'Not From Here,' stories by Nathan Deuel

A tale of two Arabian cities

Yemenis sit in the old city of Sanaa as the mi...

The old city of Sana'a is like a fairy tale -- unless you start knocking on doors. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

It’s March 2010 and the clang of metal rings out down a dusty street in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. Soldiers in blue camouflage hold oiled assault rifles, standing among a gathering crowd. One of the city’s dispensaries for cooking gas has just received a shipment. There’s a shortage of fuel all around the city, which is groaning under the twin strains of governmental dysfunction and an influx of refugees from the north. A jet streaks high above us, presumably en route to the border with Saudi Arabia, where the Yemeni military is targeting anti-government Houthi rebels and alleged cells of al Qa’eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Some in the West have begun to call Yemen a failed state, but at least they’re calling it something.

I have come to Sana’a with my wife – who is on assignment for American public radio – from our base in Riyadh, a historical friend to its southern neighbor. People say that Yemenis built Saudi Arabia – and it’s true that big companies of Yemeni origin, such as the massive Bin Laden Group, were responsible for a lot of the early contracts to build roads and infrastructure in the Kingdom.

But warm relations between the two countries soured in 1990 and 1991, when Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978 and at that point presiding over a united north and south Yemen, joined Cuba in voting against a United Nations resolution authorizing force to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Saudi Arabia was outraged by the decision and began deporting Yemeni guest workers. Nearly a million were eventually removed. The absence of dollar infusions from Saudi’s booming oil economy – and the loss of millions in US and European support, likewise rescinded in response to that UN vote – didn’t help things for Yemen, which faced dwindling petroleum revenues that are expected to slow to a stop soon.

Coming from the comparative wealth and restrictions of Riyadh, I am eager to see Sana’a, which I’ve read is poorer in cash and resources, but richer in less quantifiable terms. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Israel, Oil, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, War, World, Yemen, , , , , , ,

VIDEO: The ever-changing map of the Middle East

Hi there, I’ve just gotten set up in Doha, Qatar, where we’ll be based for the next week or so. Out my window, I have a view of the Gulf, the Pakistani embassy, and several construction pits. Leaving Riyadh is always a relief; the weight of Islam — so close to Mecca — is heavy there, and it’s hard to take the long view.

The Middle East, after all, has been conquered and reshaped countless times. What feels like an intractable situation — Israel! Palestine! Iran! Iraq! Al Qaeda — is really just the latest upheaval in a crazy part of the world.

For a little perspective, check out this map of the last 5,000 years as it shifts and bleeds with the comings and goings of empire. (Via the always excellent Saudi Jeans.)

[youtubevid id=”idWkkIKW_yU”]

Follow me on Twitter.

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Doha, Islam, Middle East, Qatar, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, , , , , , ,

Rare Saudi poll: The kids are alright

A woman carries shopping bags at a mall in the...

Good luck trying to get her to talk. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Saudi Arabia isn’t an easy place to gather hard data. Women are shy, men are brusque, and notions of privacy could make approaching a stranger difficult, if not dangerous. In such a traditional and closed society, there simply isn’t any precedent for allowing a stranger to nose around asking questions.

That’s what makes this survey — a poll of 1,000 representative Saudis undertaken by a U.S. firm this November —  so interesting.

The numbers indicate a populous that is generally positive about the future but concerned more immediately by slipping  economics and the problem of corruption. All this is generally good news for a world looking for rationality and reform out of the Islamic Kingdom. But then there’s the percentage of those polled who support Al Qaeda…

Economics:

Forty percent of respondents reported their situation had deteriorated in the last year, compared to 36 percent who said things had improved.

Religious extremism:

A large percentage of both men and women see religious extremism as a problem, but the difference is telling: 48 percent of men see it as a problem while the number jumps to 59 percent for women.

Youthful optimism:

Fifty-nine percent of Saudis aged 18-24 years old said the country was moving in a positive direction, compared to 51 percent those in the 55-and-over age bracket. With a quarter of the population under 24 years old and an unemployment rate that some say puts one out of three youths without a job, it’s interesting to see such optimism.

Corruption:

Maybe the most important fact is that a supermajority — 63 percent — said that corruption is a serious problem. As evidenced by the outpouring of anger after more than 100 Saudis died during flooding in Jeddah this winter — anger that was voiced on the youth-oriented venues of Facebook and YouTube — there’s some reason to believe that younger Saudis will not only disapprove of corruption, but make noise about it.

Al Qaeda:

But at the same time, the survey revealed that one out of five respondents expressed “some support” for Al Qaeda. While it’s true that most Saudis polled didn’t express support, in a country of nearly 30 million people, that’s still a constituency for the bad guys of several million.

