A Tale of Two Colonies

Our correspondent travels to Yemen and Eritrea, and finds that the war on terrorism is forcing U.S. involvement with the one country's tribal turbulence and the other's obsessive fear of chaos

The ruins of the 3,000-year-old desert capital of the kingdom of Saba (the biblical Sheba), outside the Yemeni city of Ma'rib, should be overrun by tourists. Mud-brick towers tilt crazily on a vast, sunbaked mound, amid the crumbled debris of antiquity. But when I visited the ruins recently, I was alone—except, that is, for an armed escort of Yemeni soldiers who trudged with me through the inch of moon dust covering the ancient city. Even the souvenir stand here, built before a wave of kidnappings of Westerners, and before the region's infiltration by al Qaeda, is just another ruin. On November 3 of last year, a month before my visit, a missile fired by an unmanned CIA Predator aircraft near Ma'rib incinerated a vehicle in which a suspected al Qaeda leader, Abu Ali al-Harithi, was traveling with five others. Since then Americans have usually been prohibited from the area, for their own safety. "If anyone asks," my Yemeni guide advised me, "tell people you're Australian."

Between the Yemeni capital of Sana'a and Ma'rib, a distance of a hundred miles to the east, in ashen, sandy wastes speckled with Sabaean ruins and abutting the Saudi border, there are eleven military checkpoints, each signaled by cement-filled oil drums. The government presence in the region is greater than it has ever been before, and this is no small achievement. Yet the checkpoints provide security for the main road only. Nearby, mud-brick battlements hide the encampments of rebellious tribal sheikhs, some with their own artillery pieces. Off the main road a Western visitor is safer under the protection of a local tribe than with a government escort.

Filthy cinder-block storefronts line portions of the Sana'a-Ma'rib road, crowded with tribesmen buying and selling guns and qat—a plant that provides a mildly energizing narcotic effect when chewed. Qat offers Yemenis a rare luxury in an otherwise dismal existence. But qat crops are water-intensive, and their cultivation is a reason for the ongoing desertification of the country. According to the World Bank, groundwater supplies in Yemen will last no more than another generation or two. Meanwhile, Yemen's population growth rate is higher than three percent, one of the highest in the Middle East. Half of the country's population consists of children under fifteen.

Ma'rib's ratty streets smell of urine and petrol. The city swarms with young men, often in their early teens and with bad teeth and skin discolorations, riding around in pickup trucks, armed with knives and AK-47s. The knives are jambiyahs. Blunt and difficult to remove from their sheaths, they are rather impractical as ready weapons, and instead symbolize the stabilizing influence of tribal custom in Yemen—the social glue that keeps the rate of random crime low. The AK-47 is another matter. "Once you have a gun, why bother to learn to read and write?" a Yemeni soldier said to me, after I had asked a particularly hostile knot of young men if they attended school. They did not.

Estimates of the number of fire-arms within Yemen's borders go as high as 80 million—four for every Yemeni. Their availability, along with perhaps the largest al Qaeda presence anywhere outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, threatens to transform the small-scale tribal fighting that has plagued Yemen for centuries into a debilitating anarchy. Indeed, the high walls, the concertina wire, and the proliferation of armed guards in Sana'a indicate the level of apprehension felt by both the Yemeni government and the foreign community here.

Keep in mind that terrorism is an entrepreneurial activity, dominated by enterprising self-starters. An American military expert told me, "In Yemen you've got nearly twenty million aggressive, commercial-minded, and well-armed people, all extremely hard-working compared with the Saudis next door. It's the future, and it terrifies the hell out of the government in Riyadh." Take, for example, the Wadi Hadhramaut, a hundred-mile-long oasis in southeastern Yemen, surrounded by great tracts of desert and stony plateau and inhabited since 1,000 B.C. Despite its isolation and a history of insular tribal feuds, the region has for centuries maintained links with India and Indonesia, among other places. The Nizam of Hyderabad, in south-central India, recruited his bodyguards exclusively from among Hadhrami tribesmen. The Hadhramaut is also linked to Saudi Arabia, by Bedouin trails that in antiquity were caravan routes. Today all this makes for a convenient social and economic network in which an organization like al Qaeda can conduct global business—especially since Osama bin Laden's family has its origins in the Hadhramaut region.

