Yemen: Geography Matters!

Yemen is probably the most misunderstood international story in the Western mass media since… well, Uganda in September 2009. As was the case during the Uganda uprising, I believe the problem originates in the ignorance of regionalism in Yemen, or as Professor Harm J. De Blij has written time and time again: geography matters.

There are two major yet unrelated conflicts taking place in Yemen — the Sunni and Al Qaeda-linked separatist threat in the central south of the country (a major concern of the United States) and a Shia uprising in the north (alarming to the Yemenis and Saudis, possibly supported by Iran, but of little relevance to the rest of the world). And carefully distinguishing between the two is critical to keep the US out of a real quagmire.

Let’s start from the beginning. A century ago, Yemen was divided into two spheres of influence, with the Ottomans controlling the Red Sea coastal area (North Yemen), while the Aden coast was a protectorate of the British (South Yemen). After World War I, a Shia spiritual leader established himself as King in North Yemen and titled his country the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. Although he initially fought with the growing Saudi state, the Saudis backed the king during the 1960s civil war, whereas the Soviets and Egyptians backed a republican insurgency, which came to an end in 1970. Meanwhile, the former British Protectorate became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1967, also enjoying backing from the Soviets. Perhaps due to the dual Red sympathies, perhaps due to Arab nationalism, the two states agreed to unify in the early 1970s, and ultimately merged in 1990. (A group in South Yemen declared and fought for independence during several months in 1994.)

Yemen's Civil War Map

The Cold War conflicts are essentially unrelated to today’s violence. Back then, the differences were primarily political. Today, the roots of the conflict are religious and tribal. The northern uprising in the mountains along the Saudi border is a Shia rebellion based on anger and frustration with the persecution and neglect of the mountainous region by the (Sunni) government. The Yemeni and Saudi governments are fighting this rebellion, and the Saudis have blockaded the coast, on the pretext of stopping Iranian arms from reaching the rebels. The violence has caused widespread displacement of people in the areas, as the Shia rebels and government troops treat civilian casualties as a secondary concern.

The border with Saudi Arabia and Yemen was definitively demarcated in 2000.

The Saudis are guilty of aggravating and prolonging the conflict. Wary of taking too many losses on the ground and unable to do much by air and sea, they have recruited the Hashed, a local tribe, to fight against the Huthi, the tribe central to the Shia rebels. The Hashed have several incentives to continue fighting for as long as possible — they have a long-standing feud with the Huthi, and make a great deal of money from fighting for the Saudis, and may be coming up with schemes to prolong the conflict. According to a source of Al Jazeera:

If [the Hashed are] given the mission of taking a particular mountain, for example, they’ll call up the Huthi leaders and tell them: ‘We’re getting five million riyals to take the mountain. We’ll split it with you if you withdraw tonight and let us take over’… After the tribesmen take charge, they hand it over to the Saudis… The next day, the Huthi return and defeat the Saudis and retake the mountain… It’s been happening like this for weeks.

No Western country wants to get involved in this fiasco, and we shouldn’t be baited into participating by either the Saudis or the Yemenis. Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the deputy Saudi defense minister, says he has “confirmed information” that al-Qaeda has been communicating and co-ordinating tactics with the Shia rebels, a charge Saudi and Yemen government official regularly trumpet as they justify their actions. They are also shouting that the Iranians are backing the rebels. But all of this is nonsense, and its worth comparing the map above, showing the area of the civil war, with the map below, showing strikes against Al Qaeda in recent months carried out by Yemeni forces. Note that the areas are entirely unrelated.


Then also compare the Shia uprising with this map showing key terrorist attacks in Yemen over the past decade. Once again, the map of attacks shows no common regional area with the Shia rebellion in the north.


Yemen has been a terrorist haven for the past decade. Kaplan wrote about the country in 2003, generally praising the president as a pragmatist, while recognizing that he has long forgiven and even allied with many of the violent Sunni tribalists in bed with Al Qaeda. And although Yemen only launched into the headline news after the Christmas 2009 attempted bombing, the violence is not new — the government killed dozens of Al Qaeda suspects in the weeks before Christmas, while the Shia rebel violence had spilled into Saudi territory by at least November. But the US, and the news media, must be cognizant of the fact that these two conflicts are entirely separate. The US must only assist Yemen in eradicating Al Qaeda elements in the central and southern coastal region of the country, and must not get involved in the Saudi-Yemeni border conflict that originates in the Sunni-Shia tribal rivalry of Arabia. If policymakers are awake, they should already know that, but the lack of analysis focusing on this in the media is alarming.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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21 Responses to Yemen: Geography Matters!

  1. Alex says:

    This is a good start, but as always it’s so much more complicated. First off, the government is not Sunni – the president and his family and cronies are all from Zaydi (Shia) backgrounds. And there are not two conflicts, but a mess of conflicts of both interests and arms, fueled by ideology, religion, family and tribal ties, and sheer power grabbing. On any given day there are actual or potential al-Qaeda members and sympathizers fighting alongside, on behalf of, *and* against the government in the North, the rural South, and the cities. Watching daily news reports from there is utterly bewildering. What can you expect from the country who gave us, at the start of the modern era, the first Shi`i-Salafi imam?

    Understanding geography is crucial, always, but it may not be the sort of skeleton key one might expect in this situation. What the US really needs to do is avoid relying on the Yemenis and Saudis for identifying persons and groups of interest.