BONUS:

So how did they do the polls? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Islam, Journalism, Media, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, World, Writing, , , , , ,

Reporting Live From the Saudi-Yemen Border

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nasser bin Abdul Azi...

A prince surveys the front, where more than 100 Saudi soldiers have died. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

Straight from the field:

Dying camel in road. Sprawling tent city. Shops closed. There actually was a war here. Victory march likely.

Kelly McEvers is on a Saudi military C130 right now, headed for the country’s southern border with Yemen, where fighting has raged off and on for several months. En route to a base near the Saudi city of Jizan, she’s traveling with an undisclosed number of other journalists, who have all been invited by Saudi officials to get an on-the-ground update on the military situation. This is in the wake, yesterday, of a reported peace deal on offer from Houthi rebel leader Abdul Malik. More than 100 Saudi soldiers have reportedly died in fighting so far.

She’ll be text messaging me all day, and I’ll be posting live updates here, and on her Twitter feed @kellymcevers.

UPDATES, from newest to oldest:

Junket over. At least we can finally write about this war.

Correction: Oasis of cars belongs to soldiers, not refugees

Khaled bin Sultan: #Saudi will only agree to cease fire if Houthis stop sending snipers over the border and return 6 Saudi prisoners

Prince to review troops, spread good news.

‘They did not withdraw. We destroyed them.’ Then why are we hearing shells and gunfire?

Journo in heels just fainted. It’s hot up here. And still not clear if the war is over.

Gunner nests dug in side of mountain. Flag at summit suggests happy speech imminent.

Jackknifing up mountain on newly cut road in heart of combat zone.

Dying camel in road. Sprawling tent city. Oasis of cars that once belonged to refugees. Shops closed. There actually was a war here. Victory march likely.

Now in convoy of sand-covered Nissans on way to #Saudi southern command HQ

– Landed in Jizan, herded into carpeted splendor. War zone? Maybe.

– Today should yield #Saudi response to #Houthi truce offer

– On a fancy C130. Apparently “five star” means “tricked out in the 80s.” Heading to #Saudi-#Yemen border.

UDPATE: And here‘s the story she filed for NPR.

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Islam, Journalism, Kelly McEvers, Media, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Shiites, Sunnis, War, Yemen, , , , ,

Why it matters that Saudis and Iranians can't make nice

Vue satellite du Golfe Persique

Image via Wikipedia

The ongoing rift is heating up between the biggest Arab player in the Gulf and the mighty Persian neighbor across the waters. What’s at stake is hard to describe — and parsing out what is bluster and what is real is always difficult — but the latest fires actually concern water.

According to news reports, the second annual Islamic Solidarity Games — scheduled for April in Tehran — are being called off after commemorative medals prepared by Iran for the games referred to the “Persian Gulf,” which Saudis and other Gulf Arabs strenuously insist is the “Arabian Gulf.” Seriously.
A more intense issue is the alleged mistreatment last year of Shiite pilgrims while at Saudi holy sites. The AFP reports that in response to what it calls systematic harassment, Tehran has suspended travel for Iranians headed to Mecca, Medina, and other Saudi points. Iranian officials told the AFP this move isn’t political, it is religious.

But around here, that’s not necessarily a good thing. (After all, whether you’re Sunni or not is a lot more important than how much you do or do not love whatever ruling regime you call home. Episcopalian Democrats versus Baptist Republicans this is not.) Look for the issue of Iranian pilgrims to Saudi to surface again, and again — especially as next year’s hajj and Shiite holy days approach.

So what does all this really mean? What seems like trifling name games over the Persian/Arab gulf is actually connected to moves on the larger regional chessboard. One prevailing theory suggests that the mighty Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are feeling vulnerable, seen by the Islamic world to be too close to Israel (and the U.S.) to continue proudly bearing the Muslim banner. This weakening, as the thinking goes, is opening up the chance for Iran to take the lead. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Hajj, Iran, Islam, Middle East, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Shiites, Sunnis, , , , , , ,

Will you care about Yemen in a week?

Saudi security forces on parade

Saudi military might. (Image by Al Jazeera English via Flickr)

Stories datelined Sana are flying over the wires. The U.S. Embassy shut down. Then France and Britain closed their offices. Evidence links the suspected airline bomber to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is allegedly based out of Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And individuals traveling from those two countries to the U.S. are now among the countries the TSA flags for immediate screening.

I’m currently winding down a trip to the States. But I can’t wait to get back to Riyadh, where my wife and I will be following this story closely.

How long will the average American care? Most likely, the intense scrutiny will only last a few more days. (I’ve seen CNN repeat the same vague story five times in the last couple hours; without fresh news, the eyes of viewers will roam.)

