Four years ago, Ayman Askar was in a prison in south Yemen, serving a life sentence for murder. Now he is a wealthy and important man whose friendships cut across the many lines of the fragmented civil war that has destroyed the country. Askar has recently been named the chief of security for a large district in the southern port city of Aden – appointed by the government of Yemen, on whose behalf Saudi Arabia has been bombing the country for three-and-a-half years. But Askar is also a friend and ally of the United Arab Emirates – the most aggressive partner in the Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced from office by the Houthi rebellion in 2015.
The Saudis have attracted the bulk of the world’s displeasure for their bloody intervention in Yemen, but the UAE plays a more forceful role on the ground – and its allies in the south, including local militias, Salafi fighters, and south Yemen separatists who want to break away from Hadi’s government, have been known to fight against the Saudis’ own proxies in the country.
Today Askar is allied with the government of Yemen and the UAE, but not long ago he was a member of al-Qaida, the enemy of both. Thuggish and heavy-set, with a bull-like head on strong, wide shoulders, he jostled his way up the power hierarchy of prison life: he ran a grocery store in the prison yard and a PlayStation lounge in one of the cells, and befriended the strongest gang in the prison – a group of al-Qaida inmates. He prayed with them, attended their classes, grew his beard and started dressing like them, although his friends say he never joined the organisation properly because he is too opportunistic to pledge allegiance to a single cause.
When Houthi fighters from north Yemen, backed by Iran, invaded the south and toppled the government in the capital, Sana’a – forcing Hadi to flee south to Aden, and then abroad to Saudi Arabia – Askar was still in jail. But in the chaos that followed, al-Qaida fighters stormed the prison and freed its inmates. Askar joined the resistance and fought against the Houthi invaders alongside his jihadi friends, distinguishing himself as a ruthless field commander and dividing his time equally between fighting and looting.
A few months later, the Houthis were driven out of Aden by a combination of local militias, southern separatists, government forces and UAE and Saudi troops. Askar expanded his interests beyond jihad, imposing a protection racket on the port and extorting a commission from every shipment that came through. The government issued a series of arrest warrants, but he weathered them all. He soon befriended the Emirati officers who had arrived as part of the forces that took over the city – and he spent long stints in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, making connections. He was rewarded for his friendship with a lucrative transportation contract, and has since moved into the profitable business of looting large swaths of farmland around Aden.
In the summer I met Askar as he entertained friends on his farm north of Aden. The farm was lush, green and quiet – worlds away from the crowded, suffocating streets of Aden. With the bonhomie of a bandit, he joked and told stories from his last trip abroad. He and a friend had rented three Mercedes vans with their drivers, to ferry them and their wives and children around the resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, taking them to water parks, beaches and seafood restaurants.
“It was a week from heaven,” Askar told the friends gathered around him. “The children were very happy, and one could forget about all the troubles of war.”
Ayman Askar is just one of the people who have done well from the war in Yemen – a conflict the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with at least 14 million people now estimated to be at risk of starvation. Last week, UN-sponsored peace talks in Sweden produced a temporary ceasefire between the Houthis and pro-government forces in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, a crucial gateway for humanitarian aid into the country. The Houthis have controlled the city since 2015, but it has been under assault for months by Saudi-UAE coalition forces, leading to warnings of an even worse humanitarian catastrophe.
If the fragile ceasefire holds – which is not certain – both sides will be required to withdraw their troops from the port. A successful truce in Hodeideh could pave the way for progress at the next round of talks, scheduled for late January. But the war is not yet over.
In fact, it is no longer even a single war. It began as a conflict with two clear antagonists – the Saudi-led coalition allied with the government versus the Houthi militia supported by Iran. But the force and funding of outside intervention – especially from the UAE – has helped to fragment the war into multiple conflicts and local skirmishes that will not necessarily be ended by any peace agreement. Yemen is now a patchwork of heavily armed fiefdoms and chaotic areas, where commanders, war profiteers and a thousand bandit kings, like Ayman Askar, thrive.
There is a regional war between the north and the south – which were separate and often warring states before 1990. There is a sectarian conflict between Zaidi Shias, such as the Houthis, and Sunni Salafis. Beyond these major fault lines are many smaller conflicts, inflamed and aggravated by the money and weapons supplied by outside forces to anyone seen to advance their agenda.
The government of Yemen – with scores of ministers and deputy ministers – is dysfunctional and corrupt, and since 2015 has been in exile in a Saudi hotel compound. It has an army of more than 200,000 troops, although many of them haven’t been paid, or exist as ghost soldiers – names on a list, whose salaries are siphoned off by their commanding officers.
The Saudi-led coalition itself is riddled with conflicts and rivalries, with each of its principal members following a separate agenda and plotting against the others. In Taiz, a city in central Yemen that has been besieged and shelled by the Houthis for more than three years, the fighters on the coalition side are split into more than two dozen separate military factions – including local militias backed and sponsored by the UAE, as well as al-Qaida and other jihadis. Some fighters switch sides according to who is offering funds.
