In early 2011, Yemenis took to the streets in protest, calling for the resignation of president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. This uprising came in the wake of similar popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. After nearly three decaeds under Saleh'sl rule, the anti-government opposition in Yemen is severly disorganized, without clear leadership and mired in internal discord. The Yemen military also has divided loyalties and interests, which adds to the difficulty in identifying a path to new government that will be broadly accpeted by citizens.
Yemen has also been home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which fuels concerns that prolonged civil unrest in Yemen could result in a failed state, akin to nearby Somalia. Yemen is already one of the poorest nations in the Middle East, with high percentages of unemployed youth and few future prospects.
Photo by AP, Muhammed Muheisen
The wave of rebellion cascading across the Middle East in 2011, has swept into Yemen like a tidal wave. However, the uprisings in Yemen are more complex than those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Yemen is a state plagued by poverty, over-population, civil divisions and internal conflict that has festered through neglect and self-defeating foreign policies by the government of President Saleh.
Believed to be the home of the Queen of Sheba, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and a potentially failed state that lies in a strategic location on the southernmost end of the Arabian Peninsula, at the access point to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Yemen is located at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and was divided into two separate countries until they united in 1990. North Yemen came under control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 1500’s. In 1918, following Turkey’s defeat in World War I, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was established with a strong Islamic influence.
England took control of the southern and western areas, establishing the Aden protectorate in 1839, including the strategic port city of Aden. With the opening of the Suez Canal, Aden’s importance grew.
In 1967, England withdrew under pressure from communist insurgents and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) was established as a Marxist state. Subsequently, the North and South engaged in intermittent warfare, low-intensity conflict and endured continual internal strife, as the YAR and Saudi Arabia have disputed border territories.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the two countries united as the Republic of Yemen. Fundamentalist Islamic groups vehemently opposed unification, secular rule and westernization.
During the Gulf War in 1991, Yemen supported Iraq politically, but not militarily. In reprisal, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait expelled as many as one million Yemeni workers. These Yemenis and their families had relied on remittances for their welfare. Yemen was then faced an influx of another million Yemenis returning from Somalia. As a result, unemployment skyrocketed, inflation has run rampant and deep-rooted animosities have surfaced.
Rebel activity and border conflicts with Saudi Arabia have impeded Yemen’s ability to more fully develop oil reserves in the North, leaving the country mired in economic disarray. Yemen’s oil refining industry has relied on crude from Iraq and Kuwait, both of which sources dried up after the Gulf War. Meanwhile, the US slashed its economic aid by nearly 90%, further fueling the fires of discontent and sparking the growth of the Fundamentalist Islamic movement.
Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled since 1978, despite numerous attempts to overthrow him and regular secessionist activity. In 1994, civil war erupted between the North and South, but the teetering regime survived, although lingering resentment remained. Southerners perceive they are subjected to political, economic and cultural domination by northerners. However, Yemen also faces discord in the North.
The Al-Houthi Revolt in the North
Fighting broke out in Northern Yemen in 2004, when militants from the Al Houthi family took up arms. The Al-Houthi’s are a religious clan, known as the Zaydi, allegedly descended from the prophet Muhammad, that believes they have been marginalized by the Yemen government. Their organization, the Organization of Youthful Believers rejects the legitimacy of the Yemeni government and opposes the regime of President Saleh.
To quell the insurgency, President Saleh launched Operation Scorched Earth, which led to calls by human rights groups for investigations of atrocities by both the regime and the insurgents. This operation included major military intervention by Saudi Arabian forces, supporting the Yemeni government. The battle area was littered with landmines and over 250,000 people were reportedly displaced by the fighting, prompting humanitarian aid from the UN and US. Another in a series of ceasefires was agreed to. In 2010, fighting resumed, though at lower levels.
Turmoil in the South
Civil unrest in Yemen’s south reemerged in 2007. Southern yemen is predominantly Shi'a, while the more prosperous North is mostly Sunni. This type of inequity is typical of sveral states in the Mid-East. Civil servants and military officers from the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) began protesting low salaries and lack of promised-pensions. The movement spread to the general populace opposing President Saleh and his cronies. Demands included equality, decentralization, and a greater share of state welfare.
Southerners accused Saleh’s government of selling off valuable southern land to northerners with links to the regime and have alleged that oil revenues from oil extraction in the south, is diverted to northern provinces. The southern port city of Aden has deteriorated, as southerners complain of corruption by military governors with close ties to the president.
“After more than three years, calls for southern autonomy and secession have grown louder, though observers have described southern demands as more of a cacophony, and competition among southern elites has forestalled the creation of a unified agenda to redress grievances with the central, northern-Yemen dominated government in Sana’a.” (CRS)
The discontent is driven by the Southern Mobility Movement (SMM or, in Arabic, Al Harakat al Janubi) which demands greater local autonomy or outright secession. The leader, a former associate of Saleh, is Shaykh Tariq al Fadhli. He has vowed to win the battle for secession. In 2010, President Saleh survived an assassination attempt while traveling in the South.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US has taken a renewed interest in Yemen, seeking Saleh’s cooperation in the war on terror. Yemen is probably the home or base for more al-Qaeda members than any country other than Afghanistan.
In recent years, Yemen has received $20-25 million annually in total U.S. foreign aid. In FY2010, Yemen received $58.4 million in aid. The Defense Department has also provided Yemen’s security forces with $150 million worth of training and equipment for FY2010. For FY2011, the Obama Administration requested $106 million in U.S. economic and military assistance to Yemen. Critics argue that this aid is too little, too late and that the international community has ignored a deteriorating situation.
Photo by AP, Muhammed Muheisen
Saleh is left in a seemingly untenable situation, caught between multiple adversaries – Islamist militants, the US, Saudis and the economic realities of a desperate country. Half of Yemen’s population is under fifteen; almost all are disadvantaged with little hope, except that promised by militant Islam. It’s estimated there may be as many as 80 million weapons in Yemen, many in the hands of those with fighting experience in Afghanistan, Somalia, or right at home in Yemen.
The popular uprisings in 2011 forced President Saleh to agree to step down in 2013, but he has previously made and broken such promises in the past. It's unclear whether Yemen could create a government acceptable to both the north and the south, while it’s doubtful that either north or south could survive and prosper independently. It's far more likely that Yemen will descend further into conflict and possible civil war.