Yemen has become the focus of media attention in the wake of the foiled attempt to blow up a US airliner by Umar Farooq Abdul Muttalab on Dec 25. The US mainstream media is busy portraying Yemen as a ‘’failed state,” and hence a legitimate target for US aggression.
Yemen is the poorest of all Arab countries, with 40 percent living below the poverty line, and the writ of government is hardly in existence there. Ninety of the 200 detainees now held at Guantanamo, we are told, hail from Yemen. Footage of picturesque Ribat Baashen, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral village, spices up the coverage to reinforce Yemen’s image as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda.
A tribal society of 23 million, with 60 million guns, Yemen, it seems, will be Empire’s next front. American corporate media, in unison with the US establishment, are suffering from amnesia-as-usual. Hence, no mention is made of the fact that during the Cold War Washington backed the Islamist regime in North Yemen against “socialists” ruling South Yemen, which has since merged with the North. Similarly, thousands of Yemeni citizens reached Afghanistan to fight back the infidel Reds.
In the country’s 1994 civil war, Yemenis returning from Afghanistan helped secure the rule of incumbent president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978. For these Afghan veterans, suppression of godless South Yemen was a logical continuation of their victorious jihad in Afghanistan.
True, the present focus on Yemen owes to Republican criticism of the Obama administration over the evident security failure despite an alarm raised by the Nigerian suspect’s father. A military action is likely to offer a distraction.
However, it is Yemen’s highly strategic location that interests Empire. Adjacent to Saudi Arabia (the world’s largest oil exporter) and the Red Sea (controlling access to the Suez Canal), Yemen also borders on the Gulf of Aden, the westward shipping route for much of the oil leaving the Persian Gulf.
From the Red Sea, some three million barrels of crude oil are shipped daily to the West. US military forces are already deployed in Djibouti, to oversee this passage. In view of Yemen’s strategic location in the ongoing ‘’war on terror,’’ which translates into occupation of strategic Muslim countries in western Asia, the $11 million US military assistance to Yemen in 2006 had by 2009 quadrupled to $70 million. The US Congress is likely to approve $150 million for 2010.
What also worries Washington is that 40 per cent of the country’s population is Shia Muslim, receiving support from Iran in an insurgency (which rendered 175,000 homeless since August) against Sanaa. Riyadh, however, is even more worried. Hence, it lent Yemen $2 billion last year and committed its forces last November to quell the Shia insurgency.
Meantime, Americans have been closely watching Yemen. Only last summer CIA deputy director Stephen Kappes and David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, which is responsible for the Middle East, called on President Saleh. In September John Brennan, Obama’s advisor on anti-terrorism, paid a visit to Sanaa. These visits resulted in a US-Yemeni joint air and ground offensive against presumed Al-Qaeda camps near the capital and in the provinces of Shabwah, Al-Jawf and Abyan.
Abdul Muttalab, it is believed, boarded the Detroit-bound flight to avenge these attacks. With Yemen having exhausted its oil reserves and facing an acute water crisis, the country’s dictator needs US money as well as US protection. For Saleh, Al-Qaeda is an excuse to secure US patronage. After all, he himself has been patronising Al-Qaeda in the past. His real worry is the Shia insurgency and a secessionist movement in the south.
Yemen’s analogy to Pakistan under Musharraf is indeed striking: blowback from the Afghan war, dictatorship in need of US patronage, writ of state largely missing, an ideal terrain for guerrilla warfare (as in Pakistan’s north) and a society seething with anti-Americanism. This is a recipe for perfect disaster.