Summary: Yemen's many problems could soon render the country ungovernable, enabling the lawlessness in the Horn of Africa to leap across the Gulf of Aden, says Trends magazine.
Emerging from the London Yemen conference in late January, international leaders walked straight into a flood of questions. Will they repeat recent history and blunder -- guns first -- into the country's labyrinthine, mountainous regions in another doomed attempt to root out terrorist cells?
Or do they plan to just throw some money at the problem and leave the Yemeni government to distribute it in the same questionable manner that has exacerbated tensions so far?
The Arab press in particular, though relieved to hear leaders discuss the need to tackle the "root causes" of Yemen's problems, rather than intervene militarily, question whether the international community has committed itself to any concrete support for the "failing state."
"Yemen does not only need money from foreign countries," Saudi-based newspaper Al Watan said. "It also needs programs drawn up to help Yemenis and to transform them from tribal communities to a productive society capable of coping with modern times."
The London-based newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat endorsed proposals to steer clear of direct military intervention but argued that aid must not be limited to financial handouts, stating that the international community "should put pressure on the [Yemeni] government to be more democratic and less corrupt. Only by doing this can they attract the support of the Yemeni people."
The Yemeni people's lack of faith in their "corrupt" government is one of numerous root causes highlighted by speakers at the London Summit. Over the past 32 years President Ali Abdullah Saleh has governed via an extended patronage system in which incentives are doled out to manipulate opponents and elevate family members.
Saleh's skillful juggling of the country's many competing factions has turned Yemeni politics into a puppet show of inconsistent policies and ever-shifting allegiances. In doing so he has managed to keep power in the hands of the presidency, allowing little opportunity for the development of party politics or a legitimate opposition.
"The parties have no roots among the people," the executive director of the Sana'a-based Political Development Forum, Ali Saif Hassan, told The National. "They operate more like lobbyists, asking for government favors C* but in the process they are killing themselves because they lack loyalty."
Simple message . Disillusionment with the government has worsened the regional divisions that plague Yemen. With no effective opposition to turn to, Yemenis are increasingly drawn to powerful rebel organizations in the north, south, and east of the country.
"The most popular movements in Yemen have become the Al-Houthis, the secessionists in the south, Al-Qaeda -- because they are addressing the people; they live among them, and they have a simple message," Hassan said.
A bloody civil war between Al-Houthi rebels and the Sana'a government has raged intermittently since 2004 but today's tensions have deeper historical roots. In 1962, Yemen became the Arabian Peninsula's only modern republic when Egyptian-backed troops invaded the capital and brought an end to the country's 1,000-year Zaydi Shi'ite Imamate.
The deposed imam fled to mountains in the north of Yemen and gathered support among the Zaydi Shi'ite tribes of the region. Backed by Saudi Arabia, Imam al-Badr waged a series of counter-offensives against the republican Sana'a government, plunging the country into civil war for the next eight years.
In 1970, Saudi Arabia, which had been the principal opponent of the Sana'a regime since it was first installed, suddenly announced their recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic, and other nations, including the United Kingdom, quickly followed suit. Last August, Yemen's government launched a military incursion against the Al-Houthi rebels in the north, and was joined by Saudi forces not long after the fighting began.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and the rebels further deteriorated when Saudi Arabia began their own attacks on the resistance fighters, claiming that they were protecting their border regions from rebel incursions. Late last year, rebel troops invaded Saudi Arabia, seizing control of a small mountainous region and killing over 100 Saudi soldiers.
On January 25 this year, rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi offered to withdraw all his forces from Saudi Arabia in return for a ceasefire. The government offered to end their offensive against the north if the rebels acceded to its demands. Rebel leaders responded by saying they found some of these conditions "unworkable."
On February 12, following days of negotiations, a ceasefire was announced and Abdul-Malik al-Houthi ordered his men to abide by the terms of the truce. Al-Houthi leaders have repeatedly claimed that their uprising is a response to economic and political disenfranchisement of the Zaydi community by the predominantly Sunni central government. They seek autonomy in the north, complaining that the government is oppressing them and denying them the right to freely practice their religious beliefs.
