“Americans are so hung up on the democracy thing. Get over it.”
Roby Barrett on the Middle East
“Americans are so hung up on the democracy thing; I think they have got to get over it. You have to look at the region, not just over the past 20 years, and not just for what you want to see, but how it has functioned over the past. That is where we have been going wrong” … “We believe that no matter the situation democracy is the right approach. Well that is simply not true.”
Interview by Zainab Alatraktchi
Dr. Roby Barrett is a scholar with the Middle East Institute based in Washington D.C. He is also the president of a consulting firm specializing in defense and security issues. Barrett is a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer in the Middle East and has authored “The Greater Middle East and the Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy Under Eisenhower and Kennedy” (2007) as well as “Yemen: A Different Political Paradigm in Context” (2011). We spoke to him about Yemen and the MIddle East in general.
TQT: Maybe you could start by describing what has caused the instability in Yemen now, and why the conflict escalated so suddenly?
RB: Yemen is not really a state. When people talk about it as being ‘a failed state’, they are totally incorrect in my view. Yemen is not a state, it has never been a state, and it will never be a state. There are probably five or six different groups that would claim some sort of autonomy. Including the Zaydis in the North. You could go back 1000 years and not be able to identify a functioning “national state.“
In the last 100 years there have been constant conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Saudi Arabia took the side of the Zaydis in the North – what we now call the Houthis – against the republican government in Sana’a for ten years during the civil war. I don’t really like this ’Houthi’-term, because what we really have now is a general struggle of the Zaydis against the Sunnis, which is about a 50/50 split in the population. In the northern part of Yemen, the old Imamate and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), the Zaydis have had an upper hand because they generally controlled the military.
A factionalized, chaotic conflict has been going on in Yemen for millennia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we found out that [Southern Yemen’s] viability was almost totally dependent on the East Bloc – of course, that was prior to the discovery of oil in the South. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a decision to be made: Should there be two countries, a Southern and Northern Yemen, or should they be united? The U.S. went with the united approach and supported Ali Abdullah Saleh [president of North Yemen 1978-1990 and for Yemen after unification (1990). In 2011-2012 gave up the presidency but from 2014 siding with the Houthis, ed.]. I think the word that was used was that he would be ‘the pathway’ to democracy and stable government. I mean, it is almost laughable now, but the U.S. foreign policy establishment said this for years. And you would find any number of American ambassadors going on record talking about Saleh and democracy in political parties. For Saleh, commitment to “democracy” was a game. He was committed to his and his family’s position of political power.
The Saudis really opposed Saleh and a Yemeni unification on several fronts – they saw that the Sunni areas would be dominated by a Zaydi government in Sana’a. In 1990, they opposed unification and supported a two-state solution. In the 1994 civil war, the Saudis supported the Southern revolt against northern-based Zaydi domination. Meanwhile, the U.S. actually supported Saleh in the North. The Saudis really knew [Yemeni politics] and believed unification in the long-run would cause nothing but problems. In addition, Saleh could not really by trusted by anyone.
TQT: So there’s a track record of instability, but what set off the current conflict?
RB: Saleh attempted to hold power in 2011-2012 literally by shooting demonstrators down on the streets. This prompted the Saudis, who ironically had supported Saleh from the early 2000s after opposing him in the 1990s because Saleh opposed the Houthis, to arrive at a compromise approach proposed by the U.S. and other Western powers. This was the so-called U.N.-backed great “reconciliation movement”. Frankly, I don’t think anyone ought to have believed that this was going to work. The Saudis supported it, but they were more than a little doubtful of its chances for success.
When the “reconciliation process” collapsed, the U.S. was utterly shocked. Various ambassadors had been talking about how Yemeni negotiations were making progress and then suddenly the situation collapsed into civil war. Those of us that really knew Yemen believed that this effort would come unstrung. And we spoke up. Three years ago, I argued at a major conference on Yemen that the chances for success were slim to none. Because while all those at the reconciliation conference called themselves Yemeni, they are fundamentally different peoples. Those in the South are different from those in the North, Zaydi versus Sunni. But it’s even more complicated than that, because even in the South, people far out in the South East were very different from the people in Aden [in the South West] etc. So you have these multiple „Yemens“, and yet you were trying to say that you were going to form some sort of unified state. No part of Yemen wants to be ruled by another part. So the perception that you could have a federal state based on Sana’a, was absolutely, I think, ludicrous from the beginning.