Yemen is central to the destiny of Arabia and, therefore, to the war on terrorism. It was the political tensions in the Arabian Peninsula that spawned most of the September 11 terrorists, almost all of whom were Saudi nationals. Though Yemen has only a quarter of Saudi Arabia's land area, its population is almost as large, so the demographic core of the peninsula is here in its mountainous southwest corner, where sweeping basalt plateaus, rearing up into sandcastle formations and volcanic plugs, embrace a network of oases densely inhabited since the classical age.

Separated from one another by mountain fastnesses and rich from the production of funerary spices, ancient tribal kingdoms such as Saba, Hadhramaut, and Himyar fought wars even as their merchants cultivated contacts with Africa and South Asia. These kingdoms were followed by a bewildering array of medieval Shiite and Sunni Arab dynasties, among them the Ziyadids, the Zaydis, and the Rasulids, and while they reigned each valley or oasis remained sovereign unto itself. Though the Ottoman Turks ostensibly conquered Yemen in 1517, large swaths of tribal lands never came under their control. The British officers who followed the Turks and manned the Aden Protectorate were kept busy maintaining peace among the feuding tribes in the Hadhramaut and adjacent wadis. Freya Stark, a British explorer and Arabist who traveled in Yemen in the 1930s, wrote of "wild little men of some earlier world" who spent a lifetime in "guerrilla warfare."

Violence has never truly ceased in this corner of Arabia. From 1962 to 1968, in northern Yemen, a civil war between the forces of a conservative imam and revolutionary officers supported by Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt gradually disintegrated into tribal feuding, with villages regularly switching sides; the conflict claimed 200,000 lives before a military-run republic, known as North Yemen, emerged. Meanwhile, in southern Yemen, the Aden Protectorate gave way to a Marxist state, known as South Yemen; Moscow's attempt in 1986 to change the leadership of the Yemeni Communist Party led to a month-long intertribal war in which 10,000 people were killed. The Soviets found that governments in Yemen, as in Afghanistan, were easy to change, but that once installed they were undermined by clan divisions with origins in the hinterland. Because of its rugged topography, which has sustained a history of warlordism, Yemen, like Afghanistan, has been a stranger to successful colonial rule and to effective central government.

North and South Yemen were officially united in 1990, after South Yemen collapsed in the course of the worldwide dissolution of the Soviet empire. But the experiment with democracy, which succeeded in Eastern Europe, led instead to another civil war, in 1994, this time along north-south lines. The north emerged victorious; 7,000 people died in the fighting. Charred tanks still litter the southern road along the Arabian Sea.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a former army lieutenant colonel, has ruled first North Yemen and then unified Yemen since 1978. By most accounts, his government controls the main roads, oil fields, and pipelines; but significant patches of the countryside, especially the desert regions near the Saudi border, such as Ma'rib, al-Jawf, and Sa'da, stand largely ungovernable. Traveling around Yemen, one can see why this situation obtains. I sat at many crowded local road stalls where every man or boy not only had an AK-47 but didn't put it down even while eating. Nevertheless, President Saleh may be doing better than the Turks or the British before him in extending control over this country.

The level of stress on an Arab leader like Saleh—and, indeed, the risks both to him and to his immediate and extended family should he badly miscalculate—is so great that it would immobilize most American politicians, themselves no strangers to intense pressure. The aim of a ruler in Saleh's position is less to accomplish great things than to rule for a long time and then die peacefully in bed. This is why the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—whose somewhat sterile, dead-end autocracy evokes derision in the West—is by the region's standards a success, whereas his more dynamic predecessor, Anwar Sadat, assassinated by Islamic radicals in 1981, is often judged to have been an abject failure. Saleh's ability to keep hold of Yemen for a quarter of a century, even though several of his predecessors had short tenures before being assassinated, constitutes one of the region's less remarked-on success stories. Saleh has accomplished this by mastering tribal politics—which truly define what we in the West mean by "underdevelopment."

