Once upon a time, in the city of al-Mukha, there lived a Sufi mystic, Abu al-Hasan al-Shadili. He used to travel around the region and was much respected for his wise teachings and his ability to heal the sick. One day, while in Ethiopia, he saw a flock of birds whose unusual activity and excited behaviour attracted his attention. He noticed that the birds were feeding on the berries of a certain plant, and he decided to try the berries himself. On tasting them, however, he found them to be unpleasantly bitter. He tried roasting them, but they became too hard to eat. Finally he boiled them to soften them, and the result was a fragrant brown liquid which he drank. Within a short time he found himself revitalised and full of energy. Subsequently he returned to his hometown and began using his new miracle drug in the treatment of patients. The success of his cures established his reputation, and he was made a saint.
Abu al-Hasan’s hometown is better known to most of us as Mocha, in what is now Yemen. We may not be able to precisely locate the city on a map, but we are almost certainly aware of it as an item on Starbucks’ menu of available beverages – and the wise Sufi’s medicinal berries were, of course, the fruit of the coffee plant.
Coffee aside, Yemen’s main appeal to the rest of the world has been its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea. The Ottoman Empire added it to their dominions in 1538, largely for its importance in guarding sea access to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (against the Portuguese) – though a side benefit was their discovery of the joys of coffee-drinking. A century or so later ‘java’ culture passed into Western Europe when the first coffee house was opened in Vienna. There is, I understand, no truth to the legend that Sultan Mehmet IV’s unsuccessful siege of that city in 1683 was motivated by a desire to punish the Viennese for infringement of patent.
The rising red tide of British imperialism washed ashore on the coast of Yemen in 1838 when the Brits bombarded and seized the port of Aden – subsequently signing treaties of ‘friendship and protection’ with the local Arab tribes. The port became a vital refuelling station for steamships on their way to India, the Jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown, and South Yemen remained a British Protectorate until 1967.
North and South Yemen united in 1990 to form a single independent state, whose independence, however, has been fraught with difficulties, and the county has struggled to free itself from outside interference. President for the first 22 years of its existence was Ali Abdullah Saleh, under whose guiding hand Yemen attained the status of a kleptocracy, and a ranking of 164th out of 182 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. In spite of this, his misguided support of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden Harbour in 2000, the neighbouring Saudi royal family have been transferring large payments into the pockets of tribal leaders and certain members of the regime, and the US Government has been providing annual military aid to Saleh, amounting to $140 million as recently as 2010. Despite the existence in Yemen of a major Al Qaeda franchise (AQAP) Saleh apparently managed to convince George Dubya Bush that he was an ally in the ‘war against terror’.
Who can know what’s really going on? The Saudis and the US were angry with Saleh for opposing the use of force against Iraq back in 1991 – yet his friendship with Saddam Hussein had made him popular with Washington in the days when Saddam was the enemy of their enemy Iran. Both countries were conspicuous by their non-involvement in Yemen’s Arab Spring protests in 2011 in spite of the brutality with which the demonstrations were suppressed. More recently they began to support internal demands for Saleh’s resignation – but his replacement was his own vice-president, and Saleh was to be granted immunity from prosecution.
Now it seems we have a new militant Islamic group in the region – Houthi rebels who are apparently of Shi’ite persuasion with close links to Iran. This, I guess will be another headache for the US Government as it attempts to build bridges with its former implacable foe. As Houthi forces have captured the Yemeni capital Sanaa, the US state Department has closed its embassy there and instructed US citizens to leave the country. This apparently means more than the loss of employment for a few diplomatic staff. It seems that the Sanaa Embassy was the headquarters of CIA operatives coordinating a campaign of drone-strike killings in the area. According to a news report in Time Magazine, ‘There were 23 U.S. drone strikes reported in Yemen last year, 26 in 2013 and 41 in 2012.’ In 2009 US warplanes targeting Al Qaeda training camps wiped out an entire village with a salvo of cruise missiles, killing as many as 60 civilians, among them 28 children.
That Time article quoted President Obama, in a breath-taking sound-byte of political understatement, saying, ‘Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability.’ Apart from the brutal suppression of internal dissent, the country ranks among the world’s poorest, with 45% of the population living in poverty. So perhaps we should not be altogether surprised that some militants, Muslim or otherwise, might be tempted to seek a solution of their own.
The country’s neighbours, however, immediately went crying to the United Nations, insisting that the international community should take forceful action. Those neighbours expressed their call to arms via the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) which consists of such shining lights of democratic freedom and champions of human rights as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their goals for Yemen, they say, are ‘preserving legitimacy’ and ‘resuming the political process’ – and if the UN doesn’t do the right thing, they may take matters into their own hands.
You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the USS Cole returned to naval service after repairs following that attack 15 years ago. Its most recent deployment, on 8 February 2015, was a cruise into the Black Sea ‘to promote peace and stability in the region.’ My source here is a website calling itself US Naval Forces Europe-Africa/US 6th Fleet. The report goes on to say: ‘Cole’s presence in the Black Sea will serve to reaffirm the U.S. dedication to commitment towards strengthening the partnerships and joint operational capabilities amongst U.S., NATO and regional Black Sea partners. Cole entered Black Sea in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The United States continues to demonstrate its commitment to the collective security of our NATO allies and support for our partners in Europe, in light of the on-going Russian intervention in Ukraine.’
Not merely ‘commitment’, you notice, but ‘dedication to commitment’! Incidentally, those ‘regional Black Sea partners’, apart from Ukraine, are Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia – all of them located some distance from the Atlantic Ocean. I suspect it is exactly that kind of aggressive American foray into Russia’s backyard that has prompted President Vladimir Putin to start drawing lines in the sand.
By the way, the Yemeni gentleman who brought coffee to the world way back when was, of course, a Muslim. The belief system of the Sufi (Tasawouf in Arabic) ‘has been referred to as a path, a journey, a journey of the heart. Such a journey has a beginning; a point of departure that leads towards a destination. A Sufi takes an inner journey to attain the knowledge of Self, a knowledge that leads towards the understanding the Divine. A journey towards understanding such truth will necessarily involve steps; one has to pass through stations of learning, awareness and understanding.’
Don’t we need a little of that in the world these days!
 A country whose ruler uses his power to steal the country’s resources