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New Texts Out Now: Sheila Carapico, ed., Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf

Sheila Carapico, editor,  Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf. Charlottesville: Just World Books, 2015. 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sheila Carapico (SC): This book began as an activist political project, a form of protest against a cruel war. Colleagues at MERIP were thinking of compiling a simple PDF reader to help students and others understand the background to the military intervention in Yemen the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia called Operation Decisive Storm in late April 2015. Then Helena Cobban of Just World Books invited me to “curate” an edited volume. I devoted the summer of 2015 to reading thirty-five years’ worth of articles in Middle East Report in print and online. I was the most frequent contributor, and also wrote the chapter introductions, but there are more than thirty other authors, which gives the volume considerable breadth as well as depth. Essays are arranged in broadly chronological order but also by topic. Many pieces were condensed to make space for everything that helped put the disgraceful Saudi-led, US-backed campaign into historical and political context.

The MERIP archive was a rich trove of real-time dispatches by some remarkably prescient researchers who depicted perennial contradictions between the opulent stability of Gulf monarchies and the gritty chaos of their poverty-stricken southern neighbor. Entries explain local histories alongside Cold War geopolitics, oil dependency, politicized Islam, two American wars in Iraq, the “global war on terror,” royal panic over the 2011 Arab uprisings, and ever-increasing weapons purchases particularly by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. One subtle but persistent theme is American willingness to support the Kingdom’s hegemonic aspirations in unruly Yemen.   

The campaign ostensibly against Houthi rebels and remnants of the Salih regime is now in its third year. Both the Houthi-Salih militias and the Saudi-led coalition commit war crimes, but only the latter have fighter jets, battleships, and help from the US including surveillance and in-air refueling. Fighting directly killed as many as 10,000 people in the first year and a half and has wounded countless others, but the even greater catastrophe has been the wanton destruction of essential infrastructure, including hospitals, roads, power stations, sanitation services, and ports, which, together with a naval blockade ostensibly to prevent arms smuggling, has decimated health care and put nearly seven million people on the verge of famine and another seventeen million in the category the UN calls “food insecure.” Already in December 2016 UNICEF estimated that a Yemeni child died of preventable causes (starvation and treatable diseases) every ten minutes. Now, a serious cholera epidemic is multiplying the suffering. It is a man-made humanitarian disaster.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SC: This collection is organized around the idea that the Arabian Peninsula constitutes a distinct, inter-connected subsystem of the Middle East and of global politics, in the sense that changes anywhere in the Peninsula reverberate throughout, affecting the whole as well as the separate parts; in the sense that there are some distinguishing patterns for the entire “organism;” and in the sense of the subsystem’s interactions with the outside world. Some broadly framing, big-picture  contributions explore the connections explicitly, treating the Peninsula as a unit; others do so by scrutinizing specific circumstances of labor migration, armed conflicts, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the politics of water and oil, the 2011 uprisings and what happened next, and vignettes from specific localities.  Juxtaposing these tops the sum of the parts. The most prevalent themes are political economy, the American or Anglo-American military footprint, and socio-political movements. But there is also much about gender, and class; and strong ethnographic voices from very different microclimates and ecologies.

The multi-vocal, multi-local, real-time dimension is instructive, and different from retrospective analysis I, or anyone writing a book “from scratch”, would offer. For example, the authors of early accounts of the Houthi movement in Sa’dah province near the Saudi-Yemeni border – some of the earliest accounts anywhere about the origins of the movement – traced that Zaydi revival movement led by the al-Houthi family to reactions against concerted Wahhabi-Saudi proselytizing in a remote, mountainous region; they saw no reason to mention Iran, which was not involved in the series of local rebellions the Houthis fought against the Sana’a government before 2011. These articles and other stories focused on different issues therefore contradict the narrative generated in Riyadh and widely reproduced in the Anglophone media over the past couple of years that American weapons are being used to combat “Iranian proxies” battling the “legitimate government of Yemen”– not by arguing to the contrary, but rather with nuanced, up-close reporting on situations in Sa’dah and elsewhere in the entire Peninsula. Clearly the so-called “sectarian civil war” in Yemen is a recent permutation of the self-declared Sunni monarchies’ geostrategic rivalry with the Islamic Republic of Iran as well as those ruling dynasties’ discrimination against their own Shi`a populations. Overall, ample evidence is presented that the problems that provoked Yemen’s Southern Movement (hirak) and the 2011 popular demonstrations, respectively, are rooted in militarism and corruption rather than religion, and that the Gulf’s royal families have for decades feared mass mobilization in the most populous, least prosperous, perennially restive part of the Peninsula.  