  2. Pingback: Lord Curzon on Yemen « AMPONTAN

  3. Curzon says:

    See, Alex, that’s my concern:

    “On any given day there are actual or potential al-Qaeda members and sympathizers fighting alongside, on behalf of, *and* against the government in the North, the rural South, and the cities. Watching daily news reports from there is utterly bewildering. ”

    I simply don’t believe news reports that say there are Al Qaeda sympathizers in Sa’ada. It doesn’t make any sense. Al Qaeda is sporadically anti-Shia and has no interest in getting involved in there. It is the Yemeni and Saudi governments who want the US to think that and help them out. I simply don’t buy it.

    Thank you for correcting me, President Saleh is non-Hashimi Shia, not Sunni.

  4. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    There certainly seems some mischief in calling the two parts ‘North’ and ‘South’ when they are patently West and East… Are the names fair translations of what the locals use? Is it really ‘North’ and Aden? Google maps suggest no road contact between Oman and Aden, so that coast is probably pretty bleak (and hot)

  5. tdaxp says:

    Good post.

    I like the de Blij quote, too!

    The Looming Tower argues that Yemen was where UBL’s relationship with KSA fell apart. The Yemens agreed to merge and form a coalition government upon the discovery of oil near their border, allowing big-wigs in both governments to get rich. This meant, in UBL’s view, that the united Yemen was now “Communist” (as it had South Yemenis in the cabinet), and he wished to extend the Afghan Jihad to the Peninsula.

  6. Curzon says:

    UBL cared about that? Certainly the Saudis have long been suspicious of the republican, monarchy-overthrowing Yemenis, but they weren’t about to start a war over their merger. UBL wanted to fight to stop the Yemenis from merging??

  7. Ralph Hitchens says:

    The non-congruence of terrorist attacks and the territory affected by the insurgency is a non-issue. Terrorist attacks by definition will be carried out on the territory of the state attempting to suppress the rebellion.

  8. tdaxp says:



    I strongly recommend The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. I was turned off by the name, as it seems like more of a popular book than a history. Really, to capture the seriousness of the work, it should have a boring title, such as Al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, and the Islamic Group: Violent
    Political Islam in the Wake of Sayyid Qutb (1966-2001)

    Fortunately, Catholicgauze talked me into it, and I’m glad he did. From the trivial (bin Laden was an an acapella group that put out a cassette), to the insightful (two of bin Laden’s wives have Ph.D.s, he was the only of his brothers not to leave KSA for university), from the network-oriented (Zawahiri’s uncle was Qutb’s defense attorney) to the operational (Zawahiri had a spy within American special forces, who attempted to gain their trust by passing on secret (and true!) information about bin Laden; bin Laden’s previous organize, the Special Bureau, operated openly in the United States), The Looming Tower is a must read.

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  12. catoneinutica says:

    Extremely interesting article – certainly the most informative I’ve read to date on Yemen. The country seems to be another Shia/Sunni tectonic slip zone (going from the geographic to the geologic). And where there are large Shia populations, Iranian satrap-making efforts seem to be not far behind.

    Curzon has doubtless wearily noted that this is a leitmotif of mine from my posts at Mutantfrog, but I really believe that the Arabian Peninsula is shaping up to be a 21-century version of the pre-WWI (or post-Cold War – sigh) Baltics.

  13. catoneinutica says:

    Ugh…meant to write “Balkans.”

  14. SJPONeill says:

    “Terrorist attacks by definition will be carried out on the territory of the state attempting to suppress the rebellion.” By whose definition please? This might have been the case once when transport and communications were primarily by foot but certainly as far back as the American Revolution, terrorist/rebel attacks have also been made out of the ‘host nation’; the Irish, the Palestinians, Chechens and various affiliations of islamic takfir jihadist have also made habits of striking abroad…

  15. [...]authored a post earlier this month lamenting the lack of serious discussion concerning Yemen’s deteriorating security situation. Deeming it improper to not point out articles to the contrary on the rare occasions, I draw your attention to an excellent example of how we should be discussing the conflict[...]

  16. Pingback: Atlantic Sentinel | Geography Matters in Yemen

  17. Ralph Hitchens says:

    SJPONEILL, perhaps I should not have used the term “by definition” but I think it’s predominantly true. Even in Northern Ireland the IRA did not detonate bombs in Catholic neighborhoods, nor did the extreme Unionists do so in Protestant strongholds. Palestinian extremists target Israel, Chechens target Russia, etc. As Paul Simon sang, why deny the obvious?

  18. Pingback: Yemen. Geography matters. And two unrelated conflicts are happening there now | Politics in the Zeros

  19. Nice, concise bit of history here Curzon. The Saudi’s attempt to regionalize it by dangling the specters of AQ and Iran involvement with the Shia resistance is a bit pathetic.

    The US needs to tread light in Yemen and realize, very early on, that the Yemeni government will ultimately focus much more of it’s effort on the Shia rebellion than the embedded presence of AQ for much the same reason Pakistan confronts Taliban militants in south Waziristan while largely leaving the north alone. The former are a direct threat while the latter can be cajoled and even brought into some semblance of alliance.

  20. Pingback: tdaxp » Blog Archive » Review of “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11″ by Lawrence Wright

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