The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged yemen
Diary: In Sanaa

A must-read piece on the Houthis by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad:

The Houthis’ supreme military commander, Abu Ali al-Hakem, is a delicate and compact man, one of the original 75 who fought alongside Hussein in the first battle in the mountains of Marran and one of the few who survived. In Sanaa one evening I watched him enter the Houthis’ headquarters accompanied by two gunmen; his arrival caused a flutter among even the most senior apparatchiks. He wore a dark blue coat over a crisp white dishdasha, with a leather pistol holster strapped to his chest. He spoke of his memories of the war, of a day of heavy battle, it was the third or fourth war, he couldn’t remember. The Houthis had lost many men and they were besieged. ‘At dawn the fighting stopped and I decided to take a break. I switched on the TV. I wanted to see what the world was saying about us: the whole world would be speaking of this battle. I flipped through the channels. There was nothing, even from countries we call our friends, nothing in Iranian or Arabic. There was no mention of us. We were alone and there was no one to help us.’ He spoke in the language of good and evil. ‘How can we not win if we have God with us?’ The Houthis – from Abu Ali al-Hakem to the lowliest fighter – all spoke in the same terms, a logic developed after a decade of war and siege in the mountains. They were the pure and all their enemies or those who raised their voice to oppose them – leftists, the media, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadis – were all Daesh, or Isis, or agents of the US and the Saudis. Their enemies in turn portrayed them as an Iranian militia, alongside those of Bashar al-Assad and the Sadrists in Iraq.
The Fight For Yemen, Continued

Welcome to the second installment of contributor Paul Mutter's fascinating history of conflict in Yemen. Here he focuses on Egypt's 1960s intervention, when Nasser and his generals sent thousands of troops to support a coup against the Saudi-backed ruling monarchy there.  

In 1962, shortly before their own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen began, Egyptian advisors who had been stationed there to reform the ruling Imam’s army spoke respectfully of how the locals had managed to defeat all of the Ottoman forces sent to the region in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this respect was absent at the highest levels of command back in Cairo when it launched its own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen. The Nasserists by and large regarded Yemen as a backwater led by a medieval despot and populated by superstitious primitives, much as Western publications did during the 1934 Saudi invasion.

Major General Saladin al-Hadidi, as recounted by Jesse Ferris in Nasser’s Gamble, was so dismissive of the Yemenis he told a colleague who had just returned from North Yemen that given enough whizz-bangs and smoke machines, he could put on such a display as to freeze royalists guerillas in their tracks. Mr. al-Hadidi’s military intelligence directorate could not supply the Egyptian armed forces with accurate maps of the countryside immediately outside of Sana’a. Cairo quite literally did not bother painting an accurate picture of the place it went to war over.

Believing that North Yemen was the weakest link of the Arab monarchies, Egypt’s leaders enthusiastically greeted a September 1962 coup against the country’s hereditary Zaydi leader, Imam al-Badr, by a military faction led by a lower class Zaydi named Abdullah al-Sallal (later “President-Field Marshal” Sallal). Sallal’s co-conspirators styled themselves as “free officers” like those who had deposed Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952, proclaiming an end to slavery and a reign of terror against the Imam’s supporters. As soon as they took over the capital, Gamal Abdel Nasser rushed in arms, advisors, money, and “Free Yemeni” émigrés (one of whom was married to Anwar Sadat’s sister) that had been on standby for just such an occasion. Never mind that al-Badr had been more favorably inclined towards the Egyptians and Soviet bloc than his mentally ill father Ahmed (d. 1962) had been.[1] Or that Nasser himself had let this weakest link, “medieval” monarchy and all, join Cairo in a defense pact in 1958 to spite the Saudis.

Militiamen mark the overthrow of Imam al-Badr; Sallal is on the banner, 1962 - Sana'a (AP)

Militiamen mark the overthrow of Imam al-Badr; Sallal is on the banner, 1962 - Sana'a (AP)

If Egypt did not set the precise date for the coup, it had at least approved the concept of a putsch by Nasserist sympathizers in advance. It is clear that Cairo was well prepared for such a scenario, having been buying up Soviet airplanes to allow them to intervene in Yemen on short notice, broadcasting venomous propaganda, and grooming the “Free Yemenis” to return in triumph.

