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YEMEN - Ali Abdullah Saleh (Al Ahmar) - President.

Companies having access to President Saleh can be very successful. Companies like Hunt, Nexen and Total have managed to get Saleh to intervene personally to improve their E&P terms with the oil ministry (see E&P profiles in Gas Market Trends No. 25).

It is not easy to have access to Saleh, unless the visiting executive represents a major company. Getting the right man for the introduction and the man who knows when Saleh is in the best of his moods can be expensive. It was thanks to a meeting with Saleh that Total's CEO got his LNG project moving in 1995 and, more recently, the deadline for its implementation extended to June 2006. But the project is in limbo as Total's main foreign partners have abandoned the venture, although the French major remains one of the recent bidders to supply Yemeni LNG to India (see background of this venture Gas Market Trends Vol. 59, No. 3 of July 15/22, 2002).

Saleh is simple but shrewd. A hard-headed pragmatist, his main weakness is a combination of good ideas and lobbying by certain leaders of the Hashed tribes under Speaker and powerful head of the Islamist/conservative Islah Party, Shaikh Abdullah Al Ahmar. Shaikh Ahmar is the undisputed leader of the Hashed tribes, the most powerful confederation in the north of Yemen.

Saleh's clan belongs to the Hashed and the president depends of Shaikh Ahmar's support. These tribes are armed. Their chiefs, under Shaikh Ahmar, rule the Hashed areas in the north Yemeni mountains as an autonomous region. When a dispute among them arises, it is to Shaikh Ahmar that they look as the ultimate arbiter.

Close to the royal family of Saudi Arabia for many years, Shaikh Ahmar is the man to resort to for mediation to resolve any disputes between Riyadh and Sanaa. Shaikh Ahmar also has a great deal of influence among the tribes in the south-western regions of Saudi Arabia. The latter tribes used to be part of Yemen until their regions - Asir, Jizan and Najran - were annexed by Saudi Arabia under the Ta'if Treaty of the 1930s. Like the Hashed and other tribal groups in the north of Yemen, these tribes on the Saudi side are Shiites of the Zaidi sect.

Zaidi Shi'ism in the north of Yemen has been the ruling sect for centuries. Before it became a republic in the 1960s, North Yemen used to be a monarchy and in religious terms, a Zaidi Shiite imamate. President Saleh's clan is Zaidi as well. South Yemen is predominantly Sunni of the Shafei sect. North Yemen and South Yemen were merged in May 1990. A war in May-July 1994 prevented the southern sector of the merged republic from seceding. (For a study on the Shiite world, see the monthly RIM issue of this week's APS Diplomat Package).

A Zaidi rebellion took place on June 20-25, 2004, in the Saada province near the border with Saudi Arabia. It was led by Hussein Badr Eddin Al Houthi, a firebrand anti-US theologian who declared an end to the Yemeni republic and proclaimed a Shiite Imamate in its place. He proclaimed himself its head, with the title of Amir Al Mu'mineen (prince of the faithful), and raised the Iranian and Hizbollah flags. He called his militant movement a Yemeni Hizbollah, praised Lebanon's Iran-backed Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as his champion, and called for a forceful ouster of the US from Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

A confrontation between Houthi's followers and government forces began late on June 20 in the Hidane region, some 250 km north of Sanaa. By June 25, nine government soldiers and 46 rebels had been killed. Dozens of soldiers and Houthi supporters had been wounded in the fighting. Forty-three extremists had been captured. But the tension remained as many elements of Houthi's tribe and allies from other nearby tribes joined the rebellion after the army's intervention and subsequent escalation of the fighting.

Houthi is a young preacher, as in the case of his followers who are estimated officially to number by the hundreds. The government authorities accuse Houthi of stirring trouble by organising anti-US demonstrations after weekly prayers on Fridays. On June 26, the government was seeking the arrest of Houthi, who was said to be hiding in an area being protected by his tribe.

