Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 21
Saada governorate’s location on the Saudi border and Red Sea coast makes it potentially of great economic interest. Due both to the paucity of state investment in this mountainous and relatively remote region and to its independent tribal culture, smuggling is a major economic activity and source of income. For decades, trafficking of qat,106 drugs, weapons and people into Saudi Arabia has yielded substantial profit.107 The Saudi border is largely unguarded, making cross-border trade a critical revenue generator and one of the war’s unspoken stakes.108 Several prominent Saada tribal sheikhs are considered to be the country’s most important weapons dealers, enjoying regional as well as international connections; this, in the words of a Western diplomat, “means they have an interest in the war’s continuation”.109
In addition, lack of oversight in the context of an expanding military budget has encouraged corruption and fostered trafficking inside the military. Throughout the war, army leaders routinely demanded additional weapons; although some were used against insurgents, a significant proportion was diverted to regional (particularly Somali)110 and local markets. Many weapons ultimately found their way to the rebels they were intended to combat. An opposition parliament member said, “the Huthis collect money from sympathisers as well as local merchants and then buy their weapons directly from
106 Qat is a mildly narcotic leaf chewed daily, often in lengthy sessions, by a large segment of the population. Sessions have become major social events and a strong symbol of national identity. Daniel Martin Varisco, “On the Meaning of Chewing: The Significance of Qat (Catha edulis) in the Yemen Arab Republic”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, no. 21 (1986).
107 The town of al-Talh, some 20km west of Saada city, reportedly hosted Yemen’s single largest open arms market until the authorities shut it down in 2007. Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, Sanaa, 14 January 2009. Business is likely to continue, although less conspicuously.
108 In 1934, a brief war opposed the North Yemeni imamate to the young Saudi kingdom. The latter prevailed, gaining control of three southern provinces. The disputed border finally was demarcated in June 2000, but the agreement delineated only part of the border which has remained highly porous. Saudi Arabia frequently ignores Yemeni sovereignty, funding Yemeni tribes and granting special Saudi passports to Yemeni citizens living close to the border in a bid to ensure their loyalty.
109 Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, January 2009.
110 Crisis Group interview, Yemeni journalist, Paris, 5 March 2009.
the army. This is one of the war’s true paradoxes”.111
Armed militias more akin to mercenaries have been another of the war’s by-products, with recurring allegations that the government has paid tribes or even jihadi groups to assist in the fighting.112 Recruitment of militiamen expanded the pool of potential war beneficiaries, increasing the incentive to prolong the fight as well as its geographic scope. Moreover, money allocated to fund militias allegedly often ends up in the pockets of the sheikhs who lead them. Such practices, although widely acknowledged to remain unproven, are said to be widespread. An independent journalist claimed:
Government officials and army officers contact certain tribal sheikhs from the Hashid confederation and ask them to set up militias with, say, 1,000 fighters and pay them accordingly. The sheikhs would then mobilise a much lower number and keep the rest of the
111 Crisis Group interview, Aydarus al-Naqib, Yemeni Socialist Party parliament member, Sanaa, 21 January 2009. The supply line to the rebels was confirmed by different actors, including some affiliated with the ruling party. Crisis Group interview, General People’s Congress member of Consultative Council, Sanaa, 12 January 2009. Yahya al-Huthi acknowledged that the insurgents had bought some weapons from army officers but claimed they had mostly stolen them from army warehouses or captured them in battle. Crisis Group telephone interview, Berlin, 3 February 2009.
112 The issue is highly sensitive. When, in June 2007, the independent weekly Al-Sharea published a special report on militias, the government prosecuted three editors and journalists for “disseminating information liable to undermine army morale”. Reporters Sans Frontières, November 2007. In May 2009, the court had yet to pass sentence. One article highlighted the process and networks through which tribal groups from the Hashid confederation were induced to fight for the government. Al-Sharea, 2 June 2007. Another claimed that the army was mobilising al-Qaeda-linked jihadi militants. Al-Sharea, 9 June 2007. Journalists have long maintained that jihadis had joined regular army troops. The media accusations remain unproven.