THE ABSURD TIMES
Illustration: From the CIA? Heard of Boko Harem? They now fly the ISIS flag, a group the U.S. started to get rid of Assad in Syria (we used to call them "noble Rebels"). [The Absurd Times sees no connection between Boko Harem and the Ayatollah.]
There is no sane way to begin discussing this. In fact, we give up. How's that? We did mention that we suspected there was more to be told, and some of that is now told, below.
One positive development is that the drone strikes in Yemen have stopped or slowed down. One major reason is that the U.S. does not know what the fuck to do about it anymore and getting the hell out is not, nor has it ever, been an option that occurs to the powers that be in Washington and other centers of Government Contracts.
See, if we help the Houthi's, we help Iran (we say) and that would hurt Israel (they say). But if we help al-Qaeda, well, they (we say) did 9/11 so that's out. After all, that's why we 'did" Iraq, right?
But the great social reformer (we call him) of Saudi Arabia (who has presided over more beheadings than ISIS) died so we morn with him or for him.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 23, 2015
Hailed as U.S. Counterterrorism Model in Middle East, Yemen Teeters on the Brink of Collapse
Yemen is facing political collapse following the mass resignations of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his prime minister and entire cabinet. Thursday’s exodus came just hours after Shia Houthi rebels stormed the presidential compound in the capital city of Sana’a. Hadi said he could not continue in office after Houthis allegedly broke a peace deal to retreat from key positions in return for increased political power. The Houthis appear to have major backing from longtime former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011. The Obama administration had praised the Yemeni government as being a model for "successful" counterterrorism partnerships, but on Thursday the United States announced it was pulling more staff out of its embassy in Yemen. Some experts warn the developments in Yemen could result in civil war and help al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) gain more power. Meanwhile, Oxfam is warning more than half of Yemen’s population needs aid, and a humanitarian crisis of extreme proportions is at risk of unfolding in the country if instability continues. We are joined by Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin in Yemen, which is teetering on the brink of collapse after the U.S.-backed president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his prime minister and entire cabinet resigned on Thursday. The exodus came just 24 hours after Shia Houthi rebels stormed the presidential compound in the capital city of Sana’a. Hadi said he could not continue ruling after Houthis allegedly broke a peace deal to retreat from key positions in return for increased political power. The Houthis appear to have major backing from longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the ousted leader who was forced from office in a popular uprising in 2011.
AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration had praised the Yemeni government as being a model for "successful" counterterrorism partnerships, but on Thursday the U.S. announced it was pulling more staff out of its embassy in Yemen. Some experts warn the developments in Yemen could result in civil war and help al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula gain more power. Meanwhile, Oxfam is warning more than half of Yemen’s population needs aid, and a humanitarian crisis of extreme proportions is at risk of unfolding in the country if instability continues. Ten million Yemenis do not have enough to eat, including 850,000 acutely malnourished children.
For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Iona Craig. She’s a journalist who was based in Sana’a, Yemen, for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Timesof London, was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014.
Iona, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about what has taken place.
IONA CRAIG: I think what we’ve seen in the last few days is pretty unprecedented in terms of Yemen, and I think what’s happened now with Hadi handing in his resignation, the prime minister and the cabinet, is really probably the smartest thing they could have done. They were backed into a corner by the Houthis, and quite literally, the Houthis had surrounded Hadi’s house. They obviously couldn’t and hadn’t taken them on militarily, in a fight that they were unlikely to be able to win. And so this was the only way for them to turn around to the Houthis and say, "No, this is enough."
And now we have the prospect of an emergency meeting of the Parliament on Sunday, when Hadi’s resignation will be put forward. Now, they have the option to reject that resignation, which means that Hadi would still be president after that, unless he then hands his resignation in again within three months. So it may actually be that Hadi stays and manages to survive all of this.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Iona, given the constant turbulence within the country, what’s the impact on some of the regional powers—obviously, Iran and the United States and Saudi Arabia?