An official of the Ministry of Interior told the state news agency Saba on June 25 that Houthi's extremists had "used mortars, landmines and rocket-propelled grenades against the army". The official added: "The rebels in custody are being interrogated and justice will be brought to them. The... defiant elements who broke the law and order under (Houthi's) command are accused by the government of acts of vandalism including the hoisting of the flag of another country instead of the Yemeni flag".

Arms and ammunition were also seized from their hideouts. "Since security and military forces cordoned off the area, a number of the besieged (youths) surrendered", the official said.

Houthi's supporters were branded "outlaws...extremists and trouble-makers", and accused of opening fire on government institutions, breaking into mosques and "roughing up students to stop them from going to school". Helicopters, supporting armed forces, opened fire on various sites in the area during the siege, security sources were on June 25 quoted as saying.

Security and military forces were still surrounding an area where Houthi and a "small number of deviant elements" were hiding, the ministry said. A source close to Houthi was quoted as saying the death toll among the group was higher and put it at around 200.

Saada has been one of the trouble spots for the government for years. During local government elections held on Feb. 20, 2001, Saada tribesmen fired on a military helicopter carring ballot boxes and would not allow it to land. The tribesmen claimed that the government had forced their candidates to withdraw in favour of members of President Saleh's ruling General People's Congress (GPC).

With President Saleh determined to purge Yemen of radicals, his government is embarked on a campaign to root out Wahhabi-converted militants linked to Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group. In this campaign Sanaa is getting assistance from the American CIA (see below). Al Houthi has not been accused of having links to Al-Qaeda, but rather to Lebanon's Hizbollah which is a Shiite group of the Jaafari sect.

Anti-US sentiment is high in Yemen and elsewhere in the region over the American-led occupation of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some religious leaders in Yemen still preach hatred for America and the West. The government authorities believe Houthi, a leader of the Zaidi sect in Saada, has founded the rebel group and led violent protests against the US and Israel at mosques in the tribal areas.

Saleh Consolidates Power: Saleh has been consolidating his power base since October 1999, when he began a new term in the presidency as he vowed at a swearing-in ceremony to fight corruption and chaos. In the local government elections and a referendum held on Feb. 20, 2001 he got an overwhelming vote for his term to be extended from five to seven years and for the term of parliament members to be extended from four to six years. The GPC was the winner in the local elections.

In that same referendum Saleh also got the vote for a constitutional amendment giving him the power to dissolve parliament. Since then Saleh's GPC has gained a controlling majority in parliament and in the local councils.

In April 2001 Saleh appointed Abdel Qader Bajammal as prime minister to replace Dr. Abdel Karim Al Iryani who had health problems. More than half the cabinet was changed in favour of younger and more efficient figures.

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the US had a huge impact on Saleh's regime as radical Islamic militants in Yemen were accused to being allied to Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of the terrorist Al-Qaeda organisation whose family originates from Hadhramout. Immediately Saleh pledge his full support for the US war against global terrorism and in November flew to Washington, where he met with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and then CIA Director George Tenet.

Since then, Yemen and the US have been co-operating closely against terrorism and about 100 US military experts have been training Yemeni special forces in this country. There have also been a number of CIA and FBI agents stationed in Yemen and, together with Yemeni intelligence and counter-terrorism elements, they pursue suspected members of Al-Qaeda or groups affiliated to this network.

Speaking to Muslim religious leaders in early 2002, Saleh said: "Some people criticised my visit to the US. But I went there to avoid any danger to our country... There were reports putting forward Yemen as a second Afghanistan".

Indeed there had been indications that the US may attack Yemen, because of links between Al-Qaeda and Yemeni Islamist militants converted into Wahhabism, including those who had bombed the US destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000, when 17 American sailors were killed.

The alliance with the US progressed further after Vice President Cheney's visit to Sanaa for a few hours on March 14, 2002. On June 11, 2002, federal authorities ordered extra special scrutiny of all Yemeni citizens seeking to enter or leave the US.