Nasser was frustrated by failures elsewhere in the Arab world, failures he had come to blame on Saudi Arabia and Britain. Two years earlier, his beloved United Arab Republic had collapsed as the result of a Syrian Army coup that he had been powerless to reverse. So Nasser decided to bring Yemen into his fold and, for good measure, incite a revolt on the Saudi border. The Army, convinced of its superiority despite its poor showing during the 1956 Suez Crisis and embroiled in an internal power struggle among the “Free Officers,” marched alongside the president with blinders on.

Cairo first deployed 100 soldiers, mainly to protect the Soviet and Egyptian advisors already present in the new “Yemen Arab Republic” (YAR). That number soon mushroomed to 5,000 and kept climbing as the counterinsurgency intensified. 55,000 men were deployed in North Yemen by the middle of the decade, possibly upwards of 70,000. Even though the Egyptians, backed by Soviet equipment and pilots, claimed victory after victory, Nasser apparently began looking for an “out” as early as 1963 due to the effects of the war on Egypt’s international image and domestic stability.

Many Yemenis fought against the republicans not to restore the unpopular monarchy, but out of resentment of the Egyptians and to resist the YAR’s efforts to centralize power. When peace eventually did come about – an uneasy one to be sure, punctuated in years to come by coups and small revolts – it was because enough Sunni and Shia tribes felt secure in the new republican system to lay down (but not turn over) their arms.

Egyptian trainer and YAR recruit, date unknown (

Egyptian trainer and YAR recruit, date unknown (

The weakest link in North Yemen at first proved to be the Egyptian and YAR armed forces: the former performed poorly against the Imam’s mountain guerillas, while the latter’s formations would often dissolve in mass desertions. “Without scruple but [also] without much skill” was the late Patrick Seale’s assessment of how the air force performed in a 1963 report for the The New Republic. What was supposed to be a showcase for a new Soviet-supplied and trained force turned into a series of costly defeats in the first few years of the conflict, with Seale noting that a little over a year into their intervention, the Egyptians had lost about 10% of the forces committed. Though the army’s performance gradually improved after 1964, the cost of the war adversely affected Nasser’s socialist economic agenda at home. Growing domestic dissent and the humiliating loss of the Sinai to the Israelis made Egypt focus on peace talks and a “Yemenization” of the conflict after 1967. Humiliatingly, Nasser had to ask the Saudis for financial aid at the Khartoum Conference following the Six Days War, even as the conflict in Yemen went on. Though, like President Sisi today, he continued to mock and rant against his Gulf benefactors in private while professing friendship in public.

For one participant, the war never officially began or ended: Britain. For part of the war, a mercenary company composed of British nationals operated among the royalists with “a nod and a wink” from the Prime Minister’s Office back in London and the support of British Aden, which was facing a pro-YAR insurgency during the same period. At one point, this small group organized a rebel maneuver that pinned down thousands of Egyptian troops, and even spirited out an autopsy of a chemical weapons casualty in order to show the world that the Egyptians were using phosgene and mustard gas against civilians, an effort that would be paralleled again in Halabja, Iraq (1988) and Ghouta, Syria (2013) by other parties. Britain also provided the royalists with more direct aid, from help carrying out sabotage to supplies.

The Saudis soon stepped in to help fund these operations, something fiscally depressed Britain was grateful for as it turned its full attention to the pro-YAR insurgents in Aden, who outlasted the British and set up a Marxist government that lasted until 1990 (fortunately for the Saudis, this new “South Yemen” was often on poor terms with Sana’a despite their wartime alliance).

The Saudis did not intervene for love of the Imamate, which they had seriously contemplated dismantling in 1934. During a peace summit, Faisal told the Egyptian president that North Yemen was “a hive of wasps” and admitted he did not much care for Imam al-Badr, grandson of the man he had personally led the Saudi forces against in 1934. But although Ibn Saud had taken a good chunk out of the Imamate at that time, his successors King Saud (d. 1964) and King Faisal (d. 1975), both of whom had served in the 1934 campaign, did not want to see what was left of it go over to Nasser. Not longer after the 1962 coup, Saud set up guerilla training camps in the territories they had won in the 1930s from Imam Yahya for Yemeni royalists.

Even though a republican victory greatly worried the Saudis, they were able to pursue the war without making anything near the commitment Egypt made and benefitted from the fact that the YAR had no coherent ideological program despite its Nasserist bromides. And they achieved more of the political objectives in the end. The fractured royalist camp was a spent force by 1970. After they failed to take Sana’a, the YAR was able to declare victory on the battlefield. The Imams never returned, but as Fred Halliday notes in Arabia Without Sultans, after 1964 the YAR government was filled with old allies of the Imams, and dominated by certain Zaydi tribes who disliked the Egyptians as much the Saudis. Regarded as fence sitters or royalist collaborators, they overthrew Sallal while he was travelling abroad in November 1967.

