Welcome to the Sanaa Sheraton! It’s now officially part of an expanded US Embassy estate that some are calling Yemen’s “Green Zone,” the plush, heavily guarded civilian headquarters for revised twenty-first-century “rules of engagement” in the Yemeni “theater.” It’s a risky place to stay.
Behind the Sheraton’s Disneyesque two-story front gate, security cage and walls lie 15 acres with verdant irrigated gardens, an outdoor swimming pool and cabanas, a gymnasium, tennis courts, restaurants serving flown-in Chinese and Mediterranean cuisine, well-stocked liquor cabinets, 255 guest rooms, additional premier suites, cleaning services, meeting facilities, a business center, 30 in-house cable television channels available 24/7, high-speed Internet, vehicle repair garages, security cameras, stations and personnel, and temperamental water supply and heating/cooling systems. As of January 1, 2013, all of this is under new management: the US Department of State.
Starwood Hotels, a worldwide chain that manages Sheraton, Westin and other five-star properties, discontinued operations in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, at the end of 2012. The listed owner, the Kuwaiti Investment Authority, leased it to the State Department so that State could provide secure, comfortable lodging just a stone’s throw from the US Embassy grounds, near the intersection of the Ring Road on what locals call Sheraton Street. The new operators were expected to rehire most of the Yemenis and Asian and other third-country nationals on the multilingual staff, pending intensive security and background checks.
GovBizOpps.com advertised in November 2012 for contractors to provide operation and maintenance for a “diplomatic transit facility” at the standard of a four-star hotel in North America. The request for bids explained that the Chief of Mission (COM) had been using the hotel as “transit lodging” for the past several years for Temporary Duty visitors, the US Marine Corps Security Platoon, authorized contractors and other staff, and decided in May 2011 to move all COM personnel to the site. By that time security regulations prohibited most Westerners carrying diplomatic passports or employed by their governments from driving around without armed escorts, so housing them on Sheraton Street made logistical sense. Potential contractors were invited to a pre-proposal conference on August 28 to see the grand hospitality estate and its operating systems. According to the terms of the bid, US citizens qualifying for “secret facility clearance” would earn hardship pay premiums of 25 percent and an additional hazardous employment rate of 30 percent of salary.
In light of events since then, this hazardous rate may be rising, along with the risks.
On September 12, amidst popular demonstrations in Cairo and other Muslim cities and the death of an American ambassador in Benghazi, all said to be sparked by the Innocence of Muslims film trailer released by an Egyptian-American provocateur, a couple of hundred young men stormed the US Embassy in Sanaa. They ripped the embassy’s sign from the outer wall, torched tires and a couple of vehicles, burned the American flag and breached the outer gates of the security entrance. Yemeni guards returned fire. This gathering was no impromptu assembly of populists: Sheraton Street, a divided highway with no sidewalks or bus stops but several military checkpoints, is far off the beaten track for pedestrians or people traveling by public transportation. While thousands of men and women massed downtown demanding a just resolution to the country’s long-standing political crisis, scores of armed militants purposely converged on the embassy in an SUV convoy. There was lots of speculation about who had sent them. Salafi extremists? Loyalists of the deposed president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih? Was it related to what had happened in Libya?
The threat level spiked at year’s end. In late December, the al-Malahim Foundation, an unstable website advertised as al-Qaeda’s media arm in Yemen, announced bounties, payable through June 2013, of some $160,000 in gold for the killing of the American ambassador to Yemen and $23,000 for the deaths of American soldiers in Yemen, in order “to encourage and inspire jihad.”
Years earlier, in 2000, a second-rate but incongruously prescient feature film called Rules of Engagement, based on a story written by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones, depicted a mob rioting outside a poorly defended American mission in Sanaa. The set designers, anachronistically enough, placed the quaint diplomatic compound in a popular neighborhood. Once upon a time, US envoys welcomed American citizens and Yemeni visa seekers at an architecturally distinguished stone-and alabaster South Arabian mansion near the city center. It featured charming enclosed gardens of indigenous flora, and opened onto a cobblestone plaza, as in the movie. But after the 1982 explosions in Beirut killed emissaries and spies, a new state-of-the-art fortress was constructed out on what had been terraced fields near the upscale Sheraton (then newly built) and a new gated community to house Yemeni military officers.
Gone were the days when Americans in Yemen could stroll over to the Embassy and flash their passports or let drop a phrase of American vernacular to the guards in order to swim in the pool. Gone were the days when diplomats roamed the suq.
And yet Rules of Engagement depicted Yemenis (actually, the actors, costumes and venues seemed Moroccan), including women and children, mobbing a central destination where a hapless ambassador quivered under his desk until Marines staged a guns-blazing rescue. In the movie rendition, even a girl who appeared to be disabled pulled the trigger of an AK-47 (or Kalashnikov) semi-automatic rifle. There followed courts-martial for the Marines, who were accused of slaughtering civilians. The moral of Hollywood’s version of Webb’s story seemed to be that the tribunals were wrongheaded: All Yemenis could be crazed terrorists, and the rules meant to inhibit the Marines from gunning them down were foolhardy.
This fictional message has since been internalized as soldierly doctrine. There are few if any rules in Yemen, the theater of operations in the “war on terror.” The counter-terror campaign does not distinguish fighters from little girls or, especially, men of fighting age. On December 24, two US drone strikes (scroll to YEM123) killed five suspected militants in al-Bayda and Hadramawt provinces. These were more salvos in an ongoing battle of scores of bombardments by drone or fixed-wing aircraft since 2002, most in the past few years. Several high-profile al-Qaeda operatives, some nameless armed men, and assorted family members and innocent civilians have been blown to smithereens by Hellfire missiles. In the last days of 2009 Obama authorized a strike (scroll to YEM002) that left at least 20 children and a dozen women dead in the southern town of al-Majala, along with one militant. Later the American-born Anwar Nasir al-Awlaqi, a preacher suspected of inspiring the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shootings and the failed “crotch bombing” aboard a Detroit-bound commercial airliner at Christmas 2009, was killed; weeks later, so was his teenaged son. Even American citizens are not due trial before execution, evidently.
