By: Cameron Becker
On January 27 2011, inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands took to the streets of Sanaa, the capital city of Yemen, in protest of the Yemeni government. Since then, a power struggle between pro and anti-government factions has resulted in violent strife and political instability. The Yemeni government’s violent response to peaceful demonstrations has sparked international condemnation and called into question Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33 year long rule.
Although Yemen is not the only Arab state to be swept up in political unrest, its political and social reality is somewhat different from that of Tunisia or Egypt. Suffering from a weak centralized government, conflict with rising Islamist insurgencies, dwindling resources, and widespread poverty, Yemen was in a precarious position well before protests began in January 2011. For decades, Yemen has experienced economic difficulties and internal conflicts that have plagued development efforts. Conflict in Yemen has, in fact, been a reality for decades. Following unification between the predominantly Shi’ia north and Sunni south in 1990, civil war broke out between opposing factions. Since that time, violent insurgencies have taken place in both the north and south. With the Yemeni government preoccupied with the current unrest, insurgent groups are taking advantage of the compromised security situation, pushing their political message on a particularly vulnerable population.
Thought to be approximately 300 members strong, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is gaining influence in the tribal areas of Southern Yemen. On May 29, a group of militants which included members of al-Qaeda took control of several towns in the southern state of Abyan. Following this seizure, many were concerned that al-Qaeda’s expanding influence could spell disaster for Yemeni security. Al-Qaeda in Yemen has also been a threat to the US and much of the western world since 2000, when an al-Qaeda suicide bomber attacked the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden. More recently, on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Abdulmutallab nearly succeeded in blowing up a bomb placed inside his underwear on a flight destined to Detroit. Umar Abdulmutallab was trained and recruited by al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Beyond security, Yemen also faces significant economic challenges. Despite being situated on the resource-rich Persian Gulf and surrounded by some of the wealthiest Arab states, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East with a GDP just above that of the Gaza Strip. Yemen’s population lives off barely US $2 a day and its unemployment rate is the highest in the Middle East at 35%. Making the situation worse, Yemen’s population is expected to double within the next 20 years, but the relatively small oil reserves upon which 75% of Yemen’s economy relies, is expected to run dry as early as 2017.
In recent years, Yemen has also experienced significant problems related to a lack of fresh water. Yemen is, in fact, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world with only 44% of the population having access to fresh water. Given that 64% of Yemen’s workforce is employed in the agricultural sector, water is an extremely important economic commodity. Yet, despite this, Yemen’s primary crop is Khat; a mild stimulant that has no nutritional value and is almost entirely un-exportable because it spoils so quickly. This means that the majority of Yemen’s workforce relies on a crop that consumes a great deal of Yemen’s water resources, but has little-to-no economic value beyond domestic markets.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a bloc of Yemen’s wealthy oil exporting neighbors, have made numerous pleas to the beleaguered Yemeni leader to step down and allow for a peaceful democratic transition to commence. Thus far, Saleh has refused to relinquish power, arguing that doing so would incite civil war. In May, Saleh was injured in a rocket attack on the presidential compound. As a result, he was forced to undergo surgery in Saudi Arabia to remove shrapnel from his chest. This news was met with celebration in the streets of Sanaa, as many consider this to be Saleh’s “unofficial departure” from Yemeni politics. While Saleh’s aids remain adamant that he will return to Yemen following his surgery, it is possible that Saudi Arabia – a key ally to Yemen – will not allow Seleh to return, out of concern that this would encourage further unrest in the Arab Peninsula.
Regionally, Yemen represents an extremely fragile state on the borders of some of the wealthiest oil producing Arab states. Internationally, Yemen now represents a safe-haven for international militant groups, in particularly al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who are able to recruit, train and launch attacks on targets around the world. As the situation in Yemen worsens, the world can ill afford to let this country turn into another Afghanistan. At very least, state collapse in Yemen could have serious regional repercussions in the form of a refugee crisis. International and regional support for a peaceful transition to democracy is therefore an absolute necessity. With a country so divided along political, tribal and geographic lines, peaceful coexistence will ultimately require some form of power-sharing arrangement. It is only after political stability is established that related economic and social factors can be addressed through meaningful development efforts.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.