“The paradox of the Egyptian intervention is that it at once saved and destroyed the YAR,” Halliday noted of the political process in Sana’a after 1964, which he unflatteringly compared to Bonapartism in 19th century France. Saudi Arabia recognized the YAR in 1970, infuriating al-Badr, who decamped from the Kingdom for a life of European exile. He actually outlived every other major figure in the conflict – Saudi, Yemeni, British, Soviet, and Egyptian – dying in London in 1996.
The YAR that came into being as the Egyptians pulled out empowered the sort of corrupt opportunist best exemplified today in the form of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was president of North Yemen from 1978 to 1990, then president of present-day Yemen from 1990 to 2011. Serving as a mere second lieutenant in the YAR armed forces in 1963, his political ascendancy began on the backs of those aforementioned fence sitters and royalist collaborators (and not a little luck, as he has to date avoided countless assassination attempts despite betraying all of his nominal allies and foreign backers on multiple occasions).

 Cairo ultimately suffered between 10,000 and 26,000 KIA to “save” the YAR from the Saudis. Many of the dead were never repatriated to Egypt and still lie in cemeteries in Yemen: a large arch erected by the YAR in 1965 to commemorate the casualties still stands in Sana’a.

At least 200,000 Yemenis also lost their lives during the civil war.

The defeated royalists’ Saudi backers, meanwhile, remained safe from the train wreck unfolding on their southern border for eight years, the YAR’s existence failing to incite revolt inside the Kingdom itself and Egypt taking only the most limited direct action against the Kingdom itself. Indeed, the reformist “Free Princes” of Saudi Arabia who had welcomed the formation of the YAR came to oppose its existence right alongside their more conservative siblings because of the dismissive and insulting way Nasser responded to their overtures.

The Yemen conflict is often referred to as Egypt’s Vietnam, a quagmire that sapped its military force and undermined its leadership in the region. Patrick Seale wrote in The Washington Post in 1964 that the war led to the “the systematic destruction of villages, crops, and waterholes and of a starving and diseased crazed population, crazed by incessant air attacks.” The Red Cross mission to North Yemen at the time corroborated these accounts. The German war correspondent Harold Vocke bitterly observed that “the Egyptian Air Force pursues herdsmen and herds as if they were wild game.” The Egyptian occupiers and YAR forces also resorted to the use of poison gas on civilians. Such incidents help explain why the exact size of the Egyptian deployment (and the casualties it suffered) is still a matter of some dispute among historians. Relevant reports and meeting minutes from the 1960s remain under lock and key in Heliopolis.

Monument for Egyptian Martyrs - 2009, Sana'a (m.abdulkader)

Monument for Egyptian Martyrs - 2009, Sana'a (m.abdulkader)

After the war ended, a conspiracy of silence emerged among the surviving decision makers. A memoir by Mr. al-Hadidi, the Egyptian major general, is one notable exception.

The major general, who originally dismissed the Yemenis as primitives, changed his views. He became a critic of the war’s conduct. In his retirement, he wrote a scathing account of the conflict, Witness to the Yemen War (1984). To show how just far he felt Egypt had fallen from its “anti-imperialist” mission, he recorded in that book that the YAR’s “Administration of Tribal Affairs” was deliberately modeled on Britain’s similarly minded imperial administrations in the region, to the point that his officers were leafing through T. E. Lawrence for insights on “managing” the “natives.”  He also spoke poorly of the army’s morale, and the misuse of the air force to smuggle goods brought in illegally from British Aden back to Egypt.

“Nasser’s Road to Oil Runs Through Yemen,” The New York Times proclaimed in 1966. In fact, it had reached a dead end sometime before then. Though, as was the case with Egypt’s early wartime maps, no one in Cairo could say where, exactly.

[1] Among his many excesses, Fred Halliday writes, Ahmed sacked Sana’a after Yahya’s death, executed the slaves who moved the palace treasury, always kept the army’s best weapons partially disassembled so they could not be turned on him, and shelled British Aden during a 1957 press conference. He suffered from vivid “hallucinations” as well, to the point he had to be isolated in special recovery rooms. 

PostsPaul Mutteryemen, egypt
The fight for Yemen, then and now

This is the first installment of a two-part series by Arabist regular Paul Mutter on the history of conflict in Yemen. With some great quotes from the reporting of the day. 

