Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World

Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World

by Isa Blumi

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Since March 2015, a Saudi-led international coalition of forces—supported by Britain and the United States—has waged devastating war in Yemen. Largely ignored by the world’s media, the resulting humanitarian disaster and full-scale famine threatens millions. Destroying Yemen offers the first in-depth historical account of the transnational origins of this war, placing it in the illuminating context of Yemen’s relationship with major powers since the Cold War. Bringing new sources and a deep understanding to bear on Yemen’s profound, unwitting implication in international affairs, this explosive book ultimately tells an even larger story of today’s political economy of global capitalism, development, and the war on terror as disparate actors intersect in Arabia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520296145
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/09/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 312
Sales rank: 601,526
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Isa Blumi is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Turkish Studies at Stockholm University. He is the author of Ottoman Refugees, 1878–1939, Foundations of Modernity, and Reinstating the Ottomans.

Read an Excerpt


The Quest for Global Hegemony Starts There

(Yemen Fataakah) Yemen is deadly.



Over the last century there have been numerous cases of foreign intervention in South Arabia. Be they "humanitarian" or "development" campaigns sanctioned by multilateral organizations like the United Nations (UN) or unauthorized drone strikes commanded by US military forces, such interactions with Yemen have left as much a global as a local imprint. Studying more closely such interventions not only helps us understand the modern world but also reminds us how global affairs are the domain of peoples beyond the white males of the Euro-American world. For this reason, there is value added to providing a more granular historical analysis of these forces' engagement with Yemen.

In most Euro-American histories of the contemporary world, Yemen occupies barely a footnote. It was Portuguese, Dutch, and Genovese traders who "discovered" Yemen in the sixteenth century and, like the inhabitants of Australia or the Americas, Yemenis and their productivity became an object of strategic value to outsiders only aft er these rational Western men started to exploit and thus profit from an otherwise economically "underutilized" region. Well into the twentieth century Euro-American capitalist interests explored ways to better integrate Yemen into their evolving globalist regime, a process that necessarily stripped Yemenis of their historic role as the economic, cultural, spiritual, and political engine for much of the Indian Ocean world.

Put in this global context, the analysis below challenges several assumptions about Yemen, a corrective that provides a foundation to better understanding the links to the country's devolution into war today. From the start, we aim to upset an enduring image of Yemen incognito, an ancillary space of premodern cultural and socioeconomic activity whose purportedly marginal place in the developments of a world modeled after the West justifies the Saudi-American intervention today. Challenging in this way the thought of South Arabia's historical marginality helps usher in new perspectives on how Yemen arrived at this horrible state of affairs today. In the process of reinserting, in particular, Yemen's relationship with global finance capitalism, it becomes possible to appreciate the extent to which Yemenis adopted contemporary progressive, anti-imperialist agendas in their inevitable resistance to European encroachments.

The most recent form of this resistance — AnsarAllah temporarily partnering with Saleh's loyalists — started from the late nineteenth century. Its continuity, expressed as "traditional" values and practices, consistently leveled challenges to the rise of Western capitalist power. In fact, this resistance may have even left a mark on how the modern Euro-American state itself evolved (Blumi 2012). Such assertions may help us appreciate better globalization via neoliberal economic and social policies as influenced by the fact that Europe could not entirely subordinate Yemen. This fact may even explain why powerful interests continue to commit vast resources to dominate the country today.

I defend this argument by casting light on a particularly animated period of imperial competition in the larger Red Sea region from the 1880s until the eve of World War II. The dynamic exchanges, when seen from a multiplicity of local perspectives, prove to have influenced the manners in which various indigenous Yemeni actors interfaced with an expansive, yet still developing, Euro-American capitalist enterprise. The subsequent rise in the Red Sea area of the Saudi state and the British, French, and Italian colonial administrations account for the ensuing kinds of interstate relations shaping the larger region's history. Parallel to these developments, various Yemeni polities evolved in kind, adapting in the face of new kinds of complex exchanges involving foreign interests, a dynamic that helps account for the arrival of heretofore alien interests. This applies, in particular, to the multilateral organizations like the UN, World Bank, and even the United States, which after World War II became synonymous with the globalist project.


Southern Arabia has long been the focal point of transregional commercial and thus political ambitions. Since antiquity, the resource-rich areas along the hinterland of the Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea produced wealth for regional traders. For just as long, these merchants sent out their sons to establish commercial ties, oft en by way of marriage into local elite families or religious proselytization. At times, such networks that produced enormous wealth also translated into transregional polities. The highly mobile constituencies emerging out of such polities were precursors to Euro-Atlantic colonialism of much of the same territories. In this respect, the expansionist Hadhrami emirates established in Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula, and the islands throughout the South China Sea pre-date the arrival of empire's investment in Southeast Asia. As such, diasporas of Yemeni heritage became the principal rivals and, at some point, crucial allies for future Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Japanese, and American traders-cum-colonial administrators (Laffan 2003; Tagliacozzo 2014).