For now and for the newly interested, below is a reposting of a primer piece I posted last month. My points concern the war between Saudi Arabia and rebels in the north of Yemen. No attempt to understand Yemen and the future of western efforts to quell violence there are complete without looking at Saudi foreign policy. How long will your attention last?

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, , , , ,

The two best pieces you'll read about Afghanistan and Pakistan

In this image released by the New York Times, ...

David Rohde in Afghanistan in September 2007. (Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife)

If Iraq is increasingly the forgotten war, I fear too that memory and foresight could soon fails us in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given news that NATO ministers have endorsed General McChrystal’s plans for more American troops, clear-eyed vigilance is even more urgent. Here are two sources to sharpen your knowledge.

The first is New Yorker writer Jane Mayer’s devastating assessment of the growing U.S. “drone” program. The twin military and CIA programs use a convoluted web of contractors, official authorizations, and shady Bush-era kill commandments to seek out and assassinate key Al Qaeda operatives. The thing is, scores of civilians have been killed or injured in Afghanistan and worse, in Pakistan, with whom we are not at war. And earlier this year, one of the drones, called a Predator and armed with Hellfire missiles, went astray and had to be shot down. Even with important enemies taken out, is this program worth the collateral damage?

Helping answer that question is David Rohde’s stunning five-part account of his capture, seven-month detention, and ultimate escape attempt from the Taliban. The drama of his personal ordeal is riveting enough. Better still is his almost revolutionary access to Taliban in their natural habitat. Moved by his kidnappers from southern Afghanistan into the Talib microstate in northern Pakistan, this New York Times reporter has first-hand intelligence on the cold-blooded leaders, fanatic underlings, and tragic malevolence of a little-understood movement. Guess what? His captors are terrified of being vaporized by a drone. But when one strikes nearby, more recruits join the Taliban fold.

This is Obama’s war. It’s confusing; it’s heartbreaking; it’s not going away. The least we can do is our homework. And Mayer and Rohde are essential sources.

Bonus: My friend Adam B. Ellick makes video documentaries for The New York Times. This is his harrowing, heartbreaking story from Swat.

Filed under: Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, Media, New York Times, Pakistan, Taliban, The New Yorker, , , , , , , ,

Saudi Terror Alert: Two Qaeda suspects, policeman shot dead

Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)

Image via Wikipedia

This report from southern Saudi is not good:

RIYADH — Two suspected members of Al-Qaeda were killed and a third was arrested in a firefight in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday that also resulted in the death of a policeman, the interior ministry said.

The official SPA news agency quoted ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki as saying the early morning shootout took place at a police checkpoint in Jizan province on the southern border with Yemen.

Turki told the agency that two of the three suspects, who had been on board a vehicle, were wearing women’s clothing and wore explosives vests and carried grenades.

“More grenades, automatic weapons and bomb-making materials” were also found in the vehicle, he added.

More info as we get it.

Update: No more info readily available. The Saudi security forces apparently did a good thing, and had the instincts to share right away. But that may be the last we hear about this specific case for some time.

via AFP: Two Qaeda suspects, policeman shot dead in Saudi.

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Islam, Politics, Religion, Saudi Arabia, , ,

Wife witnesses Yemen, Saudi bureaucrats foiling refugee aid

Third Saudi State (present day) (Saudi Arabia)

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t have anything particularly enlightening to add to the discussion, which has included theories that Yemen is the new hotbed for Al Qaeda. That said, I do want to point out with some pride that one of the journalists mentioned in this story, from the Saudi-Yemen border, is my wife! She’s the best.

ALB, Saudi Arabia — Yemen and Saudi officials stopped a UN aid shipment destined for refugees from fighting between Yemen troops and Shiite rebels on Saturday, unable to agree on border procedures.

Three trucks laden with tents, mattresses, soap and other necessities were halted by a dispute over how to transfer the goods from Saudi trucks to Yemeni trucks at the border.

This delayed for at least another day the delivery of much-needed humanitarian supplies for 3,000 hard-struck Yemenis sandwiched between the Saudi border and the centre of fighting further in to Saada province.

The aborted delivery, witnessed by journalists traveling with the convoy, underscored how local distrust and bureaucratic inertia can prolong the suffering of people who have lost homes and face food shortages in war-torn northwest Yemen.

Wife travels with convoy; husband writes about it. More importantly — if there is a point — is a reminder that the people behind all these weird stories from far-off lands are just that: people, with husbands. Yessir.

via AFP: Yemen, Saudi bureaucrats foil refugee aid shipment.

Filed under: Al Qaeda, Politics, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, , , , ,