Middle East


Drug Smuggling and Other Crimes of the Dictator

Yemenis demonstrating against firearms in the capitol city of Sanaa last month called on parliament to pass a gun control bill that was drafted and submitted about 10 years ago. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen is scheduled to visit the United States in November for a round of meetings with President Bush and other high-ranking officials. As the representative of the Yemeni people, Saleh deserves a great deal of respect and hospitality. Yet it has become increasingly apparent that the regime, under the total domination of President Saleh, is engaged in a wide variety of criminal activities to the detriment of regional stability and the Yemeni people themselves.

Drug Smuggling: One regionally destabilizing regime activity is drug smuggling. A variety of illegal drugs is smuggled via the Indian Ocean into the southern Yemeni governorate of Hadramawt. The drugs are then transported inland to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States under the supervision of a close relative of the president who is also responsible for the governmental security apparatus, a well-informed former regime official reported. The Saudis regularly report seizing tons of drugs (as well as guns and other prohibited materials) from Yemeni smugglers.

The profits from many illegal transactions are thought to be laundered through real estate transactions by front companies in Dubai. Once laundered, the money finds it way to bank accounts in Europe, notably Germany.

Weapons Trafficking: Both the United States and the United Nations have expressed concern regarding the amount of illegal arms transfers from Yemen. The Yemeni weapons pipeline has two sources of supply: the black market and legitimate military purchases.

Published reports have indicated that local gangs of arms traffickers in Serbia, Slovakia, Montenegro, Croatia and Kosovo ship weapons from the ports in Montenegro and Croatia to Yemen. Additionally some weapons purchased by the Yemeni military are diverted into the black market. The serial numbers for two assault rifles used in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia have been traced to Yemen’s Defense Ministry. Five U.S. consulate employees died in the attack.

Independent analyst Shaun Overton noted, “Many people believe that Yemeni military officers bear responsibility for the distribution of weapons in the country. Arms can flow legally into Yemen for the legitimate purpose of supplying the army.” The poorest nation in the Arab world, Yemen is among its top weapons purchasers. The rise in Yemen’s military budget, which tripled from 1998 to 2003, corresponds with an increase in weapons trafficking activity, an enterprise reputedly supervised by a close relative of President Saleh who is a top military leader.

The Yemeni weapons pipeline illegally supplies weapons to various groups in the Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and to Al Qaeda. According to Elaph, an Arabic Web site, “The Saudis were very furious as the latest battles with terrorists in Saudi Arabia revealed that all weapons and explosives used by the Qaeda fighters were bought and smuggled from Yemeni arms markets.” An Israeli military intelligence official said, “The weapons are smuggled by private gangs but with full knowledge of the authorities …”

Illegal transfers are also made directly by the military. A recent U.N. report noted that the Yemeni government had admitted sending 5000 “personal weapons” to the government of Somalia despite a U.N. weapons embargo. The weapons were delivered by the Yemeni air force. The report also noted a much larger deal brokered between Yemen and Somalia that included rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired missiles and other armaments. Previously, Yemeni tanks discovered in the Sudan were disavowed by the Yemeni government. The Yemeni military recently banned journalists from reporting on military topics without prior approval.

Active Support of Terrorists: It is no secret that Al Qaeda affiliated members of the Yemeni military and security forces are aiding terrorists. A Yemeni government official stated that “subversive” (Al Qaeda) elements of Yemen’s secret service have established training camps for Iraqi Baathists who later fight in Iraq. Military analyst James Dunnigan wrote recently, “There are many Al Qaeda sympathizers in the Yemeni military and government as well. These sympathizers have been discreetly aiding Iraqi Baath Party officials who have fled Iraq, and now Syria. There has also been some active, but covert, support for the terrorists operating in Iraq.”

Dunnigan’s assessment corresponds with that of former Yemeni ambassador to Syria, Ahmed Abdullah al-Hasani, who recently requested political asylum in London. A former commander of Yemen’s navy, al-Hasani stated at a press conference “Al Qaeda elements are at the top in Yemen, in the army and political security forces.” In an Associated Press report, Yemeni Socialist Party lawmaker Mohammed Salah said, “The government deals with terrorists in a way to keep them under their control, to use them when it needs to.”