The government accuses the Al-Houthis of acting under the influence of foreign powers at the expense of national security. They are concerned that the Al-Houthis would like to see the country revert to the Zaydi Shi'ite Imamate.
Zone of lawlessness . Although less acute, secessionist problems in the south are a further drain on government resources. South Yemen remained an independent state governed by the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) from the end of British rule in 1967 until 1990, when it was reunited with the Republic of Yemen.
Fueled by the YSP, many southern Yemenis complain that the Sana'a government is abusing the unity agreement, citing discrimination and unfair distribution of resources as justification for renewed independence. Frequent protests and demonstrations since 2007 have led to the region's growing reputation as "a zone of lawlessness," contributing to mounting fears that unless tensions abate, Yemen could become a failed state like its unruly neighbor Somalia.
Continued instability in the country could, according to a Chatham House analyst Ginny Hill, "expand a lawless zone stretching from northern Kenya through Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, to Saudi Arabia." The government retains its hold over Yemen by temporarily silencing the loudest voices with money generated from the country's oil and gas reserves.
Yemen is the poorest Arab state and one of the world's least developed countries, ranking 140th out of 182 countries in a 2009 United Nations Human Development Index. It relies heavily on depleted oil resources which constitute about 90 percent of its exports. However, the World Bank has warned that the country's oil and gas revenues will plummet over the next two years and experts agree that reserves will completely run out in the next 10 years.
The country is also crippled by food and water shortages. Hunger is an increasing problem and, according to the UN, almost 40 percent of the population is malnourished. Yemen is obliged to import most of its food, while the growing of khat, a mild narcotic, appropriates almost 30 percent of the water supply.
Strings attached . With the highest birth rate in the Middle East and the population set to double over the next 20 years, Yemen is sorely in need of international aid, but until recently it has remained a remarkably low priority for western development assistance.
Western benefactors complain that the Yemeni government has misused aid in the past and the US is consequently withholding the $70 million donation it pledged at the London Summit until the Yemeni government commits to stringent aid distribution conditions.
With World Bank figures estimating that 40 percent of Yemen's population lives below the poverty line and widespread disillusionment among Yemenis toward their government, the country has become a fertile breeding ground for Al-Qaeda, who have long considered Yemen a prime location from which to launch their global operations. This was made clear when Al-Qaeda's leading strategist, Abu Mus'ab al-Suri, described Yemen as the "fundamental pillar" of jihad in his influential Call for a Global Islamic Resistance.
Concern over rising extremism in Yemen has been mounting since Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of Al-Qaeda united early last year to form A.Q.A.P.: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. However it wasn't until a Yemen-based branch of Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the foiled bomb plot on a US airliner last December that the world paid any serious attention to Yemen's problems.
At the London Summit leaders debated the extent to which they should intervene in Yemen's fight against extremism, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged comprehensive support to Yemen, whose many problems, she acknowledged, could not be solved by "military operations alone."
While Yemen's overstretched government cannot combat rising extremism alone, Western powers run a great risk of inflaming tensions should they decide to launch another "rescue mission" in the Middle East.
Yemen's foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, told the Associated Press that "there is a lot of sensitivity about foreign troops coming to Yemeni territory" and left no room for doubt that military intervention would be extremely unwelcome, saying "I'm sure that their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan will be very useful to learn from C* direct intervention complicates things."
Al-Qirbi has stated that Yemen's government would welcome Western aid in the form of help establishing more counterterrorism units, training, and logistical support, "but not in any other capacity."
Yemen is the latest in a line of countries chosen by Al-Qaeda to set up bases in. Similar conditions have existed in all the places in which Al-Qaeda has based its operations, including Afghanistan, Sudan, and Somalia; all failed states with a weak or non-existent government.
Examining the largely negative impact that Western intervention has had on each may provide clues as to how the growing threat of extremism should be tackled in Yemen.
First seen in Trends magazine.
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