Saleh was allegedly removed. But he never out of the picture. He maintained his influence in the army and his role as head of the General People’s Congress. His replacement – Hadi – lacked both Saleh’s power and influence.
Then came the explosion. First, Ali Abdullah Saleh was allegedly removed and stepped out of the picture, and Hadi steps in. Saleh was never out of the picture. He maintained his influence in the army and his role as head of the General People’s Congress. His replacement – Abd Rabbou Mansour Hadi – lacked both Saleh’s power and influence. Hadi’s history is very interesting. He was a part of a coup d’état in 1986 in South Yemen and had to flee to the North after it failed. And so during the 1994 conquest of South Yemen by Salih, Hadi ended up as Vice President. After the reunification, the Southerners still didn’t like him and he was a foreigner to the Northerners. When the 1994 civil war ended, Saleh needed a Southern figure head to be his vice president so he appointed Hadi. As a result, when Saleh stepped down, the United States came to the conclusion that Hadi was the obvious person as Vice President to step up and he was “elected” as interim president. That set off a chain of events that brings us to the current situation. There was no way that Hadi was ever going to survive in Sana’a. And that led to a situation in which Saleh, who had never really given up his power within the military, had the Yemeni military sit on the sidelines, while Houthis came down from the North and took Sana’a.
Now you need to understand this: The Houthis represent a revivalist, religious movement within the Zaydi Shia community. Saleh and most of his officers, his key intelligence officials, were all Zaydis as well. They were just more secular than the tribal Zaydis of the North. Saleh saw his chance to side with the Houthi-Zaydis and use his Zaydi dominated military to regain political control and perhaps revive his own and his family’s political fortunes. The Houthi-Zaydis were only able to capture Sana’a and move south into Aden because Saleh and his army were their allies.
The Saudis decided that they would not stand by and allow a Shia takeover of the Sunni South – a repeat of 1994 if you will. This time Saudi Arabia was far better equipped, far stronger and able to mount a campaign in support against Saleh and the Houthis. What the Saudis are trying to do is re-establish equilibrium. They are not trying to conquer Yemen. They want a Yemen in which the Sunni elements are not dominated by the Zaydis. Because Zaydi political domination feeds the radical Sunni movements like al-Qaeda and other groups that are very, very problematic for the security of the region.
What the Saudis are trying to do is re-establish equilibrium. They are not trying to conquer Yemen. They want a Yemen in which the Sunni elements are not dominated by the Zaydis.
TQT: Could you go back to the point you raised on the historical change that Yemen has been through? Going from what seemed like an ideological division between the North and the South, given the Soviet versus Western support that Yemen received, and now whether the nature of the division has shifted to being more religious or sectarian?
RB: Do you know, I think this is peculiar.
Ideology can be – what we call left and right, you know, socialist, communist, capitalist, or market economy. But religion is ideology. What we really do, is we take our differences – differences in our historical, social, political, and economic background and perfectives – and then count them as ideological terms. In the 60s, or the 50s, 60s and the 70s, it might have been in terms of Arab socialism, it might be in terms of communism, it might have been in terms of support of the West in the Cold War context. Now, it is expressed in terms of religion. So, if you are a Zaydi revivalist, you talk about getting back to basically ‘the Zaydi religion of old times’, when in fact the Zaydi Shia movement of the Shia movements is actually the closest theologically and in practice to the Sunni.
We really have fundamental differences between North, South, East, West, and then within those movements. And they have to have an ideological coat with them, like a legitimization of whatever their position is.
When I was in Sana’a, in the early 80s, I could have shown you a map on the wall with the socialist National Democratic Front, which was the leftist movement supported by the South. The areas of conflict within Northern Yemen were virtually identical to the map from five years ago that reflected where Al-Qaeda’s influence was in Yemen. The map was virtually identical to the current struggle that is happening between the South and the North in terms of tribal and religious differences. So the baseline doesn’t really change as far as who is struggling against whom. The justification for it and the legitimization of it does change.