Crucially, these Yemeni diasporas, which were getting wealthy as either rivals or allies to European financial interests, invested their wealth both locally and back in their Arabian homeland to strengthen resistance to global capitalism as much as to service it. Among the more important investments were globally recognized centers of learning in towns like Tarim, Sa'adah, Ibb, and Zabid (Messick 1993). As long as these centers attracted Muslim intellectuals with transnational links for centuries, the cultural products of the subsequent exchanges were trend-setting iterations of Shafi'i, Zaydi, and Sufispirituality (Ho 2006). To the frustration of the globalists hoping to channel this wealth, the productivity of such Yemeni communities inspired generations of Muslims to disseminate the distinctive tenets of their faith to all corners of the world facing Euro-American violence. In sum, Yemen's Muslims were at the forefront of resistance to European capitalists.

As scholars in the past have highlighted, this conduit of spiritual exchange, debate, resistance, development, and expression helped maintain deep into the twentieth century a social force that, when needed, mobilized tens of thousands of faithful. From the nuanced principles of the jurist Muhammad Shawkani (Haykel 2003), the scholars informing judicial practice within various Zaydi imamates (Messick 1993), and finally the diverse groups of Sufi activists rallying transregional anti-European resistance for decades (Blumi 2013: 115–42), the periodic expression of principled faith in Islam helped Yemenis thwart, or at least mediate, the expansion of modern capitalism.

The resulting struggles with foreign powers cannot be fully studied without appreciating the extent to which Yemenis were implicated in the events. Be they subsumed in regimes of exploitation that further harnessed their labor or active members of the beneficiaries of such regimes, Yemenis' global entanglements, when associated with the arrival of the British East India Company (BEIC) to South Arabia, prove more complicated than traditionally assumed.

Establishing in 1839 a working political alliance with a local intermediary in Aden, the Bombay-based BEIC hoped to secure a foothold in a region still entirely out of reach to European capitalists. Unfortunately, there has been in the scholarship an unnecessary linkage made between this early stage of capitalist investment in Yemen and the subsequent century and a half, where it is British-occupied Aden and its administration that animates the region's history (Dresch 2000: 8–10). But this accounting occludes indigenous factors (Stoler 2016: 14–21). To avoid the Eurocentric assumption that modern history only begins with the arrival of Europeans, this important watershed exposes the multiple push-pull factors involved in Yemeni affairs.

The first point to highlight when writing an alternative history is that the Bombay-based company BEIC arrived in Aden as an invited ally of a local ruler. The fateful decision to invite BEIC into the fray ultimately agitated the numerous semi-independent emirates guarding supply routes along the Red Sea, Horn of Africa, and larger Western Indian Ocean. More still, one of the forgotten elements contributing to locals' aligning with this foreign trading company was the ascendancy of allies of the Ottoman Empire in the region just north of Aden. While neglected in the historiography, the geographic scope of the Ottomans' rapidly realized, some would say colonialist, state appears to have instigated the first "scramble" for influence in Eastern Africa and its Southern Arabian neighbors (Kuehn 2011; Minawi 2016; Makdisi 2002).

In this regard, British interests — at least those of landed elites heavily invested in BEIC shares — were directly challenged by the expansive Ottoman-Egyptian state that established a foothold in the coastal Tihama region of Yemen in the early 1830s. It is by no coincidence, then, that the first efforts by the British corporation to steer the Ottoman Empire into its financial orbit correlated with similar overtures being made to Southern Yemeni political leaders to ignore the opportunities offered by Egypt's governor Muhammad 'Ali's expansion into the Red Sea (Wick 2016: 42–45). Indeed, as it is always wise to account for the diversity of interested parties in Yemen affected by regional and global events, some of those embracing a partnership with the BEIC felt equally threatened by a newly expansive Ottoman-Egyptian state. As agents of the BEIC took measures to thwart these encroachments into the lucrative trade of the region, they successfully entered into treaties with various local ruling families. As is oft en the case with new political alliances, BEIC partnerships animated much of the subsequent actions taken by other foreign interests.

By the 1860s, French, Belgian, Italian, German, Swiss, and British companies established similar treaties with local coastal communities in the Red Sea, hoping to secure access to the expanding trade of coveted commodities to and from Yemen and the Horn of Africa (Miran 2014). The resulting scramble for Africa in the 1870s and 1880s is, therefore, a byproduct of those earlier campaigns to secure political/commercial alliances with indigenous actors willing to diversify their own revenue streams (Alloul and Markey 2016: 267–72).

Crucially, private capitalist interests pushed for the creation of a new kind of administration to take on the expenses of violently subduing the kind of contingencies created by local and global rivalries in the Indian Ocean/Red Sea. In fact, the BEIC "outsourced" the expensive task of militarily subordinating locals to a British imperial state whose primary policy makers also became shareholders in the company (Dirks 2009). In short, the heavy lifting of capital accumulation was transferred to an amorphous British state whose officials (tax collectors, generals, engineers, school teachers) oft en unknowingly, served the demands of "the market" by reaping the surplus wealth produced by largely autonomous peasants around the world (Davis 2002: 23–116).