“Order,” the New-York Tribune opined of Yemen in 1898, “will be supplied from outside,” and with the coming of foreign rule “there will be peace, and the Yemen will no more be the Yemen it has been for forty centuries.” Of course, this proved not to be the case even in the Tribune’s day, as Yemenis successfully threw off Turkish rule during the Arab Revolt (1916-18), pushing aside local collaborators in favor of a reinvigorated monarchy that soon found itself hard-pressed to impose central authority.

That has never been an easy task in Yemen. The 1962-70 civil war was fought between and among all of the tribes of “North Yemen” in large part to decide who would be allowed to wield such authority. The contest between the Houthis and the central government began in 2004 after decades of putsches and protests among the ruling Zaydi Shia clans against the Saleh family, whose patriarch, the 73-year old Ali Abdullah, held the presidency until 2011 and now conspires with his former Houthi enemies to return to power.

Alongside these long-running internal struggles to consolidate power or gain autonomy runs an intersecting line of outsiders’ efforts to impose their will upon Arabia Felix -- “Arabia the Lucky,” a name from antiquity that now seems cruelly ironic in light of Yemen’s perennial humanitarian and environmental crises. Saudi Arabia, the UK, Egypt, Russia, and most recently, the United States and Iran: all have done battle over southern Arabia. Yemen’s political history has been shaped by such interventions, though outsiders rarely got what they wanted. None have brought the sort of “order” the Tribune predicted would follow a benevolent foreign occupation.

The most recent conflict – featuring a coalition of ten Arab states, Iran, the “southern movement” for succession, the Houthis and the Salehs, al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Sunni-led government-in-exile among others – is proof enough of the challenges that lie ahead. But two earlier conflicts also illustrate the pitfalls and failures of interventions.

The first of these conflicts took place in 1934, when the armies of King Ibn Saud of the House of Saud and Imam Yahya of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, or “Imamate,” met one last time to decide who would control what had been the Ottoman Vilayet of Yemen. The territory that Imam Yahya, leader of the Zaydi Shia, had wrested from the Ottomans during the Arab Revolt originally included much of the present-day Saudi provinces of Jizan, Najran, Asir, and Al Bahah. When WWI ended, these were semi-independent emirates trying to avoid getting drawn into either Yahya or Ibn Saud’s spheres of influence. And they were, as now, among the most fertile in the Arabian Peninsula. The terrain, the ports, and the peoples of the region constituted a great prize, especially for the Mutawakkilite Kingdom’s agrarian economy. As an Australian newspaper asked, “Who shall be the Lord of Arabia?”

Yahya was determined it would be him. He envisioned a “Greater Yemen” that included the fertile coastal provinces the Saudis desired and the rest of southern Arabia, then under British colonial rule. The Imam sponsored raiding parties and incited revolt wherever he could from 1918 to 1934: against the House of Saud, against the British, and against any emirs he chose to make an enemy of in the region. The distinction between “Yemenis” and “Saudis” was blurry at that time, so changes in allegiance were common and calculated for maximum personal gain by local leaders. Control of the major cities in the southern Hejaz went back-and-forth as alliances were made and broken over the course of a decade. Yahya had far less success against the British in these endeavors. But for a time, it seemed that the Imam might prevail in his proxy war with the Saudis at least. Defections from the Saudi camp in 1932 emboldened the Imam to take more direct measures, sending his forces into Saudi Arabia proper in 1933. The Christian Science Monitor reported at the outbreak of full-scale hostilities in 1934 that while Ibn Saud “depends mostly on his tribal warriors” and was “poor,” the “immensely rich” Yahya had “10,000 well-trained troops” experienced in desert and mountain warfare. When the Yemenis besieged the city of Najran, which had sided with the Saudis, they expected a quick victory: Yahya had allegedly dismissed Ibn Saud as a “Bedouin” upstart.

Ibn saud

Ibn saud

He underestimated Ibn Saud. This “Bedouin” had many battle-hardened veterans, too. And they were often carrying modern, British-made arms: the Saudis deployed both camelback cavalry and modern armor in Yemen during the conflict. The Saudi king’s logistics were not as primitive as his poor finances suggested, and his ranks had been purged of dissenters following the failure of the Ikwahn Revolt. Finally, a number of local tribes who had at first shown hospitality to Yahya’s men sided with Ibn Saud or refused to take part in the fighting at all. They had come to resent the Imam’s controlling presence at least as much or more than the Saudis’.

