On the Death of Ali Abdullah Saleh

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Was Ali Abdullah a product of Yemen, or was Yemen a product of Ali Abdullah? The answer is a complicated mix of personality and history, and what it reveals promises an even bleaker future for this desperate and beautiful and time-torn land. 

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Is Iran Rogue for Arming The Houthis? Only If You Think the US Should Determine What Happens in the Middle East

 

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Pictured: Not the US

 

It’s been a big couple of day for people pointing out Iran’s involvement in Yemen’s cruel and generationally-destructive civil war. The Times had a pretty big story about it, relying on the unbiased reporting of the United States.

The top American admiral in the Middle East said on Monday that Iran continues to smuggle illicit weapons and technology into Yemen, stoking the civil strife there and enabling Iranian-backed rebels to fire missiles into neighboring Saudi Arabia that are more precise and far-reaching.

Iran has been repeatedly accused of providing arms helping to fuel one side of the war in Yemen, in which rebels from the country’s north, the Houthis, ousted the government from the capital of Sana in 2014.

The officer, Vice Adm. Kevin M. Donegan, said that Iran is sustaining the Houthis with an increasingly potent arsenal of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats that have attacked allied ships in the Red Sea or Saudi territory across Yemen’s northern border. The United States, the Yemeni government and their allies in the region have retaliated with strikes of their own and recaptured some Houthi-held coastal areas to help blunt threats to international shipping, but the peril persists, the admiral said.

This is an…interesting spin on this. To be clear, it is almost certainly true. Though initial Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict (dating back to 2004) was clearly exaggerated, as there weren’t any real links between the Houthi version of Shi’ism and Iran’s Twelverism, Iranian influence and involvement have grown disastrously.

But one of the main reasons Iranian involvement has grown is because of increased involvement by Saudi Arabia, its regional and sectarian rival. Saudi Arabia wanted to break the Houthi rebellion and support their chosen President, and so invaded, with horrifying results.

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Temperature Forecast for the Middle East: Hot and Dry Conditions Expected for 10,000 Years

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The Empty Quarter looks like a preview of what’s to come

It’s going to be 90 and humid in Chicago tomorrow. Ugh. But, relatively, I don’t feel too bad.

July 10 (UPI) — New analysis of Iranian stalagmites have offered a detailed history of water resources in the region. The findings suggest the Middle East is unlikely to enjoy a relief from its prolonged drought for at least another 10,000 years.

The newest analysis — detailed this week in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews — helped scientists estimate water availability during the last glacial and interglacial periods. The findings suggest water in the Middle East is likely to remain scarce for some time.

We’ve talked about how drought has helped to create and sustain the wars and conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and other areas. That is connected to this. The immediate droughts are, I think, part of the larger pattern, or a dip in a permanent decline (permanent on a civilizational level).

This kind of drought is to be expected in an interglacial period, as the study says. The problem, of course, is that we didn’t know we were in an interglacial period, and so built civilizations as if everything was going to stay the same forever. It didn’t, of course. Mesopotamia was once verdant, but it got used up, made into a harsh desert by human shirt-sightedness, made worse by the normal shifting of rivers, made worse by the normal planetary rhythms, and made worse by war, and made catastrophically worse by the acceleration of climate change.

Indeed: A number of climate models have previously predicted much of the Middle East will become too hot and dry to sustain large human populations by the end of the century.

This is why it is so irritating when dummies say “the world has always been changing, so don’t worry about climate change!” Yes, it is true, the world has always been changing. But what they miss is that when it changes this much, it is catastrophically bad for living things.

And what they miss is that these natural changes, like the drought patterns in the Middle East during interglacial periods, happen on an inhuman time scale, which means that we’ve built our civilizations in ignorance of their impact. And then we accelerate their impact with the very product of our civilization. It’s making everything incredibly worse. It’s like pointing to a map of Pangea and sneering that “the continents are always moving!” while turning on your earthquake machine.

The planet that might not actually be conducive to our existence, long-term. We’re in the glacial flicker, and thought it would be permanent. All of our actions over the last few centuries–and really, all of our existence–have made that existence less tenable.

(For further reading on just how bad it can get, read David Wallace-Wells’ remarkable and remarkably depressing NYMag article “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Maybe not everything he says will come true (and he’s not saying it all will). But a lot of this is inevitable.

If you don’t want to read it, just close your eyes and picture the Middle East uninhabitable in 80 years. Know it will just keep getting hotter and drier, which will make it more violent as people fight and kill for scarce resources, and the refugee crisis makes today’s trickle a flood (exacerbated by what will be happening in Africa, Central Asia, the American southwest, etc). These are not worst-case scenarios. They’re the future.)

