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Yemen Army

Yemen in the 21st Century reflects the takeover in the 1970s of the Yemeni state by northern Zaydi tribesmen through their acquiring a dominant presence in the military officer corps. The historical tension in both the pre-modern and modern Yemeni states was between state power, representing urban and non-tribal populations derived from the Shafa'i (Sunni) peasantry who live in the fertile lands of lower Yemen, and northern tribesmen who herald from the harsh and barren lands of upper Yemen. Upper Yemen could not support significant settled agriculture, so northern tribes from that area supplemented their income through livestock herding, trade, and most importantly, raiding the more prosperous communities of lower Yemen.

Having himself come to power by coup, President Saleh was extremely careful to select Commanders whose loyalty is ensured by tribal bonds. As of 2005 members of Saleh's Sanhan tribe controlled all military districts and most high security posts, with the commanders enjoying blood and/or close ties to Saleh. The Commanders reported directly to the President, outside the normal channels of the Ministry of Defense and without constitutional mandate. They were the final authority in nearly every aspect of regional governance. In practice, they behaved like tribal sheikhs and super-governors, parceling out new schools, water projects, and money. Despite periodic efforts to integrate military units, the Commanders recruit largely from regional tribes.

While tribes are the most important elite group in Yemen, a close-and closely related-second goes to the military and security elites. The officer corps has been reinvented since 1978 so that tribes now dominate, especially at the upper echelons. This contrasts sharply with the military rank-and-file that comes overwhelmingly from non-tribal peasant stock.

A Yemeni “brigade” is much smaller than the US equivalent and is estimated to include about 1,500 troops at full strength. Since brigade commanders were in charge of distributing salaries to their soldiers, brigade sizes were often exaggerated.

Military elites engage in grand corruption in two principal ways. First, important commanding officers are provided budgets based on the number of soldiers under their command. These officers thus have an interest in inflating the numbers of men in their command through the use of "ghost soldiers." While the Yemen military had 100,000 soldiers on paper (60,000 active duty + 40,000 reserves), it is estimated that perhaps one-third of military personnel are ghost soldiers. Ghost soldiers may be actual people who simply do not report for duty, or they may be entirely fictitious.

About 240,000 young males become eligible for the military each year, providing an abundant source of names. In either case, their commanding officers reportedly will receive money for their salaries, weapons, ammunition, food and blankets, and pro-rated numbers of vehicles, fuel and tires, among other items. The tangible items then get sold on the black market with the profits accruing to the officers. Cash transfers for salaries and the like can be more simply pocketed. Highlighting the ties between top military officials and leaders of the northern tribes, profits from ghost soldiers sometimes end up in the pockets of non-military tribal leaders.

In 2004, Yemeni forces became embroiled in fighting the insurgency led by the Huthi clan in the unruly northern province of Saada. From the outset Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and his 1st Armored Division were charged with containing the rebellion. Lucas Winter of the Foreign Military Studies Office noted that "The main political victim of the nearly decade-long fighting was Ali Muhsin and his 1st Division. Many observers saw the war as unwinnable, a trap meant to weaken Muhsin’s troops and dislodge them from their bases in Sanaa. The true battle, some surmised, was between the 1st Armored Division and the Republican Guard, with the Houthis mere proxies. During the later stages of the war the Republican Guard took over many positions outside the capital formerly held by Muhsin’s division, whose base was moved to ‘Amran, north of the capital, so it could better focus on the Houthis.15 In a further move to consolidate control over the capital, in January 2011 the president announced the creation of a new “mountain infantry division,” to be headed by his younger son Khaled. The new formation was seen as a direct rival to al-Ahmar’s decimated division; two of the new division’s three brigades were stationed in strategic points on the outskirts of the capital."

Annual military expenditures are enormously high by percentage, having reached $1 billion, out of total government expenditures of about $6 billion. With the sharp increase in oil profits, Yemen's Gross Domestic Product GDP has reached $16 billion. Yemen's total military budget is a single line item in the national budget, so there is little effective civilian oversight and control over it.

Yemen's military is divided into an army, navy, and air force. In 2007 total active troops were estimated as follows: army, 60,000 [versus 40,000 in 1999]; navy, 1,700; and air force, 5,000. The army was organized into eight armored brigades [versus seven in 1999], 16 infantry brigades [versus 18 in 1999], six mechanized brigades [versus five in 1999], two airborne commando brigades, one surface-to-surface missile brigade, three artillery brigades [versus four in 1999], one central guard force, one Special Forces brigade, and six air defense brigades, which include four antiaircraft artillery battalions and one surface-to-air missile battalion.

Yemen's army was reported to be equipped with 790 main battle tanks, 130 reconnaissance vehicles, 200 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 710 armored personnel carriers, 310 towed artillery, 25 self-propelled artillery, 294 multiple rocket launchers, 502 mortars, six Scud B (up to an estimated 33 missiles) and 28 other surface-to-surface missiles, 71 antitank guided weapons, some rocket launchers, some recoilless launchers, 530 air defense guns, and an estimated 800 surface-to-air missiles.

The Yemeni army avoided clashing with the Houthis or to support them in their advance on al-Qaida strongholds. The army fought a number of campaigns against the Houthi in the 2004-2009 timeframe, and did not give a good account of itself. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a longtime dictator, was ousted from power after the Arab uprisings of 2011 spread to Yemen. Once a Saudi ally, Saleh was replaced by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2012 under a deal brokered by Riyadh. But Saleh still retained support among large segments of the Yemeni security forces President Ali Abdullah Saleh had exercised tight control over the army, and its apparent neutrality in the conflict after his 2011 departure may reflect his continued influence. President Hadi released a list of military and political appointments on April 6, 2012 that struck at Saleh’s patronage network.

Troops loyal to Saleh helped the Houthis capture the capital, Sanaa, and move south toward Hadi’s stronghold of Aden. Houthi militias, ever since they staged their coup against legitimacy in Sanaa, managed to dismantle the legal leaderships of the Yemeni army aiming to change the identity of the Yemeni army and paralyze their leadership. The Yemeni legitimate army fought in cooperation with the popular committees and loyalists to deprive the Houthi militias from controlling the city of Aden or receiving any support from outside Aden.

In 2015 some collapsing Yemeni army brigades announced their loyalty to the legitimacy. Saudi-led coalition forces called on the members of the Yemeni army who were lured to join the Houthi militia, for any reason, to abdicate their position and re-join the legitimate organizations, noting that the Yemeni government was in contact with all military commanders who are stationed inside Yemen or outside the country and that the coalition forces were ready to provide whatever assistance suggested by the Yemeni government that would help regrouping, restructuring and reorganizing the army in the fight against the militias.

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Page last modified: 08-04-2015 20:23:08 ZULU