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The Situation Of Yemen.

Sanaa is in a peculiar position with regard to the Middle East peace process. In the early 1990s, it had been out of the group of countries associated with the peace process because of its pro-Iraq orientation during the Gulf crisis. In the period between 1991 and 1994, it was preoccupied with internal differences despite recurring rumours of secret contacts with Israel through the American Jewish community. The civil war in 1994 clarified the power balance in favour of the north, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh assumed a position of predominance in the country's political scene.

Yet he still had to share power to some extent with Al Islah, the radical Islamic movement led by Shaikh Abdullah Al Ahmar, the leader of the Hashed tribal confederation. Elections since then have reduced the clout of Al Islah in parliament, and consequently its influence on Yemeni policymaking. President Saleh is now surrounded by some efficient technocrats who are capable of appreciating the realities of the post-Cold War era and making the necessary adjustments to Yemen's geo-political orientation. There are still Islamists in Yemen's decision-making circles, but they are not in a position to take unilateral measures that may affect Sanaa's growing links with the US.

One of the foremost conditions for improving relations with the US is to acknowledge its main policy pillars - the Middle East peace process, economic liberalisation, opposition to radical Islam and silence on the issue of sanctions against Iraq. Yemen has fallen in line with these conditions, for the most part. Sanaa has demonstrated willingness to improve relations with Israel, and discreet but official contacts between the two sides have taken place over the past year.

Yemen's links with the US include defence co-operation, with Washington's top commander in the region Gen. Anthony Zinni having visited Yemen last year. There have been rumours that Sanaa may permit the US to use the strategically located island of Socotra, at the entrance to the Red Sea as a military base. The possibility of such co-operation precludes any chance that Islamists will come to power in Yemen in the foreseeable future. For its part, the US supports Yemen's economic liberalisation moves and President Saleh's efforts to improve socio-economic conditions in the country.

However, Yemen has unique characteristics that make it prone to instability. Unlike the other GCC countries, Yemen has a large population of well-armed tribesmen with strong pro-Islamic leanings. They are virtually autonomous as the writ of the central government does not exceed far beyond urban boundaries. The tribes can be organised into fighting groups at short notice, and they can present a formidable challenge to opponents, especially if they are fighting on their own territories.

The best example of this was during the 1994 civil war when the tribesmen took the side of President Saleh. Many observers noted that the north would not have won the war within two months, if the tribes had taken a different approach. Saleh knows all this and deals with the tribes with sensitivity and caution. Often the preferred tactic of the central government is to get the tribes to behave by offering economic incentives. This approach should get easier as revenues from Yemen's hydrocarbon resources increase in the coming years.
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Title Annotation:economic and religious policy
Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 17, 2000
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Next Article:Bahrain - The Islamist Threat Has Been Dealt With.

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