The baseline doesn’t really change as far as who is struggling against whom. The justification for it and the legitimization of it does change
TQT: So, just to sum it up, you refute the notion that the conflict in Yemen right now is just another sectarian war between the Sunnis and the Shia?
RB: No, it’s not. It’s a war between people with very different experiences. In other words, the coastal area of Yemen has always been more cosmopolitan, better educated, more outward-looking area. Because it had to be. And it has been more racially mixed. Yemenis in the Tihamah [Red Sea coast] tend to have African ethnic background, a lot of the Yemenis along the coast in Aden did also. So, it touches everything, it touches the historical experience, it touches the political experience, it touches the ethnicity, race – all of these elements. The question is how do you justify, in this day and age, how do you justify your position vis-à-vis someone else. Do you do it in terms of religion? Sunni and Shia? In the case of al-Qaeda, are you a radical jihadist Sunni? Are you Zaydi? Are you Houthi? This has become the fabric you wrap around fundamental differences that already exist to legitimize and justify your own position.
TQT: Saudi Arabia is conducting airstrikes in Yemen. Who are they trying to target or strengthen, and what are they achieving by using this military approach?
RB: What the Saudis are doing, and they have so far been successful with it, I would say… Everybody, particularly here among the US officials, privately would say, ‘well you know, it’s not really going well, you’ve got to put boots on the ground, you can’t do it solely from the air’. Well, what the Saudis have done is to use their airforce and special forces to alleviate the pressure on the Sunnis and other groups in the South who oppose domination by Ali Abdullah Saleh and his allied Houthis from the North. And now it seems like they are making some progress. The goal of the Saudis with these airstrikes is to degrade the Houthis. And more importantly, degrade the Yemeni army which is still controlled by Ali Abdullah Saleh.
TQT: How is the Yemeni army still controlled by ex-president Saleh?
RB: Ali Abdullah Saleh let the Houthis take over Sana’a; it was just another of his ploys. He really understands Yemeni politics – far better than anybody from the outside. But the Saudis have a good grasp of it too. So what Saleh did, really, is he sided with the Houthis to get rid of this Western backed ‘reconciliation movement’. He believes that he would deal with the Houthis later. It was all to get his family and his son, Ahmed Saleh, back in line for power, kind of like a „republican monarchy“, if you will. It is similar to what Gaddafi attempted in Libya, Mubarak tried it in Egypt, the Assads did it in Syria, what Saddam Hussein was going to do it in Iraq. Because no republican regime can legitimately pass power from one group to another. Republican rulers and regimes usually attempt to keep it in the family.
So the airstrikes right now are about degrading the very Yemeni military that the U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars on in order to try to fight against al-Qaeda. That is kind of ironic. We, the United States, are providing intelligence, tankers, and air-sea rescue for the Saudis while they conduct this campaign. The key Yemeni army unit in Aden that the Saudis are attempting to drive out of the South was the focal point of Western training and support in the war against AQAP [al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula]. In reality, Saleh was taking U.S. money and training and built up those units as a buffer for him to make sure he maintained power.
TQT: But Saudi Arabia has hit civilians and ruined cultural heritage instead of just military targets. Is there any reasoning behind that?
The airstrikes right now are about degrading the very Yemeni military that the U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars on in order to try to fight against al-Qaeda. That is kind of ironic
RB: That is totally wrong. Look, you are carrying on an air campaign, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This idea that the Saudis are targeting civilians… everybody is making a big deal out of it. And then they turn around where the Yemeni army, Saleh’s people, and the Houthis have been shelling the civilian neighbourhoods intentionally in Aden, where they just do it randomly, killing hundreds of people. It is happening on both sides. The problem is that there is this focus, I think, in the media on the Saudis and what they are doing as opposed to looking in the balance of what’s going on here. So that idea that they are targeting civilians, I think, is utter nonsense. It is not intentional. Now, civilians get hit in a war, unfortunately.