Underdevelopment can encompass many things (illiteracy, bad infrastructure, high unemployment, and infant mortality), all of which can be found in abundance in Yemen. Yet at root the word defines a situation in which the governing administration and its attendant bureaucracies are not guided by an impersonal system of laws and standards. Family ties and whom one knows are what's important. Thus Mexico is underdeveloped, even though it is a democracy, because Mexican judges are regularly bribed, and the police are perceived to be as dangerous as the criminals. Yemen is the ultimate underdeveloped country because of its tribal nature—an inheritance of geography and antiquity.

One afternoon in Sana'a, I sat in the top room of one of the city's many multi-tiered houses with about twenty tribesmen who reclined on the floor or on sofas, chewing qat. Sunlight fell through the stained glass in the room's latticework windows. A sheikh sat with a notebook, his Makarov pistol, and his AK-47, and spat qat leaves and juice into a spittoon. He listened to numerous supplications from those in the room, including one from a man whose brother had been arrested for allegedly stealing funds from the central bank. The idea that a good lawyer and an independent judge would provide justice was not especially considered. Only the sheikh, it seemed, could guarantee a fair resolution of the matter. "In Yemen," one of the supplicants told me, "the qabili [tribal] system is stronger than the government, stronger even than Islam."

Saleh's regime is subsumed by tribalism. Saleh belongs to the Hashid tribe, the smaller of the two main tribal confederations in western Yemen; the other is the Bakil. Of the two, the Hashids are better organized, and have saved the President during a number of confrontations in the past, especially with Marxist South Yemen. Officially, the country holds elections and has ministries. Unofficially, local elections are often a means of institutionalizing a sheikh's rule, so that a ministry can be partly a tribal fiefdom. Whereas rulers in the Persian Gulf states have used profits from oil to build roads and institutions in order to strengthen the grip of central government, from which modernization can ensue, this has not happened to quite the same degree in Yemen, partly because Saleh has had to use his petroleum profits—which account for two thirds of all government revenues—to bribe tribal leaders into quiescence, though these bribes will often go by the name of development assistance.

The tribal lands I traveled through in the Ma'rib region look poor, but their sheikhs are in some cases rich—from highway robbery, from smuggling guns across the border to Saudi Arabia, and from bribes. Saleh must compete with the largesse of Saudi Wahhabis and also, it is said, with al Qaeda for the loyalty of the sheikhs. To remain secure in power he must work not to alienate Yemen's tribal leaders. One Western analyst explained, "He holds all his enemies close so that he can see what they are up to, including the radical 'Afghan Arabs'"—veterans of the mujahideen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, on whom Saleh was forced to call for help in Yemen's 1994 civil war. One way he keeps a watchful eye on the sheikhs is by offering them land for lavish homes in Sana'a, so that they will spend less time in places like Ma'rib.

There are positive elements, of course, in the anachronistic Yemeni trinity of family, village, and tribe. It prevents the kind of stultifying centralized tyranny found in Iraq, Syria, and other Arab countries. Egyptians view their elections with cynicism, because they are transparently used to legitimize the regime; in Yemen the absence of a true tyranny may empower tribal leaders, but it also makes elections a vehicle for the legitimate expression of public dissatisfaction on many issues. Indeed, the problem in Yemen is more the diffusion of power than the concentration of it. Even the military checkpoints are freelance enterprises, with soldiers charging a few thousand riyals ($20) to jump into a car with a foreigner and protect him up to the next checkpoint.