Sectarianism did not influence these decisions as much as local leaders’ sense that the Saudis would give them better terms in exchange for allegiance. Yahya was very generous to those he wished to win over (less so to his subjects, many of whom lived in hideous poverty). Such calculations helped decide the Imam’s defeat, just as they have shaped the current fighting in Yemen among the Houthis and other factions. TIME portrayed the conflict as a clash of personalities as much as of territorial ambitions, suggesting that the appeal of the leaders had much to do with the success of their war effort. “[Imam Yahya] is as crafty and penny pinching as strapping Ibn Saud is brave and generous,” the magazine’s correspondent covering the war wrote.[1]

By May 1934, the turning point had come for the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. Ibn Saud’s forces spent the better part of that month driving down towards Sana’a in three columns, which rapidly captured the Imam’s main port and claimed to seize many “European” weapons there. It is unclear just who supplied them. Perhaps they were sent in by the Italians, smuggled in from British Aden, or bought on the black market somewhere. This ambiguity of supply would become another enduring theme of Yemen’s wars in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the 1962-70 conflict and the current war, rebels and “government” troops alike carry a motley array of arms seized from one another, supplied by their officially declared foreign allies, silent partners abroad, and opportunistic smugglers.

The twenty-something Prince Faisal, later King Faisal, of Saudi Arabia led the advance down the hill-country, and assured foreign correspondents he would rule all of Yemen on behalf of his father (Prince Saud, later King Saud and Faisal’s predecessor, also fought in the war). But the prince found some Yemenis resented the Saudi Wahhabis’ intrusion deep into their lands. They found fewer willing collaborators the closer they got to the capital. And opportunistic deserters began preying on all parties to the conflict, waging a guerilla war against the invaders (while also resorting to banditry against their countermen). The British in Aden and the Italians in Eritrea began to talk of dispatching troops to protect their interests. The Imam meanwhile overruled his son and successor to sue for peace, fearing that he was about to lose his throne to the Saudis like the Hashemite Sharifs of Mecca had in 1925.

But the Saudis, fearing outside intervention by European powers and the costs of a long war in the Zaydis’ heartland, decided they did not want to take the whole of the kingdom after all. Prince Faisal was not allowed to raise the king’s banner over the royal palace. His forces withdrew from the gates of Sana’a and Riyadh concluded the Treaty of Taif on May 20th. Both sides claimed victory , but the Saudis were the ones who took and kept all of Jizan, Najran, Asir, and Al Bahah. The Imam had at least avoided the Sharifs’ fate and was allowed to reoccupy the ports the Saudis had taken over. Yet he was now clearly subordinate to Riyadh. None of his successors ever challenged this state of affairs. The much-reduced kingdom, still ruled by Yahya until his murder in in 1948 at the hands of a rival Zaydi Shia faction, turned inward to consolidate its power. Though much bitterness remained, the House of Saud managed to patch up most of its differences with the Imamate. Some Yemeni tribes who had used the war to restart their separatist agendas fought on until 1939, but found no Saudi support after the Treaty of Taif was signed. The House of Saud strongly backed Yahya’s unstable son Ahmed in the brief civil war that followed Yahya’s assassination, the same Ahmed who in 1934 wanted to fight the Saudis to the bitter end. And in 1962, when Yahya’s grandson, Imam al-Badr, was deposed by a Nasserist “free officers” coup, the House of Saud and the British in Aden resolved to restore the dynasty and drive out the Egyptians and Soviets. That too, did not go as planned, though it went much worse for the Egyptians than it did for the Saudis.

[1] Lest it be said TIME was simply Orientalizing, Yahya had a reputation as a miser among Yemenis, even before the extent of his personal fortune was discovered upon his death in 1948. His “crafty” custom of taking royal hostages to ensure the loyalty of his governors was indeed unpopular, though it did much to head off coups. 

Omar Bashir, Iran's ally, woos GCC over Yemen

Contributor Paul Mutter writes about an overlooked participant in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen: President Omar Bashir's Sudan. The isolated regime has been happy to win some legitimacy through its token participation. Gulf countries meanwhile appear eager to move it out of Iran's sphere of influence. 

Compared with the Emirati and Saudi contributions to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Sudanese contingent is a mere token force. Yet the four Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-24 bombers now operating out of King Khalid Airbase carry weight well in excess of their bomb loads. Khartoum did not send over its ramshackle, barrel-bombing Antonov transports. It sent a full third of its most modern air assets to fly against the Houthis. Many of their victims will probably be civilians, as has been the case back home in the Nuba Mountains since the Su-24s were deployed two years ago, according to Nuba Reports and National Geographic.