Mohammed bin Salman, Murderer of Yemen, To Be Next Saudi King

 

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This is the yacht future king Mohammed bin Salman bought last year for over $300 million.

 

To say the Saudi line of succession has been sclerotic is to underestimate the ravages of sclerosis. It has barely been a succession, as far as we usually understand it, as the kingdom hasn’t moved forward a generation since Ibn Saud kicked it in 1953: it has just been a series of his sons, a bunch of dyed-bearded princelings handing the crown sideways to each other for 60 years. There’s been more dynamism in the staid permanence of Queen Elizabeth.

But that had to change. As prolific a progenitor as Ibn Saud was, eventually he was going to run out of sons. The current occupant, Salman, was one of the last born, in 1935. He’s 81 years young, and just yesterday announced one of the bigger shakeups in Saudi Arabia’s brief history.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia promoted his 31-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, to be next in line to the throne on Wednesday, further empowering a young, activist leader at a time when the kingdom is struggling with low oil prices, a rivalry with Iran and conflicts across the Middle East.

The decision to remove the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, comes as some members of the royal family have chafed at the rise of the younger prince, who emerged from relative obscurity when his father, 81, ascended the throne in January 2015.

So whence the trigger for this move? Well, there are competing reasons.

The first is that bin Nayef might have fallen slightly out of favor due partly to the weird diplomatic attack on Qatar. That’s probably unfair to him, since they were given a tacit (and then essentially explicit) ok to do so from Donald Trump (which is a sentence that will never seem like it makes sense: “Wait, the guy from The Apprentice?” It sounds like a dispatch from Bizzaro World, which, I suppose, it is).

Despite Trump’s deeply unserious and self-praising blundering, the State Department yesterday came out strongly against KSA and UAE, with some deeply undiplomatic language.

On June 20, the State Department issued a statement that was perhaps the strongest criticism of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent memory. In response to Saudi statements about having proof of Qatar’s terror financing—an issue that historically has been a real concern for all GCC countries—State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. was tired of waiting for the proof: “Now that it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.”

She went on to add that the “more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?”

That hurts. Neither country is very good at dealing with criticism, and they generally react poorly. Still, though, their heavy-handed nonsense, which only served to empower Iran and Turkey, might have been the precipitating factor, but it clearly wasn’t the only one. This is less about bin Nayef, who has long been the crown prince of American foreign policy hearts, and more about bin Salman. The Soufan Group explains:

Perhaps one element of the king’s announcements that may have caused surprise was their timing. But with the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen attracting wide support in the kingdom and throughout the rest of the Sunni Middle East, where it is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a long overdue and muscular retort to the growth of Iranian influence, this was a good time to promote Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As minister of defense, Mohammed bin Salman has been presented as the man in charge of the air campaign and the architect of what may be seen as a rare Arab military success. It is likely that the impact of the campaign has now peaked, with little more to be achieved against a relatively powerless neighbor without a far more tricky and uncertain ground operation; the elevation of Prince Mohammed bin Salman may therefore have caught his popularity on the flood.

Yup. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. Bin Salman was barely known before the war against Yemen, or against Iran, started. But he quickly won favor with a stirring series of military successes based entirely on indiscriminate carpet bombing. It got so bad that the US Congress intervened on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, briefly.

Now, of course, the floodgates are opened. Team Trump sees Yemen as an “area of active hostilities”, wiping away even the pretense that Yemen was a humanitarian situation more than a war zone (and, to be fair, Obama barely kept up even that pretense). They look at Yemen, and see a spot for ISIS and AQAP, but mostly they see Iran (and probably conflate the threats).  And so the elevation of bin Salman, who is perhaps the strongest Sunni voice for anti-Iranian belligerence, sees his kinghood at least temporarily assured.

One can’t blame this entirely or even largely on Trump or on the United States, of course. The rivalry has been brewing for decades. Centuries, really, but not being strict determinists, we’ll look at the political battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran from a contemporary geopolitical lens. It’s the “big war” in which all the little wars are fought.

It’s a cold war which is getting hotter, and proxies are not being added as much as adopted. The war in Yemen would have happened without Saudi and Iranian interference; indeed, they more or less just chose sides, Iran more so because everyone already thought they did, and so had to save a little face. Syria, same. So every generational conflict is now being subsumed into this big war, which amps up the carnage and lowers the chance of any kind of decent revolutions for decades.

For an example of how this can spiral out of control for generations, look at how Afghanistan’s internal strife hasn’t stopped since it got further ground up in the abattoir of US/Soviet politics. And we only had like 30 years of hating each other at that point.

