The history of some societies can be told in the light of how they dealt with constant external interference in their affairs. This is certainly the case with the Lebanese and their ancestors. The country we call Lebanon today was never immune to foreign invaders, from Greeks and Romans covetous of Phoenician prosperity to the Christian crusaders and the various caliphs and sultans that came to control the region. This explains the communal diversity of Lebanese society, who for centuries used the mountains as safe haven from religious persecution.
Foreign meddling did not end with the termination of the French mandate over Syria in 1943 and the consequent independence of Lebanon. The future of the Lebanese state is still hostage to the submission of internal agendas to external ones. Stark reminders of this are the shocking assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the way Hezbollah, now in government, continues to work as a proxy for its Iranian patrons.
Further east, the Afghans have long been adapting to the presence of unwelcome foreigners. Their rulers traditionally opposed the construction of roads for commerce linking the country with its neighbors, because it could become a network of invasion routes.
Although easy to invade, the irredentism of Afghanistan’s tribes, as well as its huge mountain ranges and deserts, make it impossible to control. American and NATO troops were only the latest to re-discover this timeless truth.
The Yemenis have also been dealing with the intrusive agendas of foreign powers for centuries, often choosing to build their villages in rugged deserts and on the top of high mountains with difficult access. While the Zaydi rulers in the north gained full independence from Ottoman rule in 1918, southerners had to wait until Britain’s 1967 departure to form the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
When the Zaydi king, Ahmad bin Yahya, passed away in 1962, an attempt by army officers to seize power and create the Yemen Arab Republic led to civil war in the north. Saudi Arabia, Britain, and Jordan were dragged into the conflict in support of the royalists, while Nasser’s Egypt and the Soviet Union backed the so-called republicans. After six years of civil war, the Yemen Arab Republic was officially formed.
Following North-South unification in 1990 and the subsequent 21 years of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, the 2011 Arab revolts inevitably reached Yemen. The uprisings in Sana’a and other cities were not instigated by the US or foreign enemies, as Saleh often suggested. Instead, the protests were based on legitimate, internal demands for all sorts of political, economic, and social rights that were notoriously absent during Saleh’s era.
Two years on, foreign meddling in Yemeni politics has again become the norm, and has the potential to undermine the modest political progress achieved so far under the leadership of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Yemen’s acting president.
However, not all foreign involvement in Yemen has had negative consequences. Yemen’s Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, have been providing Yemen with oil and much-needed financial aid to face state budget deficits.
A fine example of how the involvement of external actors can be of great benefit has been the role of the UN and its Yemen envoy, Jamal bin Omar, in ensuring that all political factions will be represented at the talks. Simultaneously, Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary general, has exerted pressure against any actors that are at odds with the National Dialogue in Yemen by threatening to use sanctions against any Yemeni player that attempts to undermine the process.
More puzzling is Turkey’s reinforced presence in Yemen since the 2011 uprisings began. Beyond Turkey’s economic assistance, much speculation surrounds the involvement of the former imperial master in Yemen. As an example, some of the Turkish opposition accuses the Justice and Development Party of smuggling weapons into Yemen to support Sunni radical groups, in pursuit of a neo-Ottoman regional hegemony. Among other media, the daily Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman reported that a few illegal shipments of light weapons from Turkish manufacturers destined for Yemen have been seized over the last two years by Yemeni and UAE authorities. The Turkish Foreign Ministry has publicly declared that the Turkish government has not authorized such shipments.
The prospect of Yemen becoming the stage of a Cold War between Turkey, Iran, and Yemen’s worried Gulf neighbors is quite disturbing. Particularly troubling is Iran’s political, financial, and logistical support to various players in southern Yemen. These include some of Al-Harak’s leaders, such as Beirut-based former South Yemen President Ali Salim Al-Beidh and various members of the Yemeni Socialist Party. This Iranian involvement has the potential to undermine the National Dialogue from the outset; and for Yemen, there is no plan B. It is certainly no coincidence that Al-Beidh was the only prominent Al-Harak leader to refuse to participate in the process unless immediate NorthSouth separation was on the table.
Whether Yemenis opt for unity, separation, or federalism-by far the most promising arrangement in my view-either as the outcome of the National Dialogue or after a future national referendum, it is now time for Yemenis to help themselves. To do that, all groups need to avoid submitting the national interest-if they can ever agree on what the national interest is-to the agendas of foreign powers.