Their presence serves little military purpose, given the firepower available to the GCC. Instead, by committing to the campaign, Omar al-Bashir’s clique has once again demonstrated the adaptability that has kept it in power since 1989. Focused on wooing their partner away from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi-led coalition has surely promised the ostracized president military, diplomatic, and economic aid in exchange for his assistance. Already, the Saudis have lifted banking restrictions against Khartoum, imposed in 2014. For the Sudanese regime, which seems to uncover coup plots within its ranks every few months, pours 25% of the national budget into fighting insurgencies it cannot decisively beat, and still cannot cope with the loss of most of its oil fields, such help is quite welcome.

And perhaps more than any material incentives, the prospect of reduced international isolation holds significant appeal, as Sudan holds elections this week that will only serve to confirm the domination of the National Congress Party (NCP) and inflame opposition to Bashir. Low turnout, accusations of voter intimidation, and arrests of activists urging a boycott of the elections have marred what was supposed to be a showcase of support for the NCP’s continued rule. The setbacks and paranoia Bashir increasingly feels are what drive his fulsome paeans to the GCC now. (Back in 2013, when anti-austerity protests shook the capital and other Arab states condemned the subsequent crackdown, the Sudanese leadership griped that Saudis and Emiratis wanted to humiliate Khartoum.)

Sudan’s aging leader has not abandoned his Iranian ally. In a transcript of a meeting held in Khartoum by Bashir’s inner circle, made public online by Dr. Eric Reeves, the president’s inner circle had made clear they do not trust the Gulf States over Iran. Yes, Sudan has been trying to distance itself from Iran for some time, despite its historic military ties to Iran and role in supplying weapons to pro-Iranian movements in the Middle East (including the Houthis in Yemen). But the “break” has never come. It appeared to, in 2014, when Sudan forced Iran – source of nearly a fifth of its total arms imports – to shut down all of its cultural centers in the country in order to please the Gulf States and placate domestic critics. Sudan’s Sunni Islamist movements are no keener on Shiism than any of the Gulf States, of course. Yet Iran understood the symbolism of this move, according to the internal deliberations published by Dr. Reeves. Sudan’s “strategic” posture and dislike of “Shia culture” are understood to be partitioned off from each another by Khartoum and Tehran, which for its part looks the other way when Sudanese Shia are persecuted.

Dr. Mustafa Osman Ismail, a former foreign minister, opined last September that the Gulf States “want some balance in the relation with Iran” and they must be humored. There is little love for the Gulf States in Sudan (and vice versa), but everyone keeps up appearances. UAE Prime Minister Mohammad al-Maktoum warmly received Bashir at Abu Dhabi's IDEX defense show in February, where Sudanese wares have had a booth reserved for them at IDEX since 2013, in spite of the genocide charges against the government and sanctions on its military-industrial complex.* The UAE does more than just let Khartoum hawk its goods in Abu Dhabi: it is a major development financier in Sudanese agriculture and public works.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia personally received Bashir in March, and granted him an extended audience just as Operation Decisive Storm was getting underway. This invite was a snub not just to Iran, but also to European prosecutors who would very much like to see the Sudanese leader extradited by members of the Arab League. The Kingdom is also a major investor in Sudan: “Our economy relies very much on the Saudi Kingdom in terms of investments and expatriates money transfers,” Dr. Ismail noted. The Saudis do not want to be seen as going too far to support President Bashir though, as they have denied providing US$4 billion in direct loans.

Egypt has been a bit more cautious. President Abdelfattah al-Sisi is willing to clasp hands with  Bashir in public though not too firmly, given the unappealing personality and outstanding disputes Bashir brings to international venues. Even so, Sisi has had to woo Bashir in the ongoing negotiations over the sharing of Nile waters and over Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam – particularly after Sudan appeared to move towards the Ethiopian position in 2013.

“At home and abroad,” The Economist opined in 2014, President Bashir “is running out of friends.” This is still the case at home, yes, but not abroad. Sudan takes this all seriously of course, having risked a breach with Iran (however temporary) and stripped its air force of striking power to cozy up to the GCC and Egypt. Yet within the president’s inner circle, the cynicism and contempt felt towards the Saudis and Emiratis is quite apparent. Generals close to the president reveled at the thought of how they could “mislead the Gulf States by taking open, declared steps and procedures towards improving diplomatic relations with them” during their August 2014 meeting.

