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Muhammad bin Nayyif on Yemen

For the past few years one of the more intriguing questions about Yemen has been: what is Muhammad bin Nayyif (Saudi Arabia’s deputy Minister of the Interior) thinking about his neighbor to the south?

Following another dribble of a release from Wikileaks, we have a partial answer.

Short answer: it is not encouraging. Long answer: keep reading.

In a section of a US diplomatic cable entitled, “We have a Problem Called Yemen,” Muhammad bin Nayyif’s remarks regarding Yemen are paraphrased. He is, of course, worried about Yemen. No surprise there.

He also says – like every editor of every western newspaper I’ve ever read – that Yemen is like Afghanistan. Ok, so MbN (to use the diplomatic shorthand) lacks imagination, or possibly is just speaking in language he thinks the Americans can understand.

Bin Nayyif claims that Saudi Arabia is aware that a number of people come for the Hajj and Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) and make their way to Yemen for training before going back to their home countries.

This is interesting, primarily because it suggests that AQAP in Yemen is sufficiently developed to be training others.

He then moves on to discuss President Salih and the Huthis. Again, like most newspaper editors, bin Nayyif calls Yemen a “failed state,” and says it is “very, very, extremely dangerous.” Ok, and if I was a member of Saudi’s royal family I would probably see it the same way. But I think calling Yemen a failed state is a bit much, as is his comment that Salih’s vision of Yemen “has shrunk to San’a.” This may look true from Riyadh, but it isn’t true on the ground.

This is the type of stuff I expect to see in western news reports on the country (the bad ones, some journalists who work on Yemen do incredibly good work) but not from Saudi’s top CT official.

His comments on the Huthis, while similarly off the mark, are not that unexpected. I wonder what his thoughts are now that AQAP and the Huthis are gearing up for a war? It must be difficult to change official Saudi policy. I noticed this morning on the metro that the Saudis trotted Muhammad al-Awfi (the former Guantanamo Bay detainee turned AQ commander, who then turned himself back in) back out on Saudi television last night. I haven’t read the whole story. (There is a write-up here.) But from a brief skim of the paper as I was rocking back-and-forth on the train, it looks as though al-Awfi is repeating the same old lines: Iran is behind AQAP.

So, if we are to believe him, this means that AQAP is publicly attacking Iran for supporting the Huthis, who it is literally attacking – all the while Iran is secretly behind AQAP. This means that Iran is using one proxy to destroy its other proxy. Now, I’m no expert on the Persian psyche (my two years of Farsi study notwithstanding), but even this seems a bit much for the all-evil Iranians. (Note: this paragraph was tongue-in-cheek, I don’t actually believe either the Huthis or AQAP are Iranian proxies, and neither should you, or for that matter neither should Muhammad bin Nayyif.)

Towards the end of the section we finally get to some interesting tidbits. Muhammad bin Nayyif makes one point, which I have also made (so, of course, I agree with him). He says: ‘Salih’s old advisers are gone and now he (relies) on his son and other younger men, who do not have good connections with Yemeni tribes.”

Ok, the first part of the point I have made previously: that the circle of old wise men in Yemen is dying off. But I see it slightly differently than Muhammad bin Nayyif. I don’t think Salih is turning to the younger generation for advice, I think his circle of advisers is just growing smaller. The men who die off – Mujahid AbuShuwarib, Muhammad al-Mutawwakil, Abdullah al-Ahmar, and so on – aren’t being replaced, and this is bad, very bad for Yemen.

MbN goes on to say, in contrast to Yemen’s young generation, Saudi Arabia “has good connections with the tribes.” Now, I’m all for tooting one’s own horn, but this seems a bit much, particularly given Saudi Arabia’s colorful and, shall we say, curious history with Yemen’s tribes. Nothing in recent history has given me any indication that Saudi Arabia understands Yemen’s tribes. Sure, they know who to give money to – as many shaykhs as they can find – but they have yet to demonstrate that they can make those riyals work for them. The Saudis get a horrible return on their money into Yemen.

Finally he discusses the bilateral council – this used to have a different name in Arabic, and maybe it still does – and then he gets to the good part: what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen.

I will quote the cable at length:

Saudi assistance to
Yemen was not in the form of cash payments, MbN said, since
cash tended to end up in Swiss banks. Instead the Saudis
backed projects in the tribal areas of Yemen where AQ was
hiding. The idea was that when Yemenis saw the concrete
benefits of these projects they would push their leaders to
eject the extremists. Saudi Arabia was counting on this
strategy, MbN said, to persuade Yemenis to see extremists as
criminals rather than heroes. Holbrooke replied that the
U.S. understood Saudi concerns about Yemen, and would work
with the Saudis to address the problem there.

If this is Saudi Arabia’s strategy towards Yemen, then we are all in a lot of trouble. First, I’m not sure what projects the Saudi’s are working on, but I don’t think they have made much of an impact and given AQAP’s growth in Yemen over the past year, I don’t think they’ve paid off.

I wasn’t expecting MbN to have some super-secret plan to save Yemen, but I was expecting more than this. Now maybe, he is a much more nuanced and engaged thinker than this cable presents (the danger of reading so much into so little selective evidence).

Certainly he did a good job of destroying AQAP’s (the old one) infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, and as the announcement of several recent arrests suggests is continuing to do a good job in his home country. But if anyone in the US is holding out hopes that he can win the war in Yemen, I think (based on this limited bit of evidence) that this would be a mistake. He will be able to help the US and Yemeni governments in Yemen, but I don’t think he can win the war there like he is winning the one in Saudi Arabia.

Let’s not put all our eggs in his basket shall we.


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