The joint Yemeni-US pursuit of Al-Qaeda suspects intensified in October 2002 after an Oct. 6 bomb attack on the French oil tanker Limburg, an incident which caused insurance premia for ships bound for Yemen to rise considerably. On Oct. 10, 2002, responsibility for that bomb explosion was claimed by the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, a group affiliated to Al-Qaeda.

In early November 2002 the CIA, using a missile fired by an unmanned Predator aircraft killed a senior leader of Al-Qaeda, Qaed Salim Sofyan Al Harithi and five low-level associates travelling by car in north-western Yemen. Harithi, also known as Abu Ali, was described as "one of the top dozen Qaeda figures in the world".

That attack was the first using an armed Predator against suspects outside of Afghanistan. It signalled the beginning of a more aggressive phase in the US efforts against terrorism. US officials then disclosed that armed Predators had been flying over Yemen for some time, ready to strike in case targets came into their sights. The US officials said Saleh's government had been kept informed about all such operations.

Yemen had become a major focus of US counter-terrorism operations. American officials in recent weeks said they believed Yemen still to be a haven for Al-Qaeda operatives, including many who have fled Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001 (see survey of Afghanistan in the SBME monthly in this week's APS Diplomat Package).

There have also been ups and downs in the relationship between Saleh's regime and the Bush administration. A row that could have damaged the US campaign against terrorism was averted in December 2002 after the US released an arms shipment from North Korea bound for Yemen. A hidden consignment of scud missile parts and chemicals was seized by the Spanish navy in the Arabian Sea and turned over to the US navy on Dec. 8. Washington conceded that there was no provision in international law allowing it to impound the cargo indefinitely, while Sanaa said the consignment was being delivered to its armed forces for legitimate defence purposes and would not be transferred to other parties.

The American Ambassador to Sanaa, Edmond Hall, has been the most influential among foreign diplomats in Yemen. Prominent columnist Abdel Fattah Al Hakimi claimed in a weekly article published in May 2004 by an opposition newspaper that Saleh's government had given Hall wide-ranging powers that enabled him to oversee US-led military raids against Al-Qaeda suspects. He cited as examples the killing of Harithy in November 2002 and the abduction of Islamic militant Shaikh Mohamed Ali Al Moayyed and his aide in January 2003.

Hakimi also said: "During the wide-spread combing campaign directed by the American Embassy in Sanaa, in direct collaboration with Yemeni intelligence, Mr. Hall himself entered the bedrooms of Yemenis suspected of having any affiliation to Al-Qaeda or related by birth or marriage to Osama Bin Laden". He added: "During those campaigns 3,000 suspects were arrested".

In early 2004, as leaks of President Bush's "Greater Middle East Initiative" to democratise the region's regimes reached the Arab media, President Saleh was quoted as saying: "There is no longer a place for dictatorships" and "We reject any form of terror". But, at the same time, Saleh pointed out that "some countries are harvesting what they have sown - America, for example", which supported the Afghan mujahedeen when their operations served US interests against the Soviet Union. Saleh also criticised "state terrorism", which he said Israel was practicing and no one dared to stop.

Saleh was quoted as declaring: "Democracy is the ultimate choice for all the peoples and the lifeboat of political regimes, especially in the developing countries, in order to realise security, stability, development and a better future for our countries... We must shave our heads before others do it for us". But Saleh criticised American hegemony and said he rejected any pressure being exerted for political reforms. Among other things, however, Saleh asserted that "no one can ignore the existence of an American decision to change the Middle East".

On May 22, 2000, Sanaa had celebrated ten years of Yemen's unification and among Saleh's Arab guests was Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and interim ruler Abdullah Ibn Abdel Aziz. By then Sanaa had won a power game with Riyadh by getting US support for compromise in the border dispute between the two neighbours. Saleh visited Jeddah on June 11-12 of that year and, with Prince Abdullah, signed a comprehensive border agreement.