IONA CRAIG: Well, really, you know, the reason why the international community has been promoting and supporting Hadi is because, for them, there wasn’t another option. They’ve been backing this transition deal from the beginning. It was created initially as Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the deal at the end of 2011 in order to step down, this deal called the GCC deal. But it really originated—and it’s an open secret in Sana’a—from the American Embassy. And the reason we know that is that the politicians in Yemen that first saw it could tell that it was translated from English. So, that transition deal is what the international community have been backing. And that transition deal is really what has brought this to this place today, because it never truly addressed the underlying problems in Yemen. It was all about reshuffling power in order to concentrate on the security issues within Yemen, without actually making the changes that Yemenis have been demanding. So, issues like the Houthis, who were a marginalized group and persecuted under Ali Abdullah Saleh, the issue of southern secession, they were never truly addressed throughout this period. And now this has come to a head now with the Houthis taking their own action to get what they want. So the international community is partly responsible for the situation that Yemen is now in. But, of course, their focus still remains on the security issues in Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments President Obama made last summer when he announced additional U.S. military support to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In response to a question, President Obama invoked U.S. policy in Yemen as a possible model for Iraq and Syria. This is part of what he said.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You look at a country like Yemen, a very impoverished country and one that has its own sectarian or ethnic divisions, there’s—we do have a committed partner in President Hadi and his government, and we have been able to help to develop their capacities without putting large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground, at the same time as we’ve got enough CT, or counterterrorism, capabilities that we’re able to go after folks that might try to hit our embassy or might be trying to export terrorism into Europe or the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama over the summer. Your response, Iona Craig?
IONA CRAIG: Well, I think this really kind of goes back to what I just mentioned. The international focus has always been about security in Yemen. So, even when Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power, they backed him because they could work with him and, you know, to carry out the operations that they wanted, to use drone strikes in Yemen. And there was no plan B. There was no "What will we do if Ali Abdullah Saleh is not there?" And similarly, then, with Hadi. They knew Hadi had been vice president under Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was someone they knew they could work with. They built on the partnership. And again, now, there is—there is no plan B. So if Hadi goes, this leaves them in a position—you know, in a really bad position of who now are they dealing with.
As for the issue of the Yemen model, clearly now that’s something of a joke, really. The Yemen model has all but collapsed. The fighting against al-Qaeda on the ground has actually been done now by the Houthis, but it’s actually made the issue and the problem of al-Qaeda worse in Yemen, anyway. The violence being carried out by al-Qaeda has increased hugely since the Houthis took Sana’a in September. But, you know—and again, looking at those Oxfam figures, the underlying problems in Yemen, you have—now those figures have gone to 16 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The last figures that came out said 14.7 million, out of a population of 25. So, whilst the international community focuses on the security issues, you’ve got an economy that’s collapsing, you’ve got a rising humanitarian crisis and political issues that haven’t been dealt with. So, this kind of short-term thinking about the security situation in Yemen is really never going to get to the bottom of the political problems, the economic problems and the humanitarian issues that all feed into this in the end.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned one of the other underlying problems being an ongoing secessionist movement. Most Americans here have short memories. They forget that it wasn’t long ago when there was a separate Marxist state, the Democratic Republic of Yemen, in a huge portion of what is now Yemen. Could you talk about that secessionist movement in its current form?
IONA CRAIG: Yes, the Southern Movement, or al-Hirak al-Janoubi, as it’s known in Yemen, has been around for many years now, technically since 2007. But North and South Yemen, we unified in 1990, and then there was a brief civil war in 1994, and the south was very much crushed in that. But this call for secession has been increasing rapidly over the last few years, particularly obviously since 2011. But the international community again has failed to really engage with the southerners. And they particularly reached out to the U.K., actually, because obviously the British previously had control of Aden, the southern city, for many years. And they reached out to the international community. And really, the international community didn’t—hasn’t engaged with them, mainly because they feel that if they engage with the south, then it’s recognizing their calls for secession, and they don’t want Yemen to break up, because they think it will impact the security situation. So, in that void, it’s actually Iran that a lot of the time in the south has stepped in and has engaged with the southerners, because nobody else will. And they have increasingly been engaging with them and supporting them.
But we’ve also got a situation now in the south over the last 24 hours, since everything’s happened in Sana’a, where they are now taking action. There have been big protests in the south today. They have said—you know, put out a message saying they will refuse to take orders now from Sana’a because of what’s happening with the Houthis. And it now appears that the Houthis are in charge. But, you know, there’s a lot of politicking going on in Aden right now. So you’ve got President Hadi with his supporters and his militiamen and gunmen on the streets. You’ve also got the Houthis, supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh, been trying to make gains in Aden, as well. So, it’s going to come to a head in the south, and that looks like it’s going to happen sooner rather than later now, because of what’s happening in Sana’a.
AMY GOODMAN: Will Saleh return as president?
IONA CRAIG: Ali Abdullah Saleh?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
IONA CRAIG: I think that’s very unlikely, but I think the chances of Ahmed Ali, his son, returning as president are possible. I think that’s distinctly possible. It may not happen in the next week, but when it comes the time of presidential elections—goodness knows when that will happen now—but I think there is a possibility that Ahmed Ali, his son, could rule Yemen. And right now, you know, for some Yemenis, they would throw up their hands and say, you know, security, some form of stability, some form of governance is better than nothing. They’re in a pretty dire situation right now with an economy that’s collapsing and this humanitarian crisis going on at the same time. And people most of the time just want stability so they can carry on with their lives.
AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, we want to thank you very much for being with us. She’s speaking to us from London, but she lived for four years in Sana’a, in the capital of Yemen, reporting for The Times of London, winner of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 23, 2015
Remembering Saudi’s King Abdullah: "He Was Not a Benevolent Dictator, He Was a Dictator"
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia has died at the age of 90. Abdullah was one of the world’s most powerful men and a key U.S. ally in the region, controlling a fifth of the known global petroleum reserves. In a statement, President Obama praised Abdullah "as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond." Many analysts accused Abdullah of turning the uprising in Syria into a proxy war with Iran. In 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups. Abdullah also sent tanks to help squash pro-democracy uprisings in neighboring Bahrain. Saudi Arabia recently came under criticism for its treatment of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes to be carried out at a rate of 50 per week for charges including insulting Islam. Abdullah’s half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, has now assumed the throne. We are joined by Toby Jones, director of Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University and the author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia."
Image Credit: Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in U.S.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Saudi Arabia.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, well, in Saudi Arabia, the funeral for the Saudi king, Abdullah, has begun. He died on Thursday at the age of 90. His brother Salman will now become king of the oil-rich monarchy. The White House announced Vice President Joe Biden would travel to Saudi Arabia to offer condolences. King Abdullah was one of the closest U.S. allies in the region. In a statement, President Obama praised him, saying, quote, "As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond."
AMY GOODMAN: While President Obama described Abdullah as a force of stability in the Middle East, analysts, many, accused Abdullah of turning the uprising in Syria into a proxy war with Iran. In 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups. King Abdullah also sent tanks to help squash pro-democracy uprisings in neighboring Bahrain. Saudi Arabia recently came under criticism for its treatment of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes to be carried out at a rate of 50 per week for charges including insulting Islam. He runs a political blog—or did, until he was imprisoned.
For more on the future on King Abdullah and the future of Saudi Arabia, we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Toby Jones, associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies at Rutgers University. He’s also the author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia, previously the International Crisis Group’s political analyst of the Persian Gulf.
Toby Jones, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about the death of King Abdullah.
TOBY JONES: Well, Abdullah’s death of course marks a transition. It’s getting a lot of attention. I think, as you pointed out in the lead up here, you know, his record is not quite as positive or rosy as a lot of people are reflecting upon this morning. He came to power formally in 2005, celebrated as a potential reformer, as somebody who would modernize and lead the kingdom forward. But it turns out he’s largely failed on every one of those measures. He has turned the clock back in terms of inciting sectarianism at home and supporting the forces of radicalism abroad. Or, if we want to read this in some slightly more benign way, he’s at least not cracked down on the domestic forces at home that have sought to incite things like sectarianism. He burned bridges with Iraq. He saw the Arab Spring, the uprising in Syria, as an opportunity to challenge both Iran and Assad’s power there, knowing full well what the possibilities of blowback and the rise of a kind of new regional terrorism might be. They supported instability in Yemen. They’ve crushed pro-democracy forces in Bahrain. Look, Abdullah is somebody who was well liked in the West. He might have been admired by a large section of Saudi society. But his record is one that’s consistent with his predecessors: It’s at odds with democracy, with human rights and with all of the things that we’re supposed to value.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And about that last point, Professor Jones, what is the state of human rights and democracy in the Saudi kingdom?
TOBY JONES: Well, it’s as bad as it’s ever been. You know, I mean, you mentioned Badawi, in the lead up here, being sentenced to a long prison term and, of course, now subject to flogging publicly, a thousand lashes. I mean, this might seem outlandish, but this is sort of common practice in Saudi Arabia. Its prisons are full of political prisoners—they have been for quite a long time—including Islamists, suspected terrorists, as well as liberals and others who champion the cause of reform and human rights. There’s been a steady string of arrests and detentions over the last few years. We pay attention now because of the crude, kind of terrible nature of what’s involved in public beheadings and this kind of Medieval punishment of lashing people for speaking their minds, but this has been going on in Saudi Arabia for quite a long time.
I mean, it’s worth remembering that in 2002, 2003, Abdullah, when he was crown prince—although not formally the king, was nevertheless still in a position of political primacy—became a darling of the reform lobby and kind of the—what we might call the moderate political wing of Saudi Arabia’s domestic political society. He was seen as a reformer. He was embraced by a broad cross-section of folks who believed that Saudi Arabia, following 9/11, following the decade of the 1990s in which there was a kind of brutal politics and crackdown on dissent, that he was going to be the person who spearheaded a period of liberal opening. And it turns out that he turned against all of his domestic allies. When he saw opportunities to crush and push back against those who might challenge Saudi political primacy, he did so. And he did so as crudely as any of his predecessors did. He was not a benevolent dictator. He was a dictator.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the man who will succeed him, King Salman? There is some information, or is it rumors, that he has dementia?