Yemen’ agony is unbearable. The nation “on the brink” for 10 years has fully topped over. It will never be whole. Famine and disease will wreck it. Bin Salman is not its only oppressor. These wars have been brewing and exploding through avarice, short-sightedness, and petty politics. But he is most responsible for the sheer reckless destruction and degradation of anything resembling a functioning state. And now that has been elevated. This war, both big and small, is just getting started.

Trump’s Saudi Arabia Speech Condemns Yemen; Shows Shallow Weakness of His Phony Tough Guy Approach

 

Admit it, you’d like to see how Trump would do filling this out, right?

 

I was in the car during the President’s big speech on terrorism to a bunch of gilded heirs in a gilded palace, and there was a certain peculiar horror at hearing that voice saying those words. Even ignoring for a moment the substance of what he said, it was the fact that Donald Trump, who couldn’t be bothered to learn the first thing about terrorism other than “it’s bad, ok, believe me?”, was giving a major talk to rapt heads of state, forced to listen because this was the most powerful man in the world, representing the United States of America. It really put into stark relief the absurdity of our moment.

In a way, it was even worse that most of what he said was insipid and banal, a series of rolling cliches that sounded like the book report of a middling college Republican. His teleprompted bromides made him sound, in our dumb media formulations, “Presidential”. But you also didn’t have to dig very deep to see the bloody soil right beneath his feet.

The President made very clear that only one thing mattered: “defeating terrorism” by force. The drumbeat of his speech, the part they probably most want remembered, is when he dimly intoned with fake-machismo that the collected autocrats and kings should “DRIVE THEM OUT”.  It’s a strange formulation, because for all his anti-PC swagger about how this is an Islamic problem, he seemingly ignores that you can’t just “Drive them out” without addressing the sicknesses and pathologies in society, both internal and imposed, that have led to ISIS.

Clearly, thinking about those contradictions aren’t important to Trump or Bannon or Miller. What’s important is to give free reign to the collected autocrats, which is why the triumph of the weekend was to sell the Saudis $110 billion worth of arms. We should remember that selling rich people something they want to buy could only be done by a master of the deal.

This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase — and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies. This agreement will help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security operations.

And what are these security operations? Well, there is the internal defense of the Kingdom, of course. But he really gave away the game when he was talking about how the assembled countries are already…

“…making significant contributions to regional security: Jordanian pilots are crucial partners against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen. The Lebanese Army is hunting ISIS operatives who try to infiltrate their territory. Emirati troops are supporting our Afghan partners. In Mosul, American troops are supporting Kurds, Sunnis and Shias fighting together for their homeland.”

I was thinking that we can ignore that he pronounced “Houthi” as if it should be followed by “and the Blowfish”; that’s the sort of internet-type snark that obscures bigger issues. Every politician makes mistakes, and anyway, who can blame him? It’s doubtful he’d ever said, or maybe even heard, the word “Houthi” before.

But that’s sort of the point. He blithely lumps the Houthi faction in the overlapping Yemeni civil wars with ISIS, even though Sunni extremists and the Houthis are bitter enemies. And while there is no question that the Houthis aren’t exactly stabilizing the region, the greatest damage has been done by the Saudi coalition, recklessly carpet-bombing the country into a bleak future of starvation and war. And disease. Due to the country’s already fragile infrastructure being destroyed, the WHO estimates as many as 300,000 cholera cases over the next six months.

Yemen shows the disastrous focus of the Trumpian approach. “We won’t tell you how to do your business, as long as you fight ISIS and stand against Iran.” There are so many areas where that is contradictory nonsense. To the extent that the Houthis are aligned, it is with Iran, against the Sauds, and against Sunni extremists, whether that is ISIS or al-Qaeda (in fact, multiple bombings of Houthis by extremists helped start the latest round of fighting, and helped draw them further into national battles). Allowing, or in fact encouraging, Saudi Arabia to have free reign in a country that we see only an “area of active hostility” will hurt the enemies of ISIS and create the very same “safe zones” that the Administration decries.

The problem is that the the primary focus is Iran, and stopping Iranian power. It’s part of Jared Kushner’s big play to unite the Sunni Arab world to stand against Iran, and get a peace treaty for Israel and Palestine out of it. This is one of those grand world plans which was drawn by the great Arabists and Orientalists in the early 20th century, drawing lines on a map, and assuming that “If we get Sunnis here, we’ve got it made.” Those ended in failure and bloodshed, and weren’t drawn by idiots with zero experience.

The problem is that these people think it is simple: a matter of will, and some brilliant negotiating tactics. They have zero knowledge of history, zero concern for how the region actually works, and zero ability to see past their own shallow ideas. They think it is an easy math problem, a quick sell. And there might even be surface-level successes!

