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Yemen’s People Rise Up Against its U.S.-Supported Dictator: U.S. Aid to Yemen Boosted Despite Slaughter of Protesters

By Asad Ismi

Hundreds of thousands of people in Yemen have been demonstrating against its dictator, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, for the last five months, in a massive uprising calling for his ouster. A favourite client of the United States, Saleh came to power in a military coup. He has been ruling Yemen for 33 years with so much repression and corruption that he has made it the poorest country in the Middle East. Inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions which removed unpopular dictatorships within a month, Yemenis have taken to the streets all over the country since January 15, in spite of being met by hails of bullets from security forces which, by mid-May, had killed up to 400 people.

On March 18, state forces killed 60 people in the capital, Sanaa, in the biggest massacre of protesters up to then. This slaughter, however, only increased the scale of the demonstrations against Saleh. On May 14, security officers fired from rooftops repeatedly on protesters in the city of Taiz in southern Yemen, wounding 35 people. The day before, three people were killed and 15 wounded when troops fired on protesters in Ibb, a city south of Sanaa. In Sanaa on April 19, security forces fired on large crowds of demonstrators, injuring 100 of them. Abdullah Kulaibi, one of the protestors, said, “We were being shot at directly. Security forces were trying to kill us, not disperse us.” Sabry Mohammed, another demonstrator, told Reuters that police “suddenly opened heavy gunfire on us from all directions.”

Saleh’s extreme brutality has split his army, causing the defection to the protesters of 10,000 soldiers of the First Armoured Division under the command of Major-General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar. Al-Ahmar is an important military leader and Saleh’s half-brother. His defection followed the massacre of demonstrators on March 18. Al-Ahmar’s forces have fired on Saleh’s soldiers when the latter have targeted protesters.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been trying to mediate the confrontation between Saleh and the demonstrators, who are made up mainly of youth, students, and a coalition of opposition parties known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). The GCC is dominated by Saudi Arabia and includes Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.). The GCC secured Saleh’s and the JMP’s agreement to a plan in which the JMP would join the government and Saleh would hand over power to his vice-president and resign within 30 days. Two months later, there would be a new presidential election.

Saleh, however, reversed himself and refused to sign the agreement when it came time to do so. Abdullatif al-Zayani, the GCC’s Secretary-General, returned to Sanaa on May 15 in an attempt to revive negotiations. The U.S. formally supported the GCC plan, but did not put any pressure on Saleh to resign. It is likely that this has emboldened Saleh to stay, prolonging his reign of terror and the suffering of the Yemeni people.

As with Egypt and Tunisia, the main reasons for the uprising against Saleh are the poverty and corruption his regime has created and the wide-ranging repression employed to enforce both. In a population of 24 million, close to half of Yemenis live in poverty (on less than $2 a day), 49% are unemployed, and 25% are chronically hungry. Yemen has the world’s third highest rate of malnutrition, with an appalling 43% of children under the age of five malnourished and more than half of all children in the country are stunted. There has also been a food crisis in the country for years, stoked by rising prices. Just since March, the prices for wheat have risen 45%, for rice 22%, and for vegetable oil 11%.

“In an age of extraordinary medical advances,” says Wasim Alqershi, a leading Yemeni activist, “the greatest hope of Yemenis is that their children are not crippled by polio. Man landed on the moon more than 40 years ago, but in Yemen many still dream of travelling by car rather than donkey. In an age of Facebook and Twitter, many Yemenis simply wish they could read a letter from a loved one. That is why the Yemeni revolution was formulated in the minds of the young long before it broke out on the ground. A failing economy and a deteriorating security situation, together with spiralling corruption, simply amplified most Yemeni people’s daily experience of poverty, ignorance and disease.”

Oil production is Yemen’s main source of revenue, and the country produces about 260,000 barrels of oil a day. On May 13, Amir Salim Al-Aydarus, Yemen’s oil minister, warned that the country is “on the brink of an imminent economic collapse due to recurrent bomb attacks on oil pipelines and ongoing social unrest. Several foreign oil companies,” he added, “have quit the country, and the refineries in the southern province of Aden have come to a standstill.”

“The vital problem in our country is corruption,” says Naeem Gasim Anam, a Yemeni regional expert. “The top people in Yemen’s government line their pockets through political influences.” Saleh’s dictatorship is riddled with corruption. According to the U.S. academic journal Foreign Policy, “Saleh has built a power system based heavily on buying the good-will of Yemen’s tribal leaders.” The journal also points to the president’s fuel-subsidy program that constitutes more than 10% of Yemen’s GDP, and states that “Saleh’s cronies are skimming $2 billion a year off the program for their own pockets.”