A recent study for the Center for Strategic and International Studies by Anthony Cordesman found that 17 percent of foreign fighters in Iraq were likely Yemeni. This figure does not account for fighters of other nationalities trained in Yemen. Twenty suicide bombings in Iraq were perpetrated by Yemenis, reported al-Thawry newspaper. Two individuals charged with involvement in the Cole bombings who “escaped” along with eight other suspects were later reported to have carried out suicide bombings in Iraq, which resulted in dozens of deaths.

Beyond training and support, there is reportedly an established terrorist transit route through Yemen to Iraq. A Saudi source recently told the London based Saudi paper Asharq Alawsat that generally, “A young man decides he wants to fight in Iraq, illegally enters Yemen, travels to Syria and is subsequently smuggled across the border into Iraq.”

Counterfeit Money: The Central Bank of Yemen distributed a substantial amount of forged currency to its clients. Confirmed as forgeries by the Yemeni police, the bogus currency distributed by the Taiz branch of the Yemen Central Bank was in both Saudi and Yemeni denominations, according to al-Wahdawi news. Counterfeit Saudi riyals are thought to be regularly smuggled into Saudi Arabia to be exchanged with authentic denominations.

Adel al-Dhahab, the lawyer who had handled counterfeiting cases for the Reserve Bank of Yemen in 2004, reported that some of the counterfeit money stored for protection by the Reserve Bank was stolen (and presumably re-circulated) by a high ranking official in the Ministry of the Interior, until the prosecutor was forced to stamp every bill as counterfeit to prevent such practices. Al-Dhahab also confirmed that the Central Bank is used as a mechanism of transferring and investing the personal funds of top officials overseas.

Diesel Smuggling: Researcher Sarah Philips reported that a well-informed ex-parliamentarian from the ruling General People’s Congress (G.P.C.), said that “high-ranking regime officials smuggled large quantities of subsidized diesel from Yemen’s southern ports to the Horn of Africa, transferring at least 20 to 30 percent of the public money used to pay for the subsidies into their own pockets.” She found that at a time when imports of other products (including diesel consuming machinery) decreased slightly, “the rapid increase in Yemen’s diesel imports makes a circumstantial case” for large-scale smuggling.

Abduljabar Saad, under secretary of the finance minister, in his resignation letter dated Aug. 16, 2005, objected to widespread corruption throughout the ministry. He also noted the large increase in publicly subsidized diesel intended for the Yemeni public and he stated with a fair amount of certitude that it “is being smuggled to neighboring markets.”

Chemical Weapons: It is questionable whether the Yemeni military’s response to the Houthi rebellion was proportionate, reasonable and justified. The primarily Shiite region of Saada was decimated by a military force comprised of former Iraqi military men, Afghan Arabs and Yemeni military personnel, under the leadership of General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a reputed Al Qaeda sympathizer and President Saleh’s half brother. Persistent news reports and published interviews have charged that General Mohsen used gas as a weapon during the conflicts in Saada.

Highly respected religious scholar Mohamed Almansour wrote a letter to President Saleh in March 2005, which stated, “We condemn all things that happened in the previous months such as excessive use of force by the government forces and the use of internationally prohibited weapons.” In May, Alquds Alarabia reported that rebel leader Abdelmalik al-Houthi said, “The government attacked us with internationally prohibited weapons like chlorine gas that caused an inability to breathe.” He also referred to “colored gas.” An article in the opposition newspaper al-Shoura in June listed the names of imprisoned children, including Bader Aldeen Abdula Moslih who was described as “12 years old, very ill from nervous system and skin damage as a result of chlorine gas used by the army in the first war last year.” In an internet interview the same month, a Houthi partisan and purported eyewitness described “some special missile which turns into many particles, yellow and then red. The cloud goes up slowly. When it explodes it is yellow, when the particles come down they are red.” The cloud caused an inability to breathe, he reported.

  Yahya al-Houthi, an exiled Member of Parliament in the ruling party and brother of slain rebel leader Hussain al-Houthi, wrote in an e-mail “Most of the injured persons have died especially those who were hiding in Suleiman Cave. They were exposed to chemical gas … The area surrounding Suleiman Cave is still closed by the Army to prevent any one from taking samples to be analyzed by chemical weapon experts. The Army also burned all bodies in that area so they don’t leave any evidence for the international community.

