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Daniel Martin Varisco: What went wrong in Yemen is what usually goes wrong when you have a history of colonialism, ongoing interference from outside forces, sectarian blindness, and massive wealth at the service of mischief

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. In all the reporting, including ours, we do a lot of discussion about the geopolitics of Yemen. Who are the players, what’s at stake. But we shouldn’t forget, thousands of people have lost their lives in this conflict, and if things keep going the way they are, it’s likely thousands more. So what are the roots of all of this? Well, in his article Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen, Daniel Martin Varisco wrote, “What went wrong,” meaning what went wrong in Yemen — “What went wrong is what usually goes wrong, no matter the context, when you have a history of colonialism, ongoing interference from outside forces, sectarian blindness, and massive wealth at the service of mischief.” Further down he writes, “The Saudis never stop trying to influence the governance of its dirt-poor southern neighbor. Starting in the 1970s, it was Saudi Arabia who bankrolled Yemen’s ministry of education to import conservative Brotherhood and Salafi teachers, thus teaching a whole generation of Yemeni youth an intolerant faith, unlike that of the Zaydi and Shafi’i views that have evolved in relative harmony over a millennium. “Rumors continue to circulate that Yemeni president al-Hamdi was assassinated in 1977, because he was attempting to unite the two Yemens, much to Saudi chagrin. The pattern was set early on. Loyalty was purchased with Saudi riyals, especially in the North where there were tribal affinities across the national borders.” Now joining us to talk about and give us a sketch of the history of Yemen is Daniel Martin Varisco. Daniel is president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, research professor at Qatar University, and that’s why he joins us from Doha. Thanks for joining us again, Daniel. DANIEL VARISCO, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR YEMENI STUDIES: I’m glad to be here. JAY: So pick up the story, because if I understand correctly from your article, if you go back far enough before the sort of more modern conflicts, the various tribal peoples and various religions lived relatively harmoniously. And so what, when was that, and then what happens? VARISCO: Okay. Well, Yemen has a very long history. But let’s start with the Zaydis. The Zaydis actually, it is a Shia group. But it’s very different than the Ismailis, it’s very different than the Ithna-Ashari, or the Twelvers that are in Iran. And it was in the 10th century when one of the followers of, Zayd being the great-grandson of Ali, a relative of the Prophet. This man, his name was al-Hadi [inaud.] came into Yemen, and he was someone who was descended from the Prophet Muhammad. And he provided services to the local tribes who, you know, here was someone who could come in and teach them the religion, teach them Islam, and also be a mediator. They never really controlled all of Yemen. They were primarily in the North, around the city of Sa’dah, which is today the home base of the Houthis. JAY: What years are we talking about here? VARISCO: We’re talking about the 10th century. We’re talking about 1,000 years ago. JAY: And what are the economic conditions at the time? What were people living like? VARISCO: Well, it was — I mean, Yemen is an agricultural country. And it has very high mountains, and mountain valleys. So there’s a lot of geographical isolation, which is one reason why no one has ever really conquered Yemen. It’s never been under one, sort of, authority. Even Ali Abdullah Saleh wasn’t able to control all the areas, particularly the tribal areas. So the Zaydis came in and provided services to the tribes. There were also other groups who came in. there was an invasion in the 12th century by the Ayubids. If you think of Saladin, the famous fighter during the Crusades, he was an Ayubid. And then they left some Imirs of their own there that became known as the Rassoulids, and that would have been in the 13th and 14th centuries. And by the way, Marco Polo, when he went through, said the Sultan of Yemen — and this was in, like, the 1290s — was one of the richest men in the world, because of the port of Aden. We’re talking about Aden today as it’s the main Yemeni port on the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, but it has long been a moneymaker. Because ships would come in, there would be customs duties. So Yemen has a long history, not only in terms of itself, but in reaching out to the rest of the world, because of the trade going back even into the classical period, but in the medieval period, Red Sea into, around the Arabian Peninsula to the Arabian Ocean. So it has a long history. The thing about the Zaydis is that they never controlled the whole country. What happened is that when the Portuguese came around, then in the 16th century, you had the beginning of the Ottoman Turks coming down in. They controlled Yemen for a brief period of time. Then they were thrown out, and then they came back in the 19th century, again