There is no doubt that the gilded heirs sitting in Arabesque thrones are happy to see one of their own, and that the strongman tyrants are glad to see someone who emulates them, with his soft hands yearning to be considered callous and callused. I’m sure there will be papers signed and treaties made and grins exchanged. But by papering over everything but the headlines, and focusing on quick results rather than intelligent gains, this administration will set back the cause of freedom, of peace, and of actual security, another generation.

For them, the Middle East is, as is everything else in their dumbshow lives, a quick con and a chance to soak up applause before getting out of town. In going international, we’re finally giving thr world the bill of goods we so eagerly bought.

 

Yemen’s Agony: Starvation, War, Drought, and a Posioned Future

 

 

Yemen has only really been in the American public conscience since December of 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to explode a bomb hidden in his underpants aboard a plane over Detroit. It didn’t go well, for him at least. But that was the first time the media en masse started to pay attention to Yemen. Before, if it was known at all, it was talked about vaguely, as a state where there were probably terrorists, but who really knew?

Well, after that, everyone knew. It wasn’t vague. For Americans, and much of the West, Yemen = terrorism. For me, as someone who spent a good decade of my life writing (or trying to write) professionally about Yemen, terrorism was always the hook. Most of us writing or talking about it tried to show the bigger picture, to paint Yemen as an actual country with real people and a history, but the story was almost always, ultimately, terrorism.

And that’s been a contributing to Yemen’s agony.  I’m trying to remember the last (or first) time I’ve heard a US politician talk about Yemen in positive terms, other than paying tribute to former President Saleh for being an “ally” in the GWOT, but even that was entirely about terrorism. It is identified, if at all, with being one of those explosive places on the map, the kind of joint where nearly everyone wants to kill you. Yemen is met with a shrug, at the most positive.

That’s partly why, I think, the horrible reality of its present has failed to make even the slightest dent in the public mind. What is happening in Yemen is shocking and sick-making and morally revolting; the numbers are truly apocalyptic. 17 million people are facing famine this year. Social services are wiped out. Traditional safety nets have been destroyed by war. Distribution networks are non-existent. Every 10 minutes, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes.  The mind reels at the brutality of life and cowers from the lengthening shadow of a death-hunted land.

These are the kinds of horrors that usually awaken the generous conscious of the American people, and I genuinely mean that. For all our public meanness, when the country is roused, its private citizens turn their good fortunes outward. But with Yemen, there is nothing.

I think that’s partly, of course, because we have our own problems here. A quick glance down this blog shows where my priorities are; I have less an excuse to ignore Yemen than literally almost anyone in the United States. Even Yemen posts have largely been US and Trump-centric. But a lot of it is because Yemen is easily brushed off as a country where there are no real people, just terrorists. And if not terrorists, certainly some other kind of bad dude.

That’s why the war crimes of our great ally Saudi Arabia have been ignored (by successive administrations, to be clear). It’s why we don’t at all blink an eye when Yemen is reduced to “areas of active hostilities“, an expansion of war.  It’s why it isn’t a scandal when the incoming POTUS knows absolutely nothing about the region (though to be fair, he doesn’t know anything about anything). And it is why a strategy designed to provoke civilizational collapse is basically seen as aces all around, when it isn’t being actively ignored.

And that’s what this is: a civilization that is collapsing, pummeled from without and starving from within. It’s running out of water as well as food, a terrible harbinger for our collective climate-imperiled future. The lack of resources fuel more war; war increases the resource shortage. Millions will die in withering agony.

This could be the worst famine in modern times, surpassing even the miseries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Biafra, Ireland, approaching the terror famines of the Ukraine. And to be clear, this is little different than the last example (or any of these examples). You don’t have the towering figure of Stalin or Mengistu orchestrating the misery, but you have the shadow of indifference and even active complicity across the world.

The UN estimates it needs $2 billion dollars to fight the famine, and $1 billion has been pledged. That’s pledged, not collected, and it is still short. Meanwhile, we’re slashing foreign aid (the public meanness which stands contemptuous rebuke to the short bursts of private decency; no politician has ever won by promising to increase aid to foreigners). The US alone could easily make up the shortfall; Trump wanted a billion for a down payment on his idiot wall. But there was no way to turn cruelty into decency.

This isn’t about the next generation of terrorists, or the stretegic importance of turning enemies into allies. That is important, and it is blind and willful idiocy to let Yemen collapse. It isn’t even about how we are dealing with a terrible onrushing future in which this will happen more and more, as resources dwindle and water evaporates and conflict increases. That’s also important; this is just the beginning of the show.

But it is also simply mean and terrifying. These are real lives, which will be extinguished with a stomach’s empty and piteous howl. These are human beings, lives ripped apart by Yemen’s place in the world’s collective conscience, as a testing ground for ideas and ideologies. It’s another judgment on our species. It isn’t a good one.