Two years ago, when a local Sunni sheikh from Bayda – on the traditional fault line between the Zaidi north and the southern Sunni lands – went to seek assistance from the UAE in his battle against the Houthis, an Emirati general told him that the Houthi rebels “are no longer our priorities or biggest enemy”. The sheikh was told that if he wanted weapons from the UAE, he also had to fight Islamic State (Isis), al-Qaida and al-Islah – an Islamist political party that plays a dominant role in the very same government the UAE has ostensibly sent troops to Yemen to defend.
Now there are three different forces fighting across the sheikh’s territory, each supported by one or even two of the main factions in the coalition: the UAE, the Saudis and the government of Yemen. Each army in this region of ragged hills and black volcanic stones has received millions of dollars’ worth of military equipment, trucks and salaries for the fighters. Meanwhile, farmers in these same lands can no longer afford to buy petrol for their tractors; they straggle behind scraggy donkeys pushing wooden ploughs while their children become fighters and militiamen.
The Emiratis appear to be the only alliance members with a clear strategy. They are using private armies that they have created, trained and funded in a bid to crush both jihadi militancy and Islamist political parties such as al-Islah. Across the southern coast – where the UAE is allied with the separatist Southern Movement, which is opposed to both the Houthis and the Hadi government – the Emiratis have built a series of military camps and bases, and established what is essentially a parallel state, with its own security services who are not accountable to the Yemeni government. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have revealed the existence of a network of secret prisons operated by the UAE and its proxy forces, who are accused of disappearing and torturing al-Islah members, anti-Houthi fighters from rival factions, and even activists and critics of the Saudi-UAE coalition. Yemeni ministers have taken to referring to the Emiratis as an “occupation force”.
The Saudis’ floundering military strategy has largely involved relentless bombing of civilians. Their blockade of Yemen’s ports has pushed millions of people to the edge of starvation. In the last couple of years they have been reduced to playing the role of a peacemaker between their two allies, the UAE and the government of Yemen.
“We had hoped that the Saudis would intervene to stop the folly of the Emiratis, but they are lost,” a Yemeni commander based in Aden said to me last summer. “The war is not going well for them, and they can’t be bothered with what’s happening in the south, so they have handed that file to the Emiratis.”
What the Emiratis have achieved in Yemen – creating private armies, propping up secessionists in the south and conspiring to destroy the political system, while controlling strategic waterways in the Arabian and Red seas – shows how a small and very ambitious nation projects its power in the region, and the world.
The devastating civil war that began in 2015 was years in the making, but the biggest spark was lit around 2011, amid the exuberance of the Arab spring, when a popular protest movement drove former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. Saleh had ruled through an intricate system of corruption and patronage for three decades, but unlike other deposed Arab dictators he did not go to prison or flee the country. Instead, a delicately negotiated settlement, brokered by the UN and Yemen’s Gulf neighbours, allowed him to step aside and avoid prosecution while Hadi, his vice-president, took over. But while representatives of the country’s various factions debated a political transition in the capital, in the north and the south some of these same clans and parties were fighting to impose their will on the ground, tearing the country apart and thrusting it toward another civil war.
Of these many feuding powers, the Houthis, or Ansar Allah, as they called themselves, were the most organised and ideologically driven. They believed they had a divine mission. Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the movement’s founder, was a Zaidi religious leader who attacked the corruption of the Saleh regime and preached a millenarian melange of anti-western ideology and Islamic revivalism. (The Zaidis, a Shia sect largely located in Yemen, represent about a third of the country’s population, but their brand of Shi’ism is very different from that practised in Iran and Iraq.)
In late 2014, the Houthis marched down from the north and took over the capital, Sana’a – with the aid of army units still loyal to Saleh. After Hadi fled south to Aden in early 2015, the Houthis stormed the city and sent him into exile. One day after he turned up in Riyadh, a Saudi-led coalition that included the armies of the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Sudan and Egypt, with the support of the US, UK and France, began bombing Sana’a on behalf of the exiled Yemeni government.
The Houthis forced Hadi out, but they never managed to fully occupy Aden. Almost overnight, the city was filled with local men wielding guns along with their “commanders” – who gathered in schools, government buildings and squares. There was no structure; friends, activists, neighbours or relatives coalesced around a charismatic neighbourhood leader, financier or thug. Some were Salafis, some southern separatists, some al-Qaida, some just unemployed youth. Often there were no clear lines separating these groups. A commander could be both a southern separatist and a Salafi, and many of the young people who joined the jihadi groups did so not out of ideology but hatred of the Houthis and admiration for the jihadis’ discipline and plentiful supplies of weapons. They were separated by a thousand disagreements and united by one thing: fighting the Houthis.