I think Washington’s policy has been wrong since the 1990s. We haven’t understood it
TQT: So far the United States in particular has supported Saudi Arabia‘s intervention. Is that the right way to go about it?
RB: Look, I don’t think we have any alternative. I think Washington’s policy has been wrong since the 1990s. We haven’t understood it. The U.S. thought that Saleh would be this ‘gateway to democracy and prosperity’. He basically robbed the country – and took care of himself and his family first. And the U.S. supported it. We supported him in the campaign in 1994 to conquer the South. And so did Hadi. I don’t think that Hadi is going to last very long if they set up a government in the South. They’ll find a replacement for him, and they probably already have.
This idea that the U.S. was somehow obsessed with was fundamentally wrong: The U.S. believed that the Yemenis would sit down to talk and work things out. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Yemen is. Yemen is a geographical term. That’s all. When a person from the South says “I am a Yemeni”, he means something entirely different from when a Zaydi from the North, a jabili, hill-country tribesman from the North says “I am a Yemeni”. And so the U.S. came to a realization that it didn’t really understand what Yemen is. And that really, this is Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence. The U.S. policy should really focus on what Yemen is – not on a pipe dream of attempting to create a functioning democracy in a place where it has never happened.
TQT: Interesting. You previously also pointed out that with the former Yemen, being divided into a North and South, Saudi Arabia actually supported the South, while the U.S. supported the North. How come there has been a change in the interests of especially Washington’s position?
RB: Well, I think the American position has been really inconsistent. And that’s really what has been the Saudi complaint. Our support for Ali Abdullah Saleh – and this idea that Saleh was going to be anything other than an advocate for himself and create this democratic state with a civil society simply because Saleh re-arranged his support into a party structure. So they have the ‘General People’s Congress’ and ‘Al Ahmars’ and maybe the people in Washington thought it was like Republicans and Democrats.
We’ve got this concept that there have to be political parties and elections – we are so wrapped up in this that we couldn’t see the forest for the trees. We couldn’t see what was in front of us. Just like in the reconciliation process, the reports kept coming back and coming back, saying ‘we are almost there’, ‘we know there are problems but we think it will hold’. The whole U.S. system is geared towards that, because we believe that no matter the situation democracy is the right approach. Well that is simply not true.
Sometimes I think that we think that inside of every person there is a little American who wants to be a Republican or a Democrat, and so what we do is we think that democracy will work everywhere – that is simply not the case in the Middle East. Americans are so hung up on the democracy thing; I think they have got to get over it. You have to look at the region, not just over the past 20 years, and not just for what you want to see, but how it has functioned over the past. That is where we have been going wrong.
Iraq is a great example of the U.S. fundamentally not knowing what was going on, that somehow we were going to go in there, topple a Sunni dominated system that was 350 years old, then turn around and somehow leave within 90 days, and it was going to be a wonderful, classic case of rise of democracy that would spread across the region. They did not understand the situation that they were getting into. That is on a more limited scale what has happened in Yemen.
Over the past three years, the the Obama administration has realized that this idea of a Yemen that functions as a federal state, where everyone will figure out a way to get along, is simply a pipe dream. [The administration] has shifted to leave this to the historical forces that have decided this in the past and let them work it out, because we honestly don’t know what we are doing there.
I think policy now matches the circumstances on the ground much more than say three-four years ago.
Egypt is a prime example of the naivety of those who thought that if we somehow got rid of Mubarak, we would have a Westernized democratic society
TQT: What about the forces in the Middle Eastern societies that want to reform the system to include their own social group?
RB: There is a handful of Westernized people or Westernized fractions in society that talk about reforming the system. Egypt seems to be the case in point. Everybody wanted to see Hosni Mubarak gone – he had outlived his time, even the army wanted to see him gone. And that’s why so many people went to the streets and supported democracy. Mostly young people. Mostly people that while they may have been religious were really quite tolerant. And they represented this element that wanted to see some sort of democratic solution, a democratic government emerge. Guess who got elected: the Muslim Brotherhood. And those very elements that had supported democracy and these ideas of a more open society suddenly found themselves in the center of emergence of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government, and almost to a person they almost supported the army’s overthrow of the Brotherhood. They may not like the army, but the army to them far better than dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood and a total revolutionist society – the idea of one free election just his once. Then after that we will impose whatever restrictions we want to impose.
