British and US imperialism take aim at Yemen

The US and Britain have declared Yemen as the next hotbed of Al Qaida activity and have prepared their military targets. Britain has now imposed a ‘no fly’ ban on the entire Yemeni civilian population. From 1839 southern Yemen was an important geo-strategic colony of the British and later a gateway to the Suez Canal. Today, with the excuse of ‘the war on terror’, Britain and the US once again seek to gain influence on the Arabian peninsula, scrambling for the chance to intervene.

The recent failed attack of the ‘Underwear Bomber’ on 25 December 2009 has allowed the US to force the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to accept further drone attacks and surveillance (which began in 2002), imperialist military funding and the influx of US and British military advisers. Their military intervention could lead to the occupation of the whole country.

Since August 2009 the Yemeni government has waged Operation Scorched Earth, a military offensive on northern Shia-Zaidi Muslim civilians, known as Houthis. In December 2009 an air strike in northern Yemen by either US or Saudi jets killed 120 Houthi people. On 17 December, the Yemeni government attacked a site north of the capital Sana’a, killing an alleged 34 Al Qaida militants. However, local officials reported the deaths of 49 civilians, among them 23 children. The total casualties are unknown due to a media blackout, but deaths run into hundreds and wounded into thousands. US, British and Saudi influence over these manoeuvres has long been apparent and is increasing.

Saudi Arabia is by far the most important foreign power in Yemen, providing $2 billion in budget support. The Saudis are reported to be using white phosphorous shells to bomb northern Yemen. The struggle of the Houthis in north Yemen is not unlike that of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza in that they have demanded an end to the collusion between the ruling authority and the US and Israel. The contempt and hostility of Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi establishment for Shia Muslims is an important reason why they have provided material support to Saleh’s attempt to put down the northern uprisings. In 1990 Yemen refused to join the war against Iraq and consequently Saudi Arabia expelled 850,000 of its two million Yemeni workers.

The recent disclosure that Britain had a military training presence in the country even before the failed 25 December airline attack, comprising members of the SAS working as mentors to Yemeni forces in strike operations and interrogation techniques, follows the announcement last month that the US will be sending special forces to the country in the fight against ‘terrorism’. The US has already conducted covert operations in Yemen, using unmanned Predator drones from bases in nearby Djbouti to attack ‘terrorist’ safe houses and provided intelligence and missiles for three recent air strikes in Arhab, Abyan and Shabwa provinces.

Even though US intelligence estimates only about 200 Al Qaida members in Yemen, by 1 January 2010 the US had doubled its security assistance to Yemen’s government to $140 million from $67 million in 2009. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently announced that the US and Britain have agreed to fund and train a counterterrorism police unit in Yemen. Britain also plans to support Yemeni coastguard operations – strategically vital for imperialism as Aden and Yemen face a major world shipping lane linking Europe and the Middle East to East Asia.

Yemen has depended on oil reserves which are now running out. Its population is officially the poorest on the Arabian peninsula and has an unemployment rate of 35%. The average person in Yemen survives on one-fifth of what the World Health Organisation considers to be an adequate amount of water in a country where about 45% of the people live on less than $2 a day. UNICEF has indicated the number of internally displaced people now totals 175,000 since the conflict in the north began; half of them are children.

Now the US and Britain will face a difficulty in Yemen similar to that in Afghanistan, by supporting an unpopular and corrupt government. It is not that Al Qaida is strong but that it will be swimming in sympathetic waters because the government is in a weak position. A high proportion of the captives still held by the US at Guantanamo are Yemenis and the US does not want to return them to Yemen, fearing that they will join Al Qaida.

However, the Yemeni people have a history of anti-imperialist struggle and evicted the British occupation forces from Aden in 1967. With the oil reserves running dry, President Saleh’s ability to buy off his opponents and former friends has begun to wane. The imperialists may find themselves wading into quicksand yet again.

Anthony Rupert

FRFI 213 February / March 2010


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