“They used gas in the area of Alqari Mountain in the village of Neshoor … The result of the attack was the death of all 40 men who were protecting the area. The bodies of the dead still missing tell now. The government forces used the tanks to destroy the graves so no one can find the dead bodies if he or she needs to look for any evidence.” Certainly, the Yemeni regime could put these allegations to rest by inviting international inspectors into the region that remains closed off.

Selling the Port: In a stunningly blatant act of economic malfeasance, the Yemeni government recently entered into a 30-year contract for the port of Aden with its largest competitor, Dubai Ports International (D.P.I.). World Bank documents state that Dubai is in direct competition for container transshipment business with Aden. The port of Aden is located along international shipping routes, giving it a strong advantage over ports in Dubai, which are 1600 miles away.

The majority owners of D.P.I. also are the managers of the Jabal Ali free zone in Dubai. D.P.I. will pay $83.5 million as a rent over 30 years for the Aden free zone, an area of 32 million square meters, effectively paying less than one penny per square meter in monthly rent. A Kuwaiti firm’s substantially higher tender was rejected in favor of D.P.I.

Lutfi Shatara, head of a Yemeni group in the United Kingdom who believes the D.P.I. award contravenes Yemeni national interest, wrote in a letter to the World Bank, “With Dubai now involved in Jebel Ali, Fujirah, Djibouti and Jeddah, and about to sign a concession to take over container operations in Aden, the question must be asked, which of these ports will Dubai favor when it comes to investment and marketing to maximize their business? If Dubai’s recent announcement that they will invest in new berths at Jebel Ali to reach a throughput capacity of 55 million T.E.U. [ twenty-foot equivalent units] by 2030, while Aden is promised a capacity of 3.5 million T.E.U. by 2035, the answer seems very clear.”

While D.P.I.’s total investment in the port of Aden over 30 years is expected to be nearly $500 million, the company is permitted to sell 20 percent of its shares in the Yemeni market, raising $100 million initially from Yemeni investors to pay the rent, buy equipment, and fund operations.

Shatara indicated in his letter that he has “documents proving that the process involves corruption” and his group intends to sue the Yemeni government to stop the concession from being given to D.P.I. The award of Aden Port to its competitor may have significant negative ramifications on the future economic development of Yemen, a country struggling with epidemic poverty and unemployment. It would seem that those Yemenis responsible for the deal, including President Saleh, were acting in self-interest or were grossly incompetent. Either way, the Yemeni people have had one of their most important resources rented for thirty years with little in the way of equitable return.

Basic services in Yemen are nearly non-existent and the basic needs of the Yemeni people are unmet, including clean water, medical care and educational facilities. According to the U.N. World Food Program, almost half the people in Yemen do not have enough to eat. Half of Yemen’s children are physically stunted from malnutrition by age five, and 46 percent never begin school. The southern, formerly Marxist region in particular has endured an administrative and economic boycott as well as collective discrimination, exclusion and vilification by the regime. The population of Yemen will be greater than that of Russia by 2050.

With the official and informal administration of Yemen so completely dominated by the president and his family, these criminal activities and enterprises must be laid squarely at the feet of Ali Abdullah Saleh who warrants a reassessment by the U.S. administration, especially in the context of an increasingly vocal, activist, and unified reform movement in Yemen. Yemeni intellectuals have described the regime as “The Government of Mass Destruction” and “An Unproductive Tyrant Regime.” In power for 27 years, Saleh recently announced that he would not seek another term as president, but the continued repression of both the media and opposition parties belies this statement.

Only the Yemeni people can determine the future of Yemen. With the prospect of electoral regime change in the 2006 presidential election in Yemen, a wide variety of citizens, cutting across traditional fault lines, have joined forces to stand up for democracy and against the bloody onslaught of regime power. The unity of Yemen is demonstrated by this consensus: the people of Yemen deserve an authentic democratic state that will nurture not starve its children, and a transparent government that operates honestly and equitably in the public interest.

Yemeni civil society has been fighting for years for democracy and against extremist ideologies. Numerous Yemenis have detailed, workable, concrete solutions to the myriad of issues facing Yemen. The international community can trust in the capacity of the Yemeni people to craft a workable state out of the ruins left by Saleh. And it should look beyond the comfortable familiarity of a manageable tyranny to see that the citizens of Yemen, more than any other aggrieved party, are the primary victims of President Saleh.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.