Edition 37 Volume 8 - October 15, 2009
Trouble in Yemen
Yemeni troubles: broad implications -
Hopefully, a show of confidence by Arabian Peninsula states and Egypt will help to arrest one or more of the current Yemeni crises.
Isolated no more -
Yemen is unwillingly imposing its problems on the rest of the world.
Yemen: snapshot of a potential future -
The full significance of the unfolding Yemeni conflict is that it is a template for potential conflicts in other parts of the Arab world.
Yemeni troubles: broad implications
Yemen's crisis may be reaching new heights. The multiple factors affecting the country are a concern that should be noted not only on a regional level but also globally. Yemen, to some, may already be a failed state that harbors terrorist and criminal elements that promote a serious danger to regional governments, economies--including energy supply chains--and populations.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government is under siege. It is battling a Huthi Shi'ite insurgency and attacks by Sunni extremists acting as the franchise "al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula" and fending off a growing secessionist struggle led by the "Southern Movement". Absent urgent regional or international intervention, Yemen is on a course leading to the potential collapse of Saleh's government or the country's partitioning into autonomous zones run by non-state actors.
Concerns in Saudi Arabia and other countries are mounting as Iran, apparently, has entered the fray backing the Huthi insurgency (the Zeidi Shi'ite sect make up one-third of the population). Like Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, Yemen may be emerging as a battlefield in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran is threatening to secure a beachhead in the strategic southwest Arabian Peninsula, where Yemen offers oil, proximity to Saudi oilfields and control over critical Red Sea shipping lanes.
Of most importance, the Sanaa government launched Operation Scorched Earth on August 11, 2009 with the aim of finally crushing the five-year uprising--the sixth time the two sides have clashed. Fighting between the army and the Zeidi rebels, who complain of political and economic marginalization by the government, has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people in this poor country.
The Zeidis accuse the government of not fulfilling its obligations under previous agreements, including freeing rebel detainees, paying compensation to victims and rebuilding Saada region villages ravaged by fighting that has displaced about 150,000 people since 2004. The current escalation has killed unknown numbers on both sides and crammed tens of thousands of the newly displaced into camps, schools and barns turned into shelters, while aid groups struggle to bring in supplies.
In addition to the conflict with the Zeidi rebels in the north, the Sanaa government has been facing mounting demands in the south for the restoration of southern independence. After two years of peaceful protests led by civil service workers and soldiers whose pensions were never paid, the secessionist Southern Movement is escalating to violence. In the last few months, three opposition leaders have been murdered by northern security forces and seven newspapers have been shut down.
The movement has been joined by socialist forces and sympathizers of the former South Yemen government who are frustrated with the Saleh government's widespread fraud and negligence of the economy. Ali Salem al-Bidh, the former Marxist leader who negotiated the first reunification agreement between North and South Yemen in 1990, has been named the new leader of the Southern Movement. Because it has no faith in negotiating with Saleh, it has called for the United Nations to lead reconciliation talks or allow the Gulf Cooperation Council to form a new caretaker government in lieu of new negotiations.
Yemen is also the regional nerve center for arms trafficking, narcotics trade, transiting jihadists and sponsorship of Somali pirating operations. Drugs, notably Khat, are popular too: the populace and troops battling the Zeidi rebels haggle daily for the leaves with local Khat vendors, whose business is the only one still thriving in the devastated northern area. Khat is so popular in Yemen that cultivating the plant uses up nearly half of the country's water supply and farmers prefer to grow it for the high profits involved in the trade.
Finally, and just as important, is the fact that al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula is planning operations from Yemen. Hundreds of hardcore Arab fighters loyal to al-Qaeda have fled the Afghanistan-Pakistan region this year, heading mainly to Yemen to bolster an Islamist insurgency targeting Saudi Arabia and the ruling al-Saud family. The past year in Yemen witnessed numerous attacks against US interests and threats against British and UAE interests. In Saudi Arabia, the attempted assassination of Prince Muhammad bin Nayif is a case in point. His would-be assassin entered Saudi Arabia from Yemen using an unusual deception, gained access to the prince's Majlis during Ramadan and exploded a bomb hidden within his body.