These transformations, the first of many occasions when capitalists based in the North Atlantic harnessed the resources of a modern state to defer operational costs of harvesting a region's human and natural wealth, offer a useful starting point to our historical survey. If nothing else, observing the complexity of these relations in their pre–World War II iterations helps us appreciate the multitude of constituencies struggling to fight off the exploitative whims of empire ever since. Central to this investment in reading a more complex exchange between many Yemenis and the larger world is reminding ourselves just what the European traders flooding the Red Sea region in the 1860s onwards so coveted.

Despite assertions that the region was economically backward, we can see from archives that global commercial interests hoped to tap into heretofore inaccessible surplus wealth produced locally. Indeed, Europeans had a trade deficit with Yemen, meaning more gold and silver flowed into Arabia than out (Blumi 2012: 144–68). As in China and India before, this hemorrhaging of wealth needed to be reversed, a calculus that extends to our present-day catastrophe in Yemen (Fichter 2010).

Reading the sources of many of the first generation of commercial-cum-colonial administrations highlights how Yemen was not "underdeveloped," simply awaiting the arrival of Europe to usher in modernity. Far from being "poor" and "backward," these areas had already-refined wealth extraction regimes in place, whose primary beneficiaries were not willing to hand them over to Europeans (Blumi 2012: 40–44). The subsequent century of interactions between Europeans and Yemenis was based on changing this (im)balance of commercial and political power. As is still the case, a small group of interested parties rationalized that, if properly steered away from indigenous hands, the wealth generated from these productive Yemeni regions would go a long way in satiating the increasingly monopolistic North Atlantic bankers' need for gold and silver.

In the face of such competing commercial ambitions, some Yemenis were granted new leverage over local and regional rivals after signing agreements with globalist interests. At a practical level, partnerships with English merchants meant that powerful companies (and later the British Empire itself) recognized the "sovereignty" of the Amirs in Lahj, 'Asir, throughout the Horn of Africa, and eventually across what today is South Yemen. Some of the inducements for cooperation of this kind were domination over local rivals or the opportunity to expand commercial operations beyond traditional limits. Indeed, with advanced European weapons helping tip the balance in favor of local allies, many of the ascendant trading communities in the nineteenth century gained their first taste of success after securing their own treaties, either directly with a British representative or a rival like the Ottomans or Italians.

This process of increasing direct influence over the affairs of the region's political classes gave some local intermediaries the possibility to think big and act boldly. While on paper the Arabian Peninsula appears to be marked by claims in Istanbul or Bombay (from where the British imperial government east of Suez managed its Indian Ocean assets), by the beginning of World War I Arabia was a puzzle of intrigue beyond any European power's ability to lay exclusive claim. The resulting quest to secure partnerships with aspiring leaders from even obscure arenas of imperial competition — Najd, 'Asir, Kuwait, Assab, Zeila, Yafi' — created the kind of contingencies necessary for locals to survive in the twentieth century.

In respect to North and Middle Yemen, the political rivalries between various claimants to local authority offered Ottoman, Italian, French, and even other local polities short-term spiritual and/or political legitimacy. Revealingly, these short-lived polities' ability to secure the eager patronage of larger external actors (this includes the long-forgotten Zaranaq, Qu'aytis, and more importantly, the Idrisi) forced the hands of the Great Powers. For British-linked agents in particular, this meant adapting to the reality that the Red Sea and Hadhramawt were far from secure a dangerous situation considering the role a recently completed Suez Canal played in sustaining the empire.

In response, some British made the fateful choice of directly supporting the rise or expansion of several Arabian dynasties. The most notorious was Abdul Aziz Ibn Sa'ud (who came to power in 1902 with British assistance at the expense of his brother, whom the Ottomans supported). The corresponding embrace of Wahhabism as a likely wedge to upset Ottoman authority throughout Arabia signaled an opportunistic willingness of a political and financial class in London to support destructive extremists in their quest for long-term hegemony over the region's strategic assets (Massad 2015: 70–71). In so doing, the British financial elite now holding the Wahhabi card opened the gates of hell for which the world continues to pay the price today (Davidson 2016: 85–90; Blumi 2016).


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Copyright © 2018 Isa Blumi.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Note on Dates, Abbreviations, and Transliteration xiii

Introduction 1

1 The Quest for Global Hegemony Starts There 28

2 The Region That Pumps the Heart of the Cold War, 1941-1960 57

3 Birthing Revolution: A Genealogy of the 1962 Coup 85

4 Wrong from the Start: Modernization and Development and the Violence They Spun 113

5 Making Yemen Dance: The Regime and the Politics of Chaos 142

6 Plundering Yemen and Its Post-Spring Hiatus 170

Coda: Yemen's Relevance to the Larger World 201

Notes 213

Bibliography 265

Index 287

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