TOBY JONES: Well, I mean, look, a lot of people claim to have insight into the internal politics of the royal family. And I would caution against saying that we know too much. I mean, Salman is not a young man. I mean, he’s at least 79, if not older than that. So he’s been in a—you know, he’s been around for quite a long time. Who knows how long his reign will be? If he is suffering from health issues, you know, the royal family is not going to let us know too much about that. There has been speculation that he’s suffering from dementia. And it’s likely that his reign will be a short one and that there are powers behind the throne that will make sure that the interests of the royal family will be protected, much like Abdullah and his predecessor, Fahd. The family protects itself. There is an arrangement likely in place in which the king is the first amongst equals; nobody can act too radically or too out of step with the interests of the family more broadly.
So Salman’s reign will be probably very consistent and similar to that of Abdullah’s. He’ll be a figurehead. He will likely wield some kind of influence, as will those who are closest to him, as will his successor, the, like, current crown prince, who is probably about a decade younger, Muqrin. But the reality here—and I think one of the things we get caught up in is we get caught up in the politics of succession in Saudi Arabia, and will there be a changing of the guard that leads to some fundamental transformation. The odds are very low that that’s going to happen. The royal family’s interests are in protecting themselves first, their privilege second, and making sure that there are limited challenges to their authority. They’re very good at this, and they have been for over half a century.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the role of the Saudi family or the Saudi elite in the continuing financing of jihadists around the world?
TOBY JONES: Well, I mean, Saudi Arabia is of course a wellhead for a certain kind of ideological thinking and production. There’s a lot of talk about Wahhabism and the similarities between what is the official orthodoxy of the Islamic—of the Saudi state and groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS and others. And I think those ideological connections matter. There are certainly—there are certainly operators on the ground. There is support within Saudi mosques for precisely these kinds of networks. The Saudi state is in a much more difficult—and the royal family, a much more difficult—position. They view—I think we have to be careful here. I think they view the regional political landscape through the lens of kind of good, old-fashioned geopolitics. I mean, they see Iran as a rival. They see Assad as a pawn in all of that game. And they understand that they have a kind of limited playbook, that there are kind of natural alliances with which they can—which they can forge mutual interests and cooperation. And the Islamists happen to be among those. But I don’t think the royal family is necessarily an ideological actor in the same way that some of the preachers and clerics in Saudi Arabia are. But they reach out because they have to, to these networks. They’re dealt a certain hand, and they play the game in the way that they best can.
But this is a dangerous proposition—it was that way in Afghanistan in the 1980s, it was that way in Iraq after 2003—where the Saudis forge alliances, or they at least allow those that are sort of on the margins of the government to fund and support networks that are also simultaneously dangerous to the regime itself. That’s why they’re building a big fence on their border with Iraq. On the one hand, they’d like to see ISIS do damage in Syria, but they don’t want to see it come home. But, look, over the long term, this is an unsustainable, untenable proposition. The Saudis are eventually going to have to deal. They’re going to have to reckon with the blowback from Syria and Iraq. They’d like to postpone it as long as possible, but it’s likely inevitable.
AMY GOODMAN: And the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, Toby Jones?
TOBY JONES: Well, this is a long-standing and complicated one. It’s often framed, as Obama mentioned or as others will likely remark today, that it’s framed through the lens of security and stability. And that certainly matters from the perspective of both Saudi and American policymakers. If we peel back the layers of what this means, though, it’s not always clear. It’s not as though the Saudis have any power to really shape the region or defend their interests militarily. They’re largely dependent on the United States for security assurances. The U.S. has happily projected its military power into the Persian Gulf since at least the early 1970s, if not earlier than that.
I mean, I think what this really comes down to is that the Saudis are the world’s most important oil producer. They have been for quite a long time. For that reason, they’ve been in the American political orbit since at least the late 1930s. And the oil functions in important ways. It functions because it’s the American—Americans see it as important to the global economy, to our own domestic political economic health. And we see Saudi Arabia as an important player in that respect. But oil wealth also does a lot of other things. It gets recycled to the American economy, especially with the purchase of weapons. And these all become entangled with Saudi Arabia. Our relationship is not just about providing security for oil. It’s about maintaining a certain kind of strategic and economic relationship that profits both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: Toby Jones, we want to thank you for being with us, associate professor of history and director of Middle East studies at Rutgers University, author of Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.
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