Overall, Arabian Peninsula states and Egypt are concerned and are assisting the Yemeni central government to rid the country of its ills. For example, the Dana Gas and Crescent Petroleum (Naft al-Hilal) Companies in the UAE recently announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding with Yemen to set up GasCities Ltd to attract investment and create thousands of jobs. Hopefully, this show of confidence will help to arrest one or more of the current Yemeni crises.- Published 15/10/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Theodore Karasik is director, research and development, at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.
Isolated no more
Yemen, an ancient and remote place, has long been ignored by the media. Its oceans, deserts and mountains have greeted potential conquerors with hostility, and its confused and confusing politics have kept journalists at bay. Even to dedicated scholars of and in the Arab world, Yemen has been an exotic place. But recently, the convulsions driven by an inexorable pull of history have captured the attention of journalists, politicians and scholars. Frequently immune to history, Yemen is isolated no more.
The reasons why are known to anyone with a browsing familiarity with the daily papers. Yemen is currently being wrenched by three revolutions, independent of each other but with a common theme: the central government is more than illegitimate--it is antithetical to the nature and history of Yemen.
The rebellions are the Huthi revolt in the north, the southern secessionist movement and the pervasive threat of a reconstituted al-Qaeda. Without delving too deeply into history, each one is based on a series of decisions and indecisions flowing from Yemen's separate revolts against imamate and colonialism, its unification and its civil war. The north, roughly, feels that President Ali Abdullah Saleh's approximation of republicanism is an affront to Yemen's monarchial, decentralized rule, and southerners broadly feel colonized in their own country. Al-Qaeda, of course, feels that any ruler not following its strict laws is an apostate and a traitor. These are the themes being played out in Yemen, set tragically against the jagged backdrop of economic collapse and ecological ruin.
The Huthi rebellion has been the one grabbing the most attention since violence flared for the sixth time earlier this year. The government showed a disdain for subtlety, nicknaming its campaign "Operation Scorched Earth". Though a ceasefire is in effect, the underlying grievances still remain. And while the war is rooted deeply in Yemeni history, many commentators have tried to paint it as proxy fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the regional powers.
The main thrust of the argument is that the rebels are Shi'ite Muslims and therefore supposedly kindred with the "ancien" revolutionaries running Iran, hence getting aid and comfort. And, of course, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia opposes any attempt by Iran to impose its will in the region and certainly on the Peninsula. This ignores the fact that the Shi'ism practiced by the Huthis is far removed from Iran's Twelver theology (and is often referred to as the sixth school of Sunnism); it also ignores the long-standing enmity between Sanaa and Riyadh. And despite the picture Saleh attempts to present to the world, there is no evidence of Iranian interference. But his portrayal has been effective, and supposed Iranian mischief has been a reason why the world has largely turned a blind eye to the government's scorched earth policy. In international relations, there is little shadow between perception and reality.
The southern secessionist movement is a different animal. The world is concerned about Yemen fragmenting, and distaste for Marxist remnants is subsumed under the auspices of national unity. Were Yemen to split apart, aside from the historical failure of what was a rare political triumph in the Arab world, the Saleh government would lose major sources of revenue both in oil and from the large port of Aden. This would hasten its slide into failed state. And it would also be a perception loss for the West: an ostensible ally in the war against radical fundamentalism can't be allowed to split apart.
Al-Qaeda's revolt is more immediately prominent in the international context. Though there is no evidence that displaced jihadis from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region are regrouping in Yemen, it is indisputable that a powerful new franchise has broken ground in the Peninsula. The marriage between the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda was essentially consummated in the failed attempt on the life of Saudi Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayif. Though the attack was unsuccessful, it showed the patience, the cunning and the reach of the organization--a group with the intelligence and the manpower to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia as well as on key shipping lanes around the Horn of Africa. The world is tied down in the AfPak conflict; al-Qaeda has almost free reign in the wilds of Yemen.