I think Egypt is a prime example of the naivety of those who thought that if we somehow got rid of Mubarak, we would have a Westernized democratic society. When they look at their own societies and evaluate them – and when we do it [from the West] – a picture emerges of more traditional societies and more conservative societies than those, who want to see liberal democracy, really understand.
TQT: But what if we compare it to other cases such as Tunisia?
RB: Well, you know, Tunisia is a very interesting place. ‘The limes’ are from the old Roman civilization as it ran across Northern Africa. Romans figured out what areas that they wanted to control and then they had this borderline, they called ‘the limes’.
If you look at Tunisia, there is this very Westernized, very francophone influence. When I was there, I was almost handicapped for trying to use Arabic, because everybody was using French. I think Tunisia had a shot, but like any society with huge unemployment among young people, they start looking for meaning, they start looking for explanation for why their life isn’t going the way that they wanted to. Then some radical preacher comes along, or they go to Libya or they join a radical fight in Syria, and they come back radicalized, and then they see Europeans sunbathing in the nude on the beaches as total upfront to their society. And you see the acts of terrorism. I don’t think anyone should be surprised by it.
I haven’t been to Tunis for three or four years. But I was always shocked at the amount of tolerance that the Tunisians showed for the European habits there in the basic communities, so that really doesn’t surprise me. It is a clash of what we consider in the West as a very open society – mainly cultures who are heavily under Western influence like Tunisia – at the core have something very, very conservative driving them. And in the current atmosphere, it is explosive.
Algeria is another example. During the revolt against the French, a lot of the FLN’s [National Liberation Front of Algeria] propaganda was couched in terms of the Islamic values held by the people in the countryside. Because it knew that it had to maintain their support to have any hope to drive out the French from Algeria. So I think we look beyond the façade.
There is a huge difference between modernization and Westernization. Everyone wants modernization – but new buildings, computers, cars, etc. do not mean that a country has Westernized. It means that they have taken the best of modernization, or taken whatever they want to modernize. But the attitude is rarely, rarely changed. And if they do change, they change very, very slowly. And it is a façade that particularly Westerners look at and think ‘well, isn’t it wonderful? The society itself has values or drivers’, yet the attitudes are still far different from those in the West.
There is a huge difference between modernization and Westernization. Everyone wants modernization – but new buildings, computers, cars, etc. do not mean that a country has Westernized
TQT: If we continue this conversation on Yemen, do you then find the idea of democracy in Yemen a complete naïve utopia?
RB: Let me tell you what is utopian. The idea of a centralized government controlling Yemen either through a federal structure or some other structure is not even utopian – it is simply never going to happen. It has never happened before, it is not going to happen now, it will never happen in the future. Yemen can only function regionally, perhaps autonomously, because this is really the issue with the Houthis.
Even at the height of Saleh’s power, he could not control the majority-Houthi areas. He couldn’t – at the height of his power – issue an order in Sana’a and have it carried out in Eastern Yemen. They do not have a „one man, one vote“-democracy. Why did the General People’s Congress support Saleh? The reason is he handed them money, power, position etc. So that’s how he maintained his support. When Saleh was exiled, why was he able to tell the army to sit on the sidelines and allow the Zaydi revivalist Houthis to take over Sana’a, – something they’ve never been able to do in the past? The reason that he was able to do that was the money that he was paying the various commanders to allow this to happen. That is the story. In other words, ‘I do this for you, you do this for me, and that’s how we get this to work’. That is also how the people in society get representation – it is through their clan, through their family, through their sheiks, or whatever politician – that is their pattern. It provides representation to the patronage, and if it breaks down where the patronage is no longer effective then you will get a situation like in Syria. Like in Libya, where it is completely collapsing.
Let me tell you what is utopian. The idea of a centralized government controlling Yemen either through a federal structure or some other structure is not even utopian – it is simply never going to happen
TQT: With the military intervention and the U.S.-Saudi alliance, how do you think we can avoid strengthening the radical Sunni movements, particularly taking into account what has been going on in Syria and the threat from Islamic State?