That was the most dramatic and substantive example of reconciliation between the two states, which had been at odds since Yemen sided with Saddam's Baathist Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf war. The border deal gave Yemen four petroleum-rich blocks on the Saudi border.

Thanks to their June 2000 agreement and a subsequent warming of relations between Riyadh and Sanaa, Saudi Arabia on Dec. 31, 2001 got the summit of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in Oman to allow Yemen to join the GCC's health, labour, education and soccer institutions. That was the first step towards making Yemen a GCC member, as the two-day GCC summit said in its final communique "this...will be followed by steps in economic and other fields of co-operation".

Sanaa which had sought to join this bloc for years, said it qualified to join the GCC because of its geographic location and his historical ties with the group. Sanaa expected a big inflow of GCC capital and aid resulting from this arrangement. But this has since proved to be quite slow.

In late 2000 Saleh, getting stronger thanks to high oil prices, boosted his political position by replacing many civilian and military figures in government with younger, more loyal figures, including his son Ahmad Ali who became chief of the special forces and his brother Tariq who was made commander of the elite presidential Republican Guard. To secure a badly needed $700m World Bank loan, he then ordered bold reforms - the direct responsibility of the prime minister.

Two of the reforms on which the World Bank had insisted were a ban on carrying arms and a curb on the consumption of qat, a mildly narcotic leaf which is chewed for hours. It was then said that there were about 60 million guns in Yemen, mostly Kalashnikovs, in civilian hands - kept mainly by the highland tribes in the north who have kidnapped hundreds of foreigners since 1993. Among those kidnapped by tribesmen are expatriates working for foreign oil companies including Hunt.

However, consumption of qat in Yemen has resumed as old habits die hard. There is also considerable smuggling of qat to neighbouring Saudi Arabia from across the northern borders. It has been estimated that Qat smuggling to Saudi Arabia earns Yemen about $200m per annum.

The cultivation of qat, a business accounting for about 50% of the country's 2000 GDP of $5.7 bn, demands vast quantities of water. Yemen is desperately short of drinking water and water is needed to grow fruit and vegetables. Yemen has the fastest depletion of aquifers in the world, with the water table in Sanaa dropping by 5-7 metres per annum. Water resources are likely to be exhausted by 2010/11.

Saleh, a Zaidi Shiite of the northern Hashed tribes (see DT), was born in the town of Al Ahmar in 1942. With less than elementary education, he joined the North Yemeni armed forces at an early age and became a corporal. He was promoted by his tribal leaders in 1977 when the then president of North Yemen, Ahmad Al Ghashmi - an ally of one Hashed tribe - appointed him as military governor of Taiz. After Ghashmi's assassination on June 24, 1978, Saleh became a member of a four-man provisional council of the presidency.

On July 17, 1978, Saleh became president of the republic, chief of staff and commander in chief of the armed forces - having been unusually promoted to the rank of major and then colonel. Later he became a general. In December 1997, parliament approved his promotion to field marshal and a statement said this was "in recognition of his historical role and the political, economic and social achievements" in the course of his mandate. Saleh now is the highest ranking military officer in Yemen.

On Aug.10, 1978, as president, Saleh ordered the execution of 30 officers on the charge of conspiracy to topple his regime. He has since faced several assassination and coup attempts.

Saleh became president of unified Yemen on May 22, 1990, South Yemen's Marxist regime of Aden having merged with the conservative regime of Sanaa. He backed Saddam Hussein who invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

Many things happened after the merger, including complex intrigues both in the north and in the south, plus secession by the southern leaders who had become bold after big oil discoveries in Masila. Saleh fought the latter head on - the May-July 1994 war was devastating - until he defeated them. But Saleh gave strict orders for his troops not to target any of the oil installations in the country. He re-emerged as a stronger ruler of all Yemen. The border dispute with Saudi Arabia and various other developments after the war did not shake a stubborn Saleh who, nevertheless, proved to be an excellent diplomat.
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Publication:APS Review Downstream Trends
Date:Jun 28, 2004
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