And that is the main importance, on a global political scale, of these rebellions. Yemen is poised on the brink of collapse, and the enemies of the western world stand ready to take advantage. A strong and well-funded government would have enormous difficulties dealing with these problems; Yemen is neither, and is therefore incapable. A failed state would be even more of a breeding ground and safe-haven for al-Qaeda--even more than a dangerously distracted or over-stretched state currently is. Were there no al-Qaeda, the world might be able to treat Yemen's internal convulsions as an unfortunate sideshow, like fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. That might not be moral, but it would be possible.
That luxury, though, is impossible. Yemen has been an important stop on trade routes and has given the world spices and stories and legends. But it has rarely played a decisive role in history. That is no longer the case. Were the global community to take the cheap and easy route of ignoring Yemen's crumbling edifices, it would have to pay for it ten times over in the near future. Yemen's history may be exotic, its politics may be confusing and its present may be idiosyncratic, but it is unwillingly imposing its problems on the rest of the world. The world, in turn, has to be willing to adopt these problems. - Published 15/10/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Brian O'Neill is an independent analyst specializing in Yemen and security issues in the Horn of Africa.
Yemen: snapshot of a potential future
The conflict, or should one say, the conflicts in Yemen arise from a mosaic of reasons.
On the surface, the ongoing armed conflict in the country was sparked by a clash in 2004 between government security forces and a group of students protesting the war in Iraq and the deployment of US forces there. The protesters were led by a Zeidi cleric by the name of Hussain al-Huthi, who was also a member of Parliament at the time. Huthi was later killed in an ambush by government forces. The issue of Iraq and the ongoing war there is therefore one factor in the conflict in Yemen.
The bigger picture of a conflict that has grown relentlessly since then, however, needs to incorporate the fact that Yemen lacks fully fledged democratic institutions and is structured to be effectively governed by one man, namely President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who happens also to be the leader of the Hashid tribe. The Zeidi people, who sparked the conflict with their protest against the war in Iraq, are a Shi'ite minority who harbor their own grievances against the central government. They were obviously ready to explode at the first spark and the war in Iraq provided that spark.
Yet the extent of the crisis in Yemen does not end there. Recent heavy-handed bombings of Huthi strongholds in Dhahian, al-Mahader and al-Ghabeir have caused anger to spread across the country, especially after about 85,000 Saada residents fled the fighting and the government bombardments, in the process triggering a massive humanitarian crisis and wider dissatisfaction. The 750,000 residents of Saada itself began to suffer from malnutrition when government forces besieged and isolated the rebellious city. The tribal feature of the conflict was further reinforced when a so-called citizens' army was proclaimed by the government, composed mostly of Hashid tribesmen.
Accusations leveled by the central government in Sanaa that Libya and Iran were supporting the rebellion gave the conflict a regional dimension as well. Certainly, Saudi Arabia is viewed as siding with President Saleh. Mediation efforts were not in short supply but all of them foundered almost as soon as they were launched. Qatar tried first and longest, in June of last year, but that effort unraveled in January this year, allegedly because the government reneged on its pledges to vacate certain areas belonging to the rebels. Meanwhile, on the battlefield about 400 rebels have taken refuge in Bani Hushaish, a city of 75,000 people. Government forces are determined to drive them out and recently began a series of bombardments and military strikes to dislodge them. This military effort is still going on.
The full significance of the unfolding Yemeni conflict is that it is a template for potential conflicts in other parts of the Arab world. Yemen shares many features common to other Arab countries, with its tribal nature, sectarian divisions and the lack of democracy. The interplay of regional politics in the conflict is also not unique to Yemen. The central government's determination to maintain its territorial unity is clearly a legitimate goal. Nevertheless, the means undertaken to protect and consolidate that unity have entailed violations of the civil and political rights of certain ethnic, religious and tribal groups.
The broader issue raised by the Yemeni conflict is how to construct an Arab nation-state where the political and sociological terrain is a peaceful hybrid of religious, tribal and ethnic differences. What is happening in Yemen is essentially a scenario of what can happen elsewhere in the Arab world. The right to self-determination is one of the most vexing and troublesome issues confronting states across the globe. How to reconcile states' rights with the right of peoples of different religions and backgrounds to determine their own future is an issue that dominates human rights conferences until this day, and, as Yemen shows, there is no clear answer yet.-Published 15/10/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.