The countries buying Bashir’s fleeting support know this is simply a balancing act by a regime buying itself more time to intrigue over the president’s successor and sign more development contracts to skim off of. No one expects a sea change, or reforms, or the Sudanese Su-24s to tip the balance in Yemen. Khartoum’s participation is really little more than a business transaction for everyone involved, with the exception of the people being bombed.

* Considering the poor relations between the UAE and Iran, it is interesting that the Sudanese display always includes a number of weapons derived from Iranian designs.

In Translation: Egypt's double bind in yemen

The crisis in Yemen, coming just as a breakthrough in negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program took place, appears to encompass the entire region's strategic dilemmas. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies see it as a direct expansion of Iranian power, via the Houthis, on the Arabian Peninsula, right on their border. Iran sees the Saudi-led offensive as further signs of anti-Shia rhetoric and militarisation of the Gulf region, and confirmed again its ability to extend its perceived infuence throughout the Arab world (whatever the reality of Tehran's support for the Houthis is). The US, which had blithely backed a deeply flawed Saudi-directed transition in Yemen while it focused on counter-terrorism, is caught in the middle of its desire for a deal with Iran and its strong backing of the Saudi offensive. This is nothing to say of Yemen's own internal dynamics: the remarkable rise of the Houthis, the return of the prospect of two distinct Yemens, the opportunism of deposed president Ali Abdallah Saleh, the irony of the Yemeni Muslim Brothers now finding themselves on the Saudi side (alongside al-Qaeda and the Islamic State). One could go on.

The discussion of Yemen in the Egyptian press, for once, has been more interesting than than the gung-ho jingoism in much of the Gulf media. The Yemen crisis has triggered both anxiety about a repeat of the failed Egyptian intervention in Yemen of the 1960s (itself a precursor of the great defeat of 1967) and a wider discussion of whether Cairo's dependency and debt to Saudi Arabia may not be too costly in the long run. In the piece below, Abdallah al-Senawi – a well-connected Nasserist writer who was very anti-Mubarak but until recently a cheerleader for Sisi – presents Egypt's dilemmas in the Yemen crisis. Most notably, that the choices it faces are limited and likely to be very costly if the crisis cannot quickly be addressed politically.

This translation is possible through the support of our pals at Industry Arabic, which is a really, really good bespoke Arabic translation service. If you have a translation job you need done by professionals, help them continue to help us by trying them out.

The Predicament of Military Intervention in Yemen

Abdullah al-Sennawi, Al-Shorouk, 6 April 2015

Nearly half a century after the Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, it is almost certain that another intervention is imminent. Even though the circumstances are fundamentally different today, we cannot disregard the lessons of history or underestimate the dangers posed by military involvement.

In the 1960s, the wagers made were consistent with that era in the choice to support liberation movements and defend Egyptian national security in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. However, this coherence came head on against a ferocious struggle for influence and power in the region, and where there was progress, there were also setbacks.

At the beginning of the military intervention in 1962, Egypt was still reeling from the shock of separation from Syria on September 28, 1961 and the failure of the United Arab Republic unification experiment, which only lasted for around three and a half years. The impact of this enormous rupture was not mitigated by the inspiring success of the revolution in Algeria in July 1962 that involved the sacrifice of one and a half million martyrs -- a revolution that had received Egypt’s full political, military and media backing.

The defeat of the unity project struck a profound blow to Nasser’s vision. Thus, he was not ready to accept the collapse of the Yemeni revolution by counterstrikes from the remnants of Yemen’s monarchist regime and its neighboring allies. Perhaps he also sought to infuse a new spirit in the Pan-Arab movement that he was leading, following the victory in Algeria.

The matter now is different. There are no liberation movements and no intention to move towards a serious change that would transform Yemen from tribe to state. The best argument put forth seeks to save Yemen in order to prevent it from slipping into a civil war that will totally consume it. This is putting politics ahead of the military option.

In the 1960s, political and military estimations projected that the intervention would be limited in the number of boots on the ground as well as temporary in its operation. Its aim was to reinforce the Yemeni revolution. However, it went from a limited engagement to 70,000 soldiers, and from a temporary mission to a five-year war that drained the Egyptian army amid harsh terrain.

The lesson of the past should guide the present. It is difficult to presume that these kinds of wars will be limited—unless you attack and expand operations, those you are fighting will attack you in your strongholds.

Yes indeed, the purposes were noble. Saving an illustrious Arab country from the darkness of the Middle Ages where the simplest modern tools like the electric iron was not heard of and the most basic human rights were not recognized. But this noble act seemed to other actors an opportunity to grind down the Egyptian military in Yemen before grinding it down in Sinai several years later. If we do not calculate every move and evaluate consequences, we would be a people who discards their own historical experience with all it holds of promises and frustrations.