RB: Okay, let’s first talk about ISIL [different acronym for Islamic State]. The Saudis and the other countries in the Gulf don’t recognize ISIL as a Sunni movement. Now, there are a lot of Sunnis who support it. But they see ISIL as a Kharijite movement.
TQT: Could you please explain the Kharijite movement?
RB: Okay. Within say a 100 years after the prophet. There were actually three groups of Muslims: the Kharijite, the Sunnis, and the Shia. If you didn’t agree with the Kharijites, they eliminated you. So the Gulf States have branded the ISIL as Kharijite. If most of the Sunni tribes had an alternative – other than Iranian sponsored governments in Baghdad and Damascus – I don’t think they would be conducting the radical policies that you see happening. That’s the first issue that you have.
The second issue is just like in Iraq. We fought for five years more or less, and then somebody had his idea that maybe there was more about the situation on the ground that were causing the Sunnis to side against the American attacks. So we institutionalized the Al-Sahwa, the [Sunni] Awakening. We went out and paid the [Sunni] tribes, we drove al-Qaeda out, and the [Sunni] tribes became supporters of the Americans. Of course the Americans can’t leave and expect that the Shia government in Baghdad to continue it – and then it degenerates again into a Sunni-Shia conflict.
Now, my point here is this: What if the South had autonomy, or independence? A lot of the groups that you find now in league with or providing refuge for cooperating with the radical Sunni movements – many of those groups that we now label as AQAP-supporters are going to be hunting them down. Because now the Southerners have the right to use their oil money. Saleh stole their oil to use for his own purposes in Sana’a. Once those groups are trained, you are going to have the ability to leverage Sunni allies in Yemen. People that we now count as enemies will turn on AQAP and other radical groups.
TQT: So you think that the military intervention led by Saudi Arabia is not going to strengthen the radical Sunni movements in the long run?
RB: It is going to help them right now by taking some of the pressure off of them. But Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are continuing their drone campaigns; they are continuing to go after the radicals. Yet the broader campaign that Saudi Arabia has undertaken offers hope to the Sunni community that there is another way for them to achieve political independence and escape Zaydi domination. Would you rather have AQAP on your side or would you rather have the royal Saudi Arabian air force on your side? If the Sunnis and the Saudis – as it certainly seems like – persist, which they are going to, what you are going to see is more and more Sunnis, I think, awakening to the proposition that working it out with the Saudis and their American backers, is going to provide you with more support for your goals – namely independence from Zaydi domination of Northern Yemen.
The broader campaign that Saudi Arabia has undertaken offers hope to the Sunni community that there is another way for them to achieve political independence and escape Zaydi domination. Would you rather have AQAP on your side or would you rather have the royal Saudi Arabian air force on your side?
TQT: We don’t really talk about Yemen in the media, especially in the West. Why?
RB: The media gets totally caught up in the latest crises of the moment. Over the last month or so, Yemen has receded and ISIL has come in as a bigger problem. And I don’t think the media connect the dots very well. Frankly, people in the media aren’t really experts on the topic. Here in America, it is also driven by ratings etc.
Yet another very important factor is that the collapse of the Reconciliation movement underscores to not just people in the street but the media in particular how much more complex the situation in Yemen was than they had conceived it. They thought that they would pull everybody together, that Saleh was gone when in reality, he wasn’t gone. And we would see a state emerge. This “Yemen is a state”-idea molded after a 19th century nationalist concept that Westerners have. We have it from France and Germany.
I think what has happened is to a great degree is that the media realized the complexity of [the situation]. And they frankly don’t know how to cover it. If there’s a bombing in Sana’a and 47 civilians get killed – okay – so they can cover that and they say ‘we take part in this monstrosity and the war has 2.000 people killed’. Well, how many were killed when Saleh was in power? They were shooting 50-60 in the streets every day. Yemen has become too complex to be covered in a two-minute sound-clip and thus it gets pushed aside. ◼
ILLUSTRATION: Inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, 2009 [photo: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Derren J. Mazza]