The journal emphasizes that “corruption — the theft of Yemeni public funds and foreign aid– is so rampant here that it would make Afghan President Hamid Karzai [another corrupt leader] blush. In a country with one of the highest child mortality rates in the Middle East, where only about half the people have access to medical services, top government officials and low-ranking workers alike steal and waste half of the slim allocation that the government devotes to health care, according to the World Health Organization.”

Also helping fill up the coffers of the Saleh dictatorship is Nexen, a major Canadian oil company, which operates the largest oil project in Yemen, located at the Masila fields. The company’s website states: “Yemen has been a significant international region for us since we first began production at Masila in 1993. We.have developed strong relationships with the government…” Funding the violent and corrupt Saleh regime makes a mockery of Nexen’s public emphasis on “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), which includes the company’s commitment to “support. the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights” and its wish “to increase long-term shareholder value in an ethical and socially responsible manner.”

Canadian journalist Dan Gardner has written about Nexen in the Ottawa Citizen: “Experts note that simply by operating in the country, a company effectively enriches and empowers the regime.” Adds Macartan Humphreys, a professor of political science at Columbia University (U.S.), on the same topic: “You’re providing large finances that are supporting the repressive power of the state.”

Saleh’s repression has been massive, even before his recent massacre of hundreds of unarmed demonstrators. He has suppressed all opposition by jailing, torturing, and “disappearing” journalists, political opponents, human rights advocates, and lawyers. These transgressions are documented in Amnesty International’s report on Yemen. The Saleh regime has been fighting two insurgencies in the north and south of the country, the former against Shia tribes that oppose the Sunni-dominated government, and the latter against a secessionist movement. In the first conflict, Saleh’s forces have killed thousands of civilians and displaced 130,000 people. In the second, it was Saleh’s brutal repression of demonstrations that provoked the broader insurgency.

Saleh’s violent and corrupt excesses have been facilitated by the United States, which is his main international backer. The U.S. has funded, trained, and armed Saleh’s security forces. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released in March, “Over the past two years, U.S. military and economic assistance to Yemen has dramatically increased.” The Obama administration, for fiscal year 2011, has asked for “$106.6 million in foreign assistance for Yemen, a request well above previous amounts ($42 million in 2009 and $67 million in 2010).” U.S. military aid to Yemen has almost tripled, with the Pentagon “providing an estimated $150 million in assistance [in fiscal year 2010], well above” the $66.8 million given in 2009.

Washington considers Saleh a key ally in its “war on terror.” In Yemen, the U.S. claims to be countering a threat from a group it calls “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP). The very term “Al Qaeda,” however, is a U.S. invention and there is no evidence of extensive activity by any such group in Yemen. A more likely explanation for the substantial U.S. aid to Saleh is Yemen’s strategic location. As the Congressional Research Service report states, “instability in Yemen would affect more than just U.S. interests ― it would affect global energy security, due to Yemen’s strategic location astride the Bab al Mandab strait between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.” Three million barrels of oil pass through this strait every day in tankers. Yemen also borders Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil exporter and a greatly valued U.S. puppet state.

Given such high stakes, it is no surprise that hundreds of U.S. special operations forces and intelligence operatives are in Yemen, carrying out assassinations and training Saleh’s security forces. Like Pakistan, Yemen is also a target of Washington’s drone strikes, as well as U.S. missile attacks, both approved by Saleh. In one such attack, in December 2009, a Tomahawk cruise missile carrying cluster bombs killed 41 civilians, including 21 children and 14 women in the southern district of Abyan. The missile was launched from a U.S. warship. Such attacks have greatly angered the Yemeni public and increased Saleh’s unpopularity.

In another deadly assault on Yemeni civilians, on May 5, the U.S. launched a drone strike in Yemen’s Shabwa province aimed at assassinating Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who is a U.S. citizen. The Obama administration has massively expanded drone attacks in Pakistan (compared to the Bush regime) and killed 1,200 people there in this manner during 2010, most of them civilians. Obama has made it official policy to kill any U.S. citizen he considers “a specially designated global terrorist,” without providing any evidence or seeking legal authority. Even Bush did not go to such extremes. The Hellfire missile fired by the drone, which was meant for al-Awlaki, instead killed Musaid Mubarak and Abdullah al Daghari, two brothers, when it destroyed the car they were in.


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, June 2011

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He has written extensively on U.S. imperialism and the Middle East.