Northern Yemen is largely made up of rugged mountains rising 5,000 feet from the Red Sea coast to the Plateau of Sanna, the capital, in less than 75 miles. Further north more mountains shield the region from the vast desert wastes of the "Empty Quarter" that makes up the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. Taking advantage of these topographical circumstances, the kingdom built reservoirs and canals to distribute the mountain rains and created a vast agricultural system similar to California’s Imperial Valley. Fruit and grains in abundance and easy access to the sea and North Africa just across the straits made Yemen a focal point for trade and culture in the region. Then came the Persians, and it’s all been downhill from there.
Seventeen hundred years ago, the Persian conquest swept through Yemen and on their way out of town they broke the dams and opened the canals, causing the population to relocate entirely across the mountains, leaving the ruins of Sheba’s kingdom to the blowing sands of the Rub al Khali. After the Persians, nothing much worked and the locals gravitated to the shores of the Gulf of Aden, where it quickly became obvious that seizing the occasional dhow from the vast fleets of seasonal traders sailing from Madagascar and east Africa to the Persian Gulf. Piracy, then and now, became the salvation of the impoverished. For several centuries the Yemeni pirates were able to ransom ships and cargoes, until their depredations forced the traders to come ashore in what is now Aden, and caravan their goods across the deserts to Damascus and Jerusalem, where the locals shifted from piracy to banditry. Each valley sheik exacted tribute from passing caravans, and to this day wandering foreigners are subject to coerced donations as they travel.
To complicate matters, Yemen and the Somali highlands are the source of a relatively unknown drug: quat, a leafy bush whose leaves, when chewed, produce a moderate stimulant high. Yemeni men buy a small bouquet of leaves after noon prayers and meals, then retire to shaded rooftops with friends for several hours of relaxed but intense discussion. It has been noted by our intel agencies in Somalia that rebel fighters are most ferocious in the afternoon battles around Mogadishu.
In the sixties a vicious war deposed the king, and the peace conference he called was destroyed by long-planted land mines, killing nearly everyone at the banquet. Later efforts to create a stable central government failed, often as a result of rebellious tribes and assassination, culminating in the killing of a paratroop general found shot to death in bed with two French hookers, which was obviously a setup since everyone knew he was gay. The army defected to Aden, (then a Soviet-sponsored experiment in socialism) with all their guns and armor and launched an attempt to take over the whole nation.
The most interesting aspect of the little war in ’79 was the failure of the combined armies from Aden to overcome the spontaneous militia that formed in the wake of the invasion. The teen recruit replacements for the mutinous military commandeered pickup trucks for transport and headed for the front, rallying villagers along the way. Since their battles against British and other forces, Yemeni men have carried their rifles (mostly Lee-Enfields of WWI vintage for the old and AK47s for the young modernists), and in hours nearly every male old enough to fight was on the front lines, and the invasion was stopped after only a couple of weeks.
These are the folks we are now preparing to bomb and invade in retaliation for their harboring of al-Qaida veterans from Gitmo and the Af/Pak conflict: pirates, bandits and others fiercely defensive of foreign intervention and the central government that the U.S. largely controls through aid programs and military alliances.
If you like Afghanistan, you’ll love Yemen!