Yemen and the War on Terror

After another bloody day in Yemen, questions need to be asked about the relationships that facilitate and constrain the government’s actions. I’m reading a number of reports that suggest the weapons used against protesters in Sana’a came from US-military shipments, and this comes as no surprise. To my mind, the most damaging thing to happen to Yemen over the past decade has not simply been the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Instead, it has been the country’s incorporation into the US ‘War on Terror’, and all the damage it has entailed. This is not meant to imply that America represents some sort of imperialist ogre. In many ways, the alliance has been mutually convenient: clinging to the notion that Saleh is all that stands between stability and chaos in Yemen, the US have often turned a blind eye to his repressive actions as he manipulates the rhetoric of counterterrorism to suit his own ends.

Salehʼs position as a fully-fledged actor in the War on Terror has therefore brought many advantages: until recently, he has had a relatively free hand to persecute domestic opposition under the guise of counterterrorism, using a security apparatus that has been trained and funded by the United States. These forces have been repeatedly deployed to crush uprisings in the north and south of the country, and now we are seeing their lethal capacity unleashed on anti-regime demonstrators. He has balanced this with a notional commitment to reform, absorbing money from the US and other international donors and channelling it into patronage networks that cement his position at the top.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to overstate Saleh’s agency in what remains a military partnership.  That the regime feels obliged to use the western lexicon of counterterrorism, despite domestic hostility, reflects the regimeʼs achilles heel: in relying on external aid to fulfill patronage duties and secure limited domestic autonomy, it is fatally weakened. Salehʼs participation in the War on Terror has forced him into a delicate and precarious balancing act. Dependent on his ability to appease plural social forces, he must pursue a dual strategy towards his domestic constituency and the international community. On the one hand, he must demonstrate an ability to act regardless of US concerns, and on the other, he must prove his credentials as a strongman in the War on Terror. The latter pressure has been as much a constraining factor as a structure of opportunity and an added justification for furthering an internal political reordering.

As the cracks in Saleh’s regime are beginning to show, the full impact of the US-Yemeni alliance becomes increasingly apparent. For the US, this has involved a rediscovery of the fact that nailing their colours to the mast of a dictator will only pay-off in the short-term. Not only are finding it difficult to take a strong stance against a monster of their own making, but their weapons are publicly being used to further his repressive agenda. On the Yemeni side, a decade of US support has failed to secure the regime’s political future. Saleh’s ad hoc strategy of buying off pockets of resistance using American funds and unleashing violence upon those who do not cooperate has culminated in a backlash which he is unable to appease. The reliance on patronage networks and repression has resulted in an environment where political openings rarely appear unless there is international pressure to do so. When they materialise, reforms are cosmetic and the system underpinning them remains deeply corrupt. In this respect, the US-Yemeni alliance has only delayed Saleh’s moment of reckoning; after a decade of prioritising external relations over the country’s political future, resentment has now spilled onto the streets.

For Saleh, his part in the War on Terror now represents more of a trap than an opportunity. As he gambles that violent crackdowns will remain unpunished by an American ally fearful of alternatives to his rule, he moves closer towards the point of no return. Yemenis will forget neither his brutal response nor his dance with the American devil that made it possible.



  1. Talking to some ‘oil people’, they seem to be thinking that the major knock-on effect of Yemen will be in Saudi, because the border is so poorly-defined and dependent on tribal compliance. Between that and Libya they seem ‘very concerned’ (for which I read ‘rubbing their hands’) that oil might head towards $200 a barrel. If Yemen provokes uprisings in the Saudi hinterlands that could be quite something, though as Bahrain has shown, the response will likely be swift and hard.

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