Yemen; or how to dance on the edge of the cliff
All over the Arab world revolts have started to break out. Even in previously unthinkable places such as Libya or Bahrain. Yet the revolt in Yemen should not be considered another case of the Tunisian contagion. As with every country in the region, it has its own particularities, but more than ever, the Yemeni case should be taken apart and studied from another perspective. Due to its strategic situation, its political history and situation and its importance within the Arabic peninsula and within American counter-terrorism policy, the Yemeni case should be analyzed with a different prism than the events unfolding in Egypt, Bahrain or Libya, keeping in mind the influence of those cases.
Yemen is the only Arab nation that has been divided due to colonial particularities. From 1962 to 1990 the actual Republic of Yemen was North Yemen and South Yemen –which had a communist government. After the unification a short civil war broke out in 1994, enhancing the domination of the North over the South and sowing the seeds of Southern independence movements. Since then, Ali Abdullah Saleh, leader of the North, has been ruling the country, betraying the principles of the constitution and pushing the country towards failure. At the same time, the country has suffered constant low-profile armed conflicts against the Houthi movement, -which fights for Shia empowerment- and against southern separatism. The lack of effective control of the territory by the government of Sana’a, the uncontrollable presence of terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda with the approval of many Wahabbi clerics of the country and a crumbling economy situates Yemen on the edge of collapse.
Yet, the situation is worsening at the time. The Egyptian and Tunisian example has pushed people to the streets, demanding a change in the situation. The government of Saleh has, so far, only promised that the incumbent president will not run for reelection, but the problems of Yemen go far beyond the figure of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The whole system hangs by a thread and can collapse at any given moment, with or without a regime fall. Yemeni groups even speak about a possible somalization of the country and surely the conditions are present. The social and geographical construction of the country, a Kalashnikov culture and different trends of fundamentalism set the field for such scenario.
Yemeni society articulates itself based on tribes, as it has been for centuries. Most tribes only pledge a respectful subordination to the central power of Sana’a but the core of the decisions are taken inside the tribe. Added to this, the geography of Yemen makes it difficult to effectively control the territory, more so when the reach of the central government is at best weak. The natural combination of these two factors creates a highly divided society, in which the tribal power many times stays above Sana’a’s power. An example of this factor is the importance of the Houthi movement, based on a particular religious vision and tribal links. This relatively small group has been able –allegedly with the support of Iran- to confront the Yemeni and the Saudi Army and remains confronted to the government and loyal to its leaders. To top up the situation, Yemen’s resources are hastily dwindling, Sana’a will probably run out of water in the next decades and the country holds the biggest percentage of young people in the whole Arab world and the biggest birth rate of the region.
Yemen suffers what some analysts tend to call a ‘Kalashnikov culture’. For years the country has been in and out of armed conflict, receiving weapons from Saudi Arabia, USA and the former USSR. The flow of weapons, both legally and illegally purchased is still on. Nowadays, weapons directed to Somalia might have been smuggled through Yemen. As the UN points out, the USA maintains an extensive program to provide weapons and technology to the Yemeni army and groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula have used Yemen as their safe haven. Undoubtedly access to weapons is easy for the population, even more so since some reports argue that there are three weapons for each citizen of Yemen. The fight against insurgency has also spread weapons throughout the country, transforming Yemen into one of the most armed societies in the world.
Finally, religious fundamentalism has lately impregnated Yemeni society in different forms. Traditionally, Yemeni society has mostly professed a tolerant and peaceful Islam, both within its Sunni and Shia communities. Indeed, its Jewish community was for centuries an important part of the society and famous Sufi thinkers have links with Yemen. Nevertheless, for decades Saudi Arabia has been expanding its Wahabbi ideology, educating clerics and sending them to Yemen as a way to expand its religious vision to its neighbor. This expansion was one of the reasons of the Houthi’s uprising and threatens the weak equilibrium between the Shia and the Sunni communities, each one representing loosely the 50% of the population. Part of the ‘cold war’ between Saudi Arabia and Iran –as leaders of the two Islamic approaches, Sunni and Shia- is taking place in Yemen. A power vacuum might exacerbate this fight, insofar it might attract the attention of other Muslim nations eager to expand their vision and therefore groups might easily access funds and weapons.
However, Yemen is not only in the mind of Arab nations or Muslim nations, the USA consider it a crucial theater of their counter-terrorism operations. It backs the Saleh regime due to the artificial iron-handed stability that it has created in Yemen, maintaining the idea that any other government will be even worse. Moreover, Yemen is a crucial spot for the world trade, being in control of the access to the Red Sea and the Suez Channel. If Yemen falls out of control, the two countries controlling the access to the Red Sea will be collapsed states, which is evidently not the most desired situation for such an important commercial route. Also, the fundamentalist groups of Somalia, namely Al-Shabbah, might find interest in expanding its operations into Yemen or at least use it as a way to obtain weapons or training. Piracy may also be affected by the situation, expanding its scope of action.
Yemen is dancing on the edge of the cliff, it is almost ungovernable and Saleh’s regime is maybe having its last days in power. Moreover, its population clearly deserves a just and fair government which takes care of its needs and solves an intricate situation of corruption, civil unrest, poverty and fundamentalism. It is in the interest of the entire world that Yemen finds a way out, even better if this way out means a peaceful regime transition. But mostly, it is in the interest of the Yemeni society to find a system in which the country can look into the future without the fear of collapsing as a state.