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Yemen: snake-dancing skills and green dollar bills.


"RULING YEMEN," THE COUNTRY'S STALWART president Ali Abdullah Saleh once declared, "is like dancing on the heads of snakes." Now engaged in a controversial waltz with the US, the long-surviving leader is being required to demonstrate his adroitness at negotiating Yemen's intrepid political terrain as never before. Since a Yemen-based Al Qaeda network, referred to as Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), claimed responsibility for planning the failed Christmas Day bomb attack on a Detroit-bound plane, jittery British and American government leaders have fixed their attention on Yemen, heralding a new era of unprecedented international interest and interference.

In the days following the attack, Washington was firm in its resolve to take a more direct approach in assisting the Yemeni government in tackling its security issues. Barack Obama, speaking at a press conference a week later, insisted that AQAP would be held to account, promising the US would increase support for counter-terrorism operations by increasing US funding and training to local security forces and assisting in strikes against AQAP. On the same day, CENTCOM commander General Petraeus flew to Yemen for talks with President Saleh, where he pledged to double security aid from $70m to more than $150m. The UK also announced that it would step up its current counter-terror funding and increase aid to Yemen to 100m [pounds sterling] by 2011.

Some experts maintain that increasing international counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen are a positive and critical development for its government. The country's porous borders and weak state, undermined by insurgency in the north and secessionist movements in the south, has made it an ideal point of expansion away from the Afghan-Pakistan border for Al Qaeda's middle tier.

The formation of AQAP in January 2009, following the fleeing of Al Qaeda members from Saudi Arabia, has been taken as a sign of the shifting of Yemen to a more central position in Al Qaeda's global machinations.

Saleh is said to have welcomed promises of increased international aid for much-needed economic reform to prevent imminent economic collapse and the implosion of his limited power base in the north.

Although the key to Saleh's political survival for the last 19 years has, in no small part, been his ability to co-opt a fragmented and parasitic elite of disparate tribal pretensions through patronage and divide-and-rule tactics, the rapid depletion of Yemen's oil supply has rendered such an arrangement no longer sustainable. Oil production has plummeted by 27% to only 320,600 barrels a day (b/d) since peaking in 2001. The World Bank has predicted that oil and gas revenues will crash to zero by 2017 as supplies dry up. And, since oil production constitutes 90% of the country's merchandise exports, and delivers the government, on average, 75% of its yearly revenue, such depletion threatens to seriously jeopardise Saleh's already precarious power balance.

Double-edged sword

The impending threat of a bloody scramble for control of drying-out resources has prompted claims that the only way to prevent the economic and political collapse of Yemen is through drastic internationally backed anti-corruption reforms.

Experts argue that only by wresting control of large portions of revenue and assets from the hands of Yemen's select few, will government be able to develop the country economically and so deal with the manifold problems regarding depleting resources and grinding poverty.

It is clear American and British assistance is a double-edged sword for Saleh. Unless it is carefully and responsibly executed, western interference in counter-terrorism operations in Yemen could discredit Saleh's regime and fuel hostility towards western governments.

According to Michael Page and Alistair Harris from the research consultancy firm Pursue Ltd, "Reliance on the sorts of military strikes which have already produced dozens of civilian casualties is likely to drive radicalisation and recruitment into AQAP rather than diminish the organisation's capabilities. This is a lesson previously identified in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The alienation of civilians and tribal leaders in targeted areas could spell serious trouble for Saleh, whose grip on power is already being eroded by rebellions elsewhere. The country's harsh topography has promoted the evolution of isolated tribal settlements, protective of their political autonomy and hostile to the ascendancy of central government in the north, a reality Saleh has had to contend with since becoming president of the Yemen Arab Republic following the merger between north and south in 1990.

In the intervening years, the president has failed to consolidate his control over the southern region, where his inability to appease demobilised troops with adequate pensions and alleviate poverty sparked a secessionist movement in April 2009 which continues to rage. Saleh has also struggled to contain insurgency, which started in the northern area of Sa'dah in 2004 when the dissident cleric Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi, head of the Shia Zaidiyyah sect, started an uprising against the government in Sana'a. There is considerable fear that--as a result of excesses on the part of Yemen's internationally backed security forces--rebellious movements at both ends of the country might feel forced into coordinating with AQAP for their survival.

According to expert observers: "The deliberate targeting of the Yemeni security forces by AQAP in recent months is designed to tap into a wider Yemeni grievance narrative, which is fuelled by allegations of security forces' excesses in counter-terrorism operations, i.e. the conduct of the Houthi conflict in the north, and in facing the southern secessionists."

In view of such dangers, international pressure for intensified attacks on suspected AQAP strongholds is a development that Saleh will struggle with. The president has demonstrated a predilection for negotiating with terrorists. His record of engagement with political jihadists dates back to the 1980s, when he welcomed back tens of thousands of Yemeni mujahedeen from the war in Afghanistan after Soviet withdrawal. He sought their assistance in putting down socialist rebellion when civil war first broke out in 1994, striking deals with a number of notorious Islamist clerics and political figures, including Sheikh Abdulmajeed Al Zendani, who has since been identified as a 'specially designated global terrorist' by the US.

Despite being pressured by the US into demonstrating a zero-tolerance policy on terrorists following Al Qaeda's attack on the US destroyer, USS Cole, in Yemen in 2000 and the 11 September attacks in New York the following year, Saleh has shown a marked reluctance to sever all dialogue with terrorist elements at home. In 2002, he reacted angrily to the Pentagon's leaking of information that Yemeni assistance resulted in the death, in a missile attack, of the alleged leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen.


Some have also pointed to the escape of 23 leading terrorist figures from a high security prison in February 2006 as evidence of state sympathies with the country's militant jihadists.

Suspicions heightened in 2007 when Jamal Al Badawi, one of the escaped fugitives imprisoned for involvement in planning the attack on USS Cole, was released after turning himself in to the authorities, ostensibly in return for his help in tracking down five other members of his cell.

Saleh's government

Although Mr Saleh has made clear since the failed Detroit-bound plane attack that he has not ruled out dialogue with Al Qaeda members who are open to negotiation and cooperation, and his foreign minister has insisted Yemen will deal with terrorism on its own terms, increased US commitment to fighting terrorism in the country, and the increasing reluctance of AQAP to engage in any compromise with the state, means the president can no longer utilise the terrorists as pawns in his own political power games.

It is unclear whether the president will be able to rise to the altered circumstances. Facing war on three fronts, an exhaustion of natural resources, an impoverished, alienated and armed population, and unable to shake off a corrupt elite that is promoting further instability and inequality, it remains to be seen whether even snake-dancing skills and US dollar bills can help Yemen's veteran leader stay in the driving seat.
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Title Annotation:CURRENT AFFAIRS; Ali Abdullah Saleh
Author:Jacobs, Sherelle
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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