It is clear from the words of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that the decision for military intervention has been taken decisively and the constitutional procedures according to Article 152 of the constitution (Declaration of War and Dispatching Armed Forces in a Combat Mission outside the Borders of the State) have begun. The first step according to the constitution in the event that there is no parliament is “to ask for the opinion of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” which is precisely what happened. The next two steps are “the approval of both the Cabinet and the National Defense Council.” And in effect, the President announced that he is going meet with them for this purpose.

This extraordinary meeting of the Egyptian military command was preceded by one in Riyadh—the very timing of which raises eyebrows—between the chiefs of staff of the armies participating in what is called “Operation Decisive Storm.” Apparently, this meeting was in preparation for intervention on the ground after airstrike operations failed to destroy the capacity of the Houthi forces and supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to threaten Aden. If the second capital – Aden – falls now that the first capital of Sanaa has already fallen, then this would mean that any storm or any decisiveness had been defeated even before returning to the negotiation table.

It will certainly not be long before the resumption of negotiations. The international and regional consensus embraced by the United States and the European Union as well as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Iran are all in agreement upon this option. Here the main question is: under which balance of power will the expected negotiations occur and what will be their political contours? No answer has been offered to this question in Egypt that takes into account public wariness and seeks to build a national consensus before sending troops abroad.

To be completely frank, Saudi Arabia is weighing the consequences of a political defeat before the expected negotiations. It is seeking for the military balance on the ground be to its advantage before any political milestone is implemented under the suspended results of the Yemeni national dialogue. It is also seeking legitimatization of an international presence before any recognition of the legitimacy of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. However, Saudi forces are not qualified for a ground intervention and they know that it is costly and that its effects could expand into its own territory. The Saudis are counting on a new Egyptian military role in Yemen, which would practically lead the other allied forces.

There is semi-confirmed information that Egypt had no involvement to speak of in planning or executing the airstrike operations against the positions and strongholds of the Houthis and President Saleh’s supporters. Moreover, Egypt was notified about these operations only shortly before the strikes were launched in advance of the Sharm el-Sheikh economic summit. At the same time, the United States has managed the airstrike operations by providing logistics and intelligence support and by playing other roles that might be regarded as more central.

It is worth noting that the words of President Sisi did not indicate or mention explicitly at any time that ground forces would be sent or that there is any tendency towards military intervention in Yemen, despite the clear meaning of what lies behind his words. This lack of a direct admission reflects a certain unease regarding the possible consequences and implications, as well as some wariness towards anxious public opinion. He is totally correct in his unease and the reason for caution. He is facing the most dangerous decision since he became president. He is between a rock and a hard place, but he has almost no choice but to choose.

The first choice would be to heed public anxiety and act cautiously by deciding not to send any ground forces to Yemen. However, this choice would cost him the loss of his allies in the Gulf, who, when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power, doubled down on Egypt as a counterbalance to the rise of Iran in the Middle East and an insurance policy for the countries of the region. The effects of this possible loss go beyond the Gulf region. It severely diminishes the possibility of a new rise of Egypt in the region within the foreseeable future, at a difficult moment in which the heft of the regional players is being sized up following the great breakthrough in the Iranian nuclear program crisis.

The second choice is for President Sisi to submit to the pressure and arm-twisting beyond what Egyptian national security can handle at a time where a fierce war is already underway against terrorism in Sinai. This choice would lead to a new exhaustion of military forces in the Yemeni quagmire. Indeed, it must be recognized the Houthis constitute one component of Yemeni society, and regardless of the Iranian role in supporting their military rise, they are among the poorest Yemenis and they severely lack any health or education services in the Sa’dah mountains where they hail from. Obviously, the Houthis are not the enemy -- nor is Iran, for that matter. The real enemy is Israel. Confronting the crisis requires that the political possibilities be clearly articulated.

Regional balance is necessary. Confronting any infringement on Arab rights and lands should not be taken lightly, seeing as Arab weakness has become a matter of public and general ridicule. Even so, this requires that Egypt not get involved by any means in sectarian conflicts—which are virtually unknown during its modern history—or in any way engage in an open war against Iran.

In other words, it is not possible for Egypt to isolate itself from the Gulf and refuse its security requirements, lest we act in complete foolishness; nor is involvement in the Yemeni quagmire once again an acceptable option, or we will have learned nothing from history. Before any military action, a political solution is the first priority.