Tribalism also acts as a restraint on partisan politics, so hard-fought elections need not necessarily lead to civil war, as they have in the past here. For example, the Islamic Islah party (the "Congregation for Reform") represents the main opposition to the government. Yet the Islah leader, Abdullah Al-Ahmar, belongs to the Al-Ahmar branch of the President's own Hashid tribe. Such links count in Yemen to a greater degree than they do elsewhere.

The challenge now is that this unruly yet viable tribal system is threatened by two destabilizing elements: al Qaeda and intense pressure from the Bush Administration.

Al Qaeda's attacks on the USS Cole, in Aden Harbor in 2000, and on the French tanker Limburg, off the Yemeni coast in 2002, may have perplexed some Western observers. After all, the bombings should have served to bring the United States and France, two bickering allies in the anti-terror coalition, closer together. But al Qaeda knew exactly what it was doing. Without Saleh, Yemen would be a conveniently chaotic, culturally sympathetic base for al Qaeda, much more useful than non-Arab, geographically peripheral Afghanistan. Saleh's regime is not necessarily weak: its security and party apparatus provide an institutional basis for power rare in twentieth-century Yemen. But a substantial reduction in government revenues, which are Saleh's main tool to placate hostile sheikhs, could still destabilize his regime. Some informal estimates suggest that the attacks have reduced the amount of cargo arriving in Aden by 75 percent, and that $25 million a month is being lost in the container trade. And war-risk-insurance premiums for ships calling at Yemeni ports are already six times the worldwide average. Reportedly, Saleh's government has lowered the price of its oil to compensate for the higher insurance rates, even though the costs and perceived risks of transporting it have caused less oil to be shipped from Yemen.

Oil revenues helped Saleh to end the wave of kidnappings of Westerners that plagued Yemen in the late 1990s. In typical enterprising Yemeni fashion, a sheikh who needed a water well or some other form of aid would simply kidnap a foreigner and hold him for ransom until a bargain with the regime had been struck. As the burgeoning tourist industry collapsed, Saleh increased the military presence along the main roads and made financial deals with tribal leaders to halt the abductions. Since the end of 2001 there have been no expatriate kidnappings. But if oil revenues diminish further, Westerners in Yemen fear, the abductions could resume.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has applied what can only be described as overwhelming pressure on Saleh to hunt down members of al Qaeda in Yemen. The successful Predator attack in Ma'rib—the product of intelligence that very probably came from the highest levels of the Yemeni government—shows how effective such pressure can be. In return Saleh is getting $22 million a year in military aid, which includes funds to establish a coast guard for the protection of Aden and other ports and to train Yemeni special forces to project power in the tribal badlands. Then there is U.S. aid for building hospitals and schools in the very areas threatened by al Qaeda, as part of a brave and spirited American attempt to show local people whose side they should be on.

Although in 1990 and 1991 Saleh allied himself with Saddam Hussein, now a stream of U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and General Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. fighting force in the Middle East, have paid visits to Sana'a. "Saleh has bought himself a one-way ticket with the Americans," a Western official in Yemen told me. "There is no turning back for him now."

Saleh has reduced the risk to himself by pulling closer to Ali Muhsen Saleh Al-Ahmar, his half brother through his mother and the brigadier general of an armored division that protects the capital. The general is reputed to be a buttoned-down, capable organizer who is close to the fundamentalist Islah movement, to radical gun-running sheikhs, and even to some in al Qaeda; one expert in Yemen even speculates that Ali Muhsen knew in advance of the attack on the USS Cole. The American pressure following September 11 was so severe, however, that both Ali Muhsen and Saleh felt they had no choice but to accommodate President Bush for the time being. In turn, the Americans have made a deal with this former "bad guy": it is said that giving his regiment a chunk of the American military-aid package is the price of doing business here. After Saleh, Ali Muhsen—not the chief of the military staff or the Prime Minister—may well be the most important person in Yemen. His ties with the radicals will be crucial for Saleh should the latter ever need to distance himself swiftly and credibly from Washington.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In