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SC: I used the title “Arabia Incognita” some years ago for a chapter in a book edited by Bob Vitalis and Madawi al-Rasheed, for a more conceptual “Invitation to Arabian Peninsula Studies” essay that featured historical maps of the whole Peninsula, and that made the point that the Arab Gulf petro-states and Yemen are not separate regions but part of a single system. I’ve spent a total of more than six years in Yemen and a total of only a few weeks in the Emirates, Oman, and Qatar, so it was a pleasure to incorporate the wisdom of other scholars and journalists in what is still quite rare, a volume that indeed uncovers the whole Peninsula and explores its inner workings. This book is a natural extension from my previous work, therefore, but it covers more terrain. Also, again, it is not so much my own scholarship as a collective project with an explicit political message.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SC: The book is intended for broad readership, what Helena Cobban has called “the NPR listener.” Now this might not be what she meant, but NPR listeners would hardly be aware of any events in the Peninsula other than American presidential visits and a handful of military operations, because All Things Considered and Morning Edition all but ignore the Peninsula and scarcely mention the war. Arabia Incognita: Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf is curated for non-specialists (including even some academics who study the Mediterranean part of the Middle East but can’t remember which of the formerly two Yemens was Socialist). Specifically, the intended audiences are anti-war activists unfamiliar with or confused about the current conflict. Hopefully it will find its way into the hands of some of the fifty members of Congress who express doubts about arming the Saudi war machine, or their staff advisors, too.  In condensing entries I eliminated both endnotes and passages with too many confusing details, to make it as accessible as possible (there is even a note advising serious scholars to go back to the originally published articles for the references).  So the sixty readings are a few pages each and easy to follow. Furthermore, to make it more readable or even skim-able we included five custom maps (made by my colleague Kimberley Browne at the University of Richmond and her Spatial Analysis Lab colleagues) and fifteen recent satirical cartoons by the Yemeni caricaturist Sameer Al-Shameeri.

As for impact, we had two objectives, both implied above and in the conclusion: to make the Peninsula less unfamiliar and obscure; and to stimulate opposition to the war, and to weapons sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its allies in the unprovoked assault on a very poor country.  The concluding paragraphs read as follows:

“The title of this volume is Arabia Incognita, meaning Unknown, Misunderstood, or Unrecognized Arabia. As the old order on the Peninsula collapses, some analysts and reporters have begun referring to a “forgotten war” in Yemen. Yemenis respond sardonically that it is impossible to forget what was never comprehended to begin with.

As this anthology goes to press, there’s no good news for the war-torn peninsula. I do hope, however, that Arabia might be less incomprehensible in the future. Human rights activists and area specialists are calling more attention to the militarization of a contest for state power. Investigative journalists, counter-terrorism experts and think-tank analysts—until now unmindful of the subcontinent’s internal convulsions and their global implications—are studying up. “Arabia Felix” may be a distant reality, but at least the Peninsula may not remain Incognita.” 

Excerpt from the Introduction to Arabia Incognita

Of the three kinds of societies found in the Arabian Peninsula, the one with which most outsiders may have the most familiarity is the string of super-rich city-states along the sinuous coast of the Persian Gulf. First-class globe-trotters may have passed through the upscale airport in Dubai (which is one of seven tiny princedoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, UAE), or may have flown on Emirates Airlines. American or European students and tourists may have spent time in the state-of-the-art branch campuses of western universities established in Qatar or the UAE, or in the museums and shopping malls that now dot much of the UAE. Over the past fifty years millions of contract workers—pursuing a range of occupations, from hotel managers, to construction workers, to teachers—have flocked to the Gulf city-states from Asia, the Arab world, and Eastern Africa. Some have remained there for decades (generally, under tight surveillance); others, once their contracts have finished or if they have raised their voices seeking better working conditions or greater freedoms, have been summarily returned to their original homes. Al-Jazeera, the global news network based in the Qatari capital Doha, is now a familiar brand-name worldwide. Doha and several other twenty-first–century Persian Gulf cities glimmer with high-modernist architecture financed from petrochemicals, built by South Asian migrant laborers, and made livable only by relentless air-conditioning.