Most of the over 50 recorded air attacks inside Yemen in 2012 are known or supposed to have been launched by Americans. Most dramatically, a September 2 airstrike (scroll to YEM114) near Rada‘, an historically important but now godforsaken, fly-blown town in al-Bayda province where al-Qaida militants had encamped, exterminated three children and nine other civilians. Around Rada‘ and many other towns, the maddening overhead buzz of drones is a persistent token of American surveillance. The Obama administration’s remote-controlled “signature strikes” directive posthumously deems any able-bodied men in the line of fire legitimate targets in the war on terror. This is the shoot-first-ask-questions-later opposite of the premise of Rules of Engagement.
Despite its intensifying involvement in Yemen, the United States has not formulated a Yemen policy or even a genuinely diplomatic mission there. Instead it has a policy of keeping the Saudi monarchy secure and happy; and a related counter-terrorism policy that is an extension of the post-September 11 “Af-Pak” strategy. Washington regards Yemen as a theater of counter-terrorism in Saudi Arabia’s backyard. It’s as if it isn’t a real place where real people demand decent governance or respect for human rights. The Obama administration has wasted scant breath supporting Yemen’s demonstrators for democracy and social justice. US ambassador Gerald Feierstein was tapped for his counter-terrorism credentials as well as his diplomatic experience. He works closely with intelligence and military officers. During the protracted negotiations under the Saudi-led initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council to facilitate a transition from the rule of Salih to the presidency of his deputy ‘Abid Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, Washington’s envoy was a spy agency operative, John Brennan, not someone with a State Department pedigree or Hillary Clinton’s ear. The American reaction to Yemen’s prolonged pro-democracy uprising in 2011-2012 was not to provide moral support to activists clamoring for social justice, much less to call for free elections or women’s rights. Rather, Obama, Clinton, Brennan and Feierstein sought to placate Riyadh by battling an enemy called AQAP.
Best known in the US for a pathetic dildo bomb planted on a Yemeni-trained Nigerian bound by air for Detroit, AQAP is often said to constitute a grave threat to the American homeland. Local commanders and spokespersons reveled in the publicity, a boon for recruitment of jihadi wannabes from inside and outside Yemen, whose numbers swelled from a couple of hundred to perhaps a couple thousand.
AQAP is an unconventionally bilingual neologism, neither English fish nor Arabic fowl. AQ stands for the Arabic-language al-Qa‘ida, giving extraordinary grammatical weight to the definite article, al-. AP stands, in English, for the Arabian Peninsula. The Pentagon-speak acronym AQAP, adopted as if it were a proper noun by the US-based punditocracy and security wonks, evokes an image of formidable military prowess, perhaps rivaling the former USSR. The Anglophone abbreviation both does and does not convey the meaning in the Arabic phrase al-Qa‘ida fi al-Jazira al-‘Arabiyya, which suggests a rebellion in the whole peninsula, stretching beyond Yemen to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf princedoms. Whereas the Arabic phrase signifies struggle against local despots, the English acronym is coded as a terrorist menace to the United States. As such, “targeted strikes” against “AQAP” suspects can be portrayed not as intervention but as self-defense — operations to preempt another September 11.
The US is now fully yet incompletely engaged in South Arabia. In addition to surveillance and frequent bombardments, American measures to “stabilize” Yemen now include provision of light aircraft, armed vehicles, gadgetry and training; direct military cooperation with and command-and-control backing for Yemeni forces; cheerleading for al-Hadi’s restructuring of Yemen’s military command; some humanitarian assistance and token support for civilian civil society initiatives; protection for the “Green Zone”; and extra coordination with Saudi security institutions to make sure that Yemen’s multiple conflicts don’t spill across the border. Efforts to engage pro-democracy activists, Houthi rebels and/or Southern separatists are marginal compared to the escalating drone war.
The managerial acquisition of the Sheraton campus formally more than doubles the ostensibly diplomatic presence of the US Embassy on the outskirts of Sanaa. In a time when water is running out, electricity fails daily, Finnish tourists are abducted by armed thugs in the city center and kidnappings are no longer a lark, German democracy brokers need armed escorts, students of Arabic no longer study in Yemen, humanitarian organizations register alarm over catastrophic malnutrition, academic researchers have been tarred by pseudo-scholars hunting AQAP, no one quite knows the location of supposed US military bases in and around Yemen (the Seychelles, Ethiopia, inside the country?), and the aspirations of pro-democracy forces remain to be addressed, COM needs a facility adjoining the Embassy grounds — itself already a spacious fortified complex of barriers, set-backs, reception areas, offices, sports facilities, the ambassador’s residence, dormitories, high-tech security and ecologically improbable lawns — to accommodate American consultants and experts.
On one level, the State Department’s leasing of the Sheraton property across the street from the Embassy compound merely regularizes a reality whereby more advisers earning hazard pay increments than tourists braving instability are venturing to Sanaa. On another level, the long-term leasing of a property designed and maintained for expatriate luxury and safety signifies the opening of a new American Green Zone in the Arabian Peninsula. This, in turn, is a major step toward a full-fledged US imperial presence in Arabia. It is bound to be fraught with hazards.