controlled. And in 1839, the British gained control of the port of Aden in order to use it as a fueling depot, because they had their Indian Raj that was just beginning. So at that point, the British controlled the southern part around Aden, the [Hadaramout], and the area in south of the mountains, if you will. They controlled that. Later they left in the ’60s, and it became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a socialist state. There was an earlier revolution in the North. The last Zaydi Imam who ruled, Imam Ahmed, died in 1962. There was a military coup. JAY: Let’s go back, let’s go back to socialist state. VARISCO: Yeah. JAY: This put Yemen very much into play in terms of Cold War politics. And also, that also suggests that there’s a fairly strong secular, you know, socialist movement, not a Muslim movement. VARISCO: Well, I mean, being a socialist doesn’t mean you can’t be a Muslim. So it all depends on how you defined Islam. They were not a secular state. JAY: Yeah, I guess not a primarily, not a primarily Muslim movement. I don’t mean people were Muslim or not, I mean it wasn’t driven primarily by Islamic ideology. VARISCO: No, it was a socialist ideology, at least in principle. Although parts of the, you know, the tribes were really maintaining their traditional identity. And even when unification happened, Ali Abdulla Saleh and Ali Salim al-Beidh — Ali Salim al-Beidh was the president of the South. Saleh was the president of the North. In 1990 they unified both countries and the socialist party was one of the parties that was in the election. The thing is that the North has always had far more people than the South. So there really were not that many … and not everybody in the South was a socialist. So when the countries merged back in 1990, it was a very fragile situation. Consider also what happened. They got together, the unification — two months later, Saddam invaded Kuwait. And Yemen tried to stay on the sidelines. They were against the allied, the American-led allied liberation, shall we say, of Kuwait. And that infuriated the Saudis, and the Saudis and a number of the Gulf states sent packing many of the Yemenis who were working there. There may have been 700,000 Yemenis who came home. Yemeni men who had been sending remittances, money for this poor country. So all of a sudden, that’s cut off, and then they go back to a Yemen where there are no jobs. So I mean, when we’re talking about the current situation, we have to sort of step back to that first Gulf war, and then of course the second one has had an impact, as well. Because the second one sort of inspired, we had talked last time about Hussain al-Houthi. He was really upset by the American involvement. In fact that’s an interesting phenomenon, is the way the United States has treated Yemen over [inaud.] JAY: Well, that was my next question. Especially given one, Yemen’s strategic location, and then two, the fact that there’s a — you know, relative to many of the other countries in the region, a fairly strong socialist movement. That must have put Yemen very much on the American and CIA radar. VARISCO: Yeah. Well, I don’t think the Americans had much to do with South Yemen, with the People’s Democratic Republic. They were more or less isolated. They had support from the Soviets, major Soviet missions. East Germany, you know, that side during the Cold War. But the Americans were very interested in the Yemen Arab Republic. Particularly after around 1970. Because the civil war in the North started in 1962. The Saudis supported the son of the Imam. His name was Badr. And the Americans actually supported the Saudis because supporting the coup of the new republic was Nasser, and of course the American relationship with Nasser was rather shaky, again showing how alliances change over the years. And what happened is that because the Saudis were supporting and giving aid to the tribes in the North, that civil war dragged on. And when Nasser had the debacle of the Six-Day War in ’67, he had to pull his troops out. And there was actually a reconciliation. In 1969 there was a reconciliation, it was no longer Zaydi against the people who lead the coup. And when I was there in the 1970s — I first went in 1978 as an anthropologist living in a rural setting, among tribesmen. There was this real feeling that this country was going somewhere. People were being educated. They were being trained. There was a tremendous sense of optimism, because Yemenis are entrepreneurial. You had the feeling that this country would go somewhere. JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment of our interview, to quote your article, we’re going to go to well, then, what went wrong? JAY: So please join us for the next part of our interview with Daniel Martin Varisco on the Real News Network.


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Daniel Martin Varisco is President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Research Professor at Qatar University, and advisor to MENA Tidningen. He first conducted anthropological fieldwork in Yemen in 1978 and returned numerous times as a development consultant and for research. He has written books on Orientalism, Islam, Islamic astronomy and agriculture.