Since 1981, Saudi Arabia and the five other Arab states along the Gulf have worked together in a joint defense organization called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has been strongly supported by the United States and its NATO allies and provides a massive market for Western arms manufacturers. Tens of thousands of American armed service personnel have spent time in the Gulf protecting the oil-rich monarchies against threats from the Soviet Union, Iraq, and Iran.

The second broad environment in the Peninsula is the vast desert interior, most of which lies within Saudi Arabia. While millions of Muslims journey to Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage, relatively few Christians or Jews—apart from oil executives and military contractors—have been permitted to visit the ultra-secretive Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, or, for that matter, Kuwait or Oman. (Among the monarchies, only in Saudi Arabia and Oman are citizen-subjects  the majority of residents.) Saudi Arabia is the only state in the world to be named for its founding family, the descendants of whom still hold tightly to the reins of government there today. From its very beginning, in the 18th century of the common era, the “Saudi” political system was based on the maintenance of tight alliance between the “al-Saud” (the Saud family) and the descendants and followers of a puritanical and highly intolerant religious leader called Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The Wahhabis, as these religio-sectarian activists are known, continue to play an important role in the kingdom’s internal governance—and in many aspects of its foreign policy—until today.

Yemen’s mountainous, relatively fertile and heavily populated environment provides a strong contrast to the natural and human geography of most of Saudi Arabia. In the days of the British Empire, the Yemeni city of Aden, perched at the corner where the Red Sea joins the Indian Ocean, was a vital coaling station for British ships traveling to India or points further east. The present-day Republic of Yemen stretches up along the Red Sea a little, and out along the Indian Ocean coast to join with Oman. Its many mountain fastnesses contain a diverse array of micro-cultures, many of them with long and distinguished urban traditions—and a correspondingly great array of political movements, some regional, some religious, some ideological, and some more interest-based.

In this book, you will find more writings about Yemen than about any of the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula. The reason for this is simple. Contributors to Middle East Report are overwhelmingly social scientists, along with a smattering of journalists. And the kind of field research that social scientists do, or the kind of free-ranging, on-the-ground reporting that good journalists seek to do, is extremely hard to do in Saudi Arabia or any of the other monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. Those monarchies nearly all have truly terrible human-rights records and afford no protection whatever for the freedom of most forms of information-gathering, association or expression. Saudi Arabia, where in May 2014 blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 public lashings with a whip, purely for what he had published on his blog, may have the very worst record in this regard. But the other GCC members are not far behind when it comes to stifling free enquiry and free expression. Until the exigencies of war overtook it in early 2015, Yemen provided a much more fertile and welcoming environment for the kinds of inquiry that MER contributors like to pursue. Nonetheless, both in MER in general and in the compilation of this anthology, we have worked hard to include well-informed dispatches from other countries in the Peninsula.

In 2011, news consumers worldwide became somewhat familiar with the exciting news coming out of Yemen, which was the only place in the Peninsula apart from the city-state of Bahrain where the kinds of popular mobilization typical of the “Arab Spring” gained any real foothold. Yemeni pro-democracy organizer Tawakkul Karman was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in helping lead the Yemeni movement. But in Bahrain, the King, with considerable military help from Saudi Arabia, was able to beat back the democracy movement. And in Yemen, in March 2015, amidst the deep political turmoil into which the country had fallen, Saudi Arabia’s newly installed King Salman and his Defense Minister (and son), Mohammed Bin Salman, ordered air-strikes to try to reverse militarily gains by a Yemeni militia known as the Houthi movement

King Salman’s colossal military operation in Yemen was joined by the United Arab Emirates and some other regional coalition partners, deploying advanced weapons and surveillance technology sold by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Canada. As Yemen’s ports, utilities and other infrastructure were pounded by many long months of aerial bombardment and a naval blockade, humanitarian catastrophe ensued for an already-impoverished population of nearly 27 million Yemenis. United Nations relief agencies, human rights observers, and historic conservationists drew some attention to this crisis, though de-escalation and ceasefire still seemed far away.

King Salman may have hoped for a speedy victory; but such was not to be. Though the Saudi-led coalition succeeded in pushing back the Houthis from Aden and some other areas of South Yemen, they made little headway in restoring any legitimate, functioning government anywhere in the country. And while the battles between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis (allied with their old nemesis, the deposed dictator `Ali `Abdullah Salih) continued in many of the western and central parts of the country and broad swathes of the east, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP, long a target of American drone strikes) and even the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, newly arrived in Yemen) were often gaining ground.

[Excerpted from Arabia Incognita, Dispatches from Yemen and the Gulf, with permission of the author, © 2015.]

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