Yemen is a country of approximately 23 million people lying in the South-Western corner of the Arabian Peninsula. With a history spanning thousands of years, known to the Romans, who failed in their invasion, as Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia), Yemenis are clearly distinct from the nomadic peoples of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. However in the past century it is these Bedouins who found the black gold, oil, beneath their deserts, while Yemen, a land of ancient civilisations, enjoys an economy which more closely resembles those of sub-Saharan Africa than the Middle East.
Today Yemen faces multiple threats and it will be surprising, for those who had only heard of Yemen from Friends, to see that the Yemeni government does not regard Al-Qaeda as the principle threat to the security of the country. The government sees the ‘Houthi’ rebellion in the Saada province in the North of the country, and the growing Southern separatist movement, a legacy of the pre-1990 Communist South Yemen, as being more threatening to the stability of the country. To be fair, any of these issues would cause problems for any government, all three together are potentially catastrophic.
The problems that Yemen faces can be traced back to the overwhelming and increasing poverty that can be found in Yemen. Oil, the biggest part of the Yemeni economy, is dwindling and it is predicted will run out in 2017. Without any decent infrastructure, industry is stagnant. Even in the parts of the country where there is a lot of rain, water is running out due to overpopulation and water mismanagement. This is not helped by the mass cultivation of khat, a mild narcotic which Yemenis are addicted to. In this country once famous for spreading coffee to the rest of the world, Mocha having once been a chief port, it is the water intensive growing of khat that occurs in a large portion of agricultural land.
Unemployment in Yemen has been a major factor in causing the direct challenges to the sovereignty of the country which the Yemeni government now faces. Standing at around 40% this only seems to be going one way with the stagnant economy and the young Yemeni population, a staggering 75% being under the age of 25 and the population expected to double within 20 years. In the past many Yemenis found work in the oil rich neighbouring countries of the Gulf, their remittances becoming a major part of the Yemeni economy. However after the Yemeni government’s opposition to the First Gulf War the vast majority of these workers were sent back home, Yemen faced the twin problems of a loss of a major portion of its economy and also the sudden vast increase in Yemenis looking for jobs, a demand the Yemeni economy could simply not meet.
With a vast amount of people in Yemen in abject poverty and with very little help seeming to come from the government it is no surprise that Yemen faces its triumvirate of crises. The Houthi uprising centred in Saada began in 2004. The Houthis are members of the Zaidi sect of Islam, a form of Shi’ism doctrinally close to Sunni Islam. However a common misconception of this conflict has been the perception, quite common in the Western media, of it simply being a Sunni-Shia conflict. The president of Yemen himself, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Zaidi. Many Zaidis are also against the Houthi rebellion, some arguing that the Houthis are no longer Zaidis and, thanks to Iranian influence, are now following Twelver Shi’ism. Whatever their ideology the Houthis are a strong fighting force, being tribesmen who know their mountainous land well. Since 2004 there have now been a succession of uprisings and ceasefires with the latest (and fifth) incarnation of this war being the deadliest, creating thousands of refugees and with the deaths of many civilians, and also foreign involvement – definite in the case of Saudi Arabia, and the Yemeni government pressing their claim that Iran is supporting the Houthis militarily.
In the South of the country Yemen faces another anti-government force, the Southern separatist movement. Until 1990 Yemen was divided into two countries, the Republican North Yemen and the Marxist South Yemen, the only country in the Arab World to be governed by Marxists. Only four years after reunification, in 1994, tensions rose between the separate power structures of the North and South until it erupted into a civil war which the government quickly won. Now, barely fifteen years later, the separatists, with the increase in poverty and their accusation that this is due to the central government’s neglect of the South, find their support increasing rapidly amongst Southerners. There is a general feeling that Northern tribesmen are using the South’s resources for their own benefit. Protests quickly turn into riots and the security forces reaction has often been heavy handed, with deaths now a recurrent theme during these protests.
And now to the coup de grace, the group that has brought Yemen into the headlines over the past few months, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This local franchise of the international al-Qaeda brand was formed by Saudi and Yemeni militants after the Saudi security forces managed to destroy the local al-Qaeda. They relocated to Yemen and have taken advantage of the central government’s weakening grip on the provinces. Eastern provinces such as Shabwa and Hadhramaut are huge and empty expanses, providing the perfect location for al-Qaeda to relocate to and slowly build up again. Over recent years there have been gradual increases in al-Qaeda activity in Yemen, from the USS Cole bombing in 2000 to the attack on the US embassy in 2008. This has now culminated with the apparent training of Abdulmuttalib in al-Qaeda training camps in Yemen and the failed Christmas Day bomb plot.
The question that is posed about Yemen is why all the tensions that have been bubbling under the surface have now suddenly erupted. To answer this it is important to understand how President Saleh has managed to stay in power since 1979, he is extremely good at placating the tribal leaders. Yemen is a very tribal society and no attempt has been made to change this, instead, using the politics of patronage, the Yemeni government has, in effect, bought off the tribes with money from the oil revenues. With this oil revenue now running out it is now harder for President Saleh to keep everyone happy and the problems that the government now face are the cracks that have emerged in the patronage system.
The West is now fully aware of Yemen and Western governments have been rushing to aid Yemen in its fight against al-Qaeda. It is interesting to note that the Yemeni government does not regard al-Qaeda as the main problem it faces in Yemen, and only one of many problems. Despite the pressure being applied by the West, the Yemeni government, and the wily president, will step carefully in their crackdown on al-Qaeda, any government seen by the people as a puppet of the West will not last long. One thing the government will do is take the money that is now being pumped into Yemen. It is here that the rest of the world will have to be careful, for a lot of money has a habit of disappearing when placed in the hands of the Yemeni government.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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