by the government, so that will be a huge issue. And, the government is going to have to deal with it.
In 2006, the British ambassador, myself, the German ambassador, and the Dutch ambassador representing the donor community in Yemen. I’m doing the MCC. We’re all willing to put many more millions on the table. We went to see Ali Abdullah Saleh to explain to him, quietly, that we’re willing to do this, but you’ve got to make some serious decisions about the management of your government. He threw us out of the room. We’re not going to interfere in the internal affairs of Yemen. He’s not a long-term planner; he’s a short-term planner. It’s a tough place to be a long-term planner, but he’s going to have to address this. Otherwise, in a year, whoever is out there is going to sit in front of congressional staffers and justify the millions that we’ve spent on, that we want to spend, in Yemen, that we can’t account for.
Kate Seelye: The other question, David, maybe, what is or could be the role of shura, or other forms of representation, in governments in Yemen going forward?
Ambassador Newton: Yeah, I don’t see the situation in Yemen as terribly similar to Afghanistan. I would say, just for a second, we should remember, the People’s General Congress, the ruling party, has never, to my knowledge, has wanted to be the only party in Yemen. I don’t mean that it wants to be thrown out or lose, but it did want to develop some degree of democracy. And there has been an effort, faltering effort, to promote decentralization, but there’ll have to be a lot more local rule and employment of local people in responsible parts of government. If the government of Yemen could see its way, I suppose to organize a shura, but a shura-type thing organized from the outside, I think Ali Abdullah Saleh would see it as undermining his authority. I don’t think he would like it at all. And, he’s certainly much less dependent on us than Hamid Karzai, I think. I can see many ways of reaching out to Yemeni tribes, especially through development and pressuring the government to be more forthcoming on genuine regional autonomy, things like that. But, I can’t really see my way to a shura kind of thing.
Kate Seelye: Well, great. Thank you both so much for all your time. We’ve run out of time. Thank you.
About this Transcript:
Assertions and opinions in this Transcript are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.