Yemen: Poorest of the poor

Nest of social and political problems lie behind the country’s turmoil

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and a largely tribal society with more problems than most. It has emerged as a new base for al-Qa’ida militants driven out of their traditional sanctuaries on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Yemen is also battling a secessionist movement in the south, an on-off rebellion in the north, and grinding poverty. Its oil reserves, which make up 70 percent of the government’s revenue, are dwindling and the nation relies on US aid. Nearly half of all Yemenis live below the poverty line and unemployment is at least 45 per cent.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom many analysts accuse of overseeing a corrupt regime that has failed to tackle economic grievances, has reacted to the unrest by backtracking on his plans to seek another term in 2013 and denying accusations that he will try to hand over power to his son. He has also promised to slash taxes and cap food prices and raise the salaries of civil servants and the military. In 2006 Mr Saleh won a seven-year term in Yemen’s first open presidential election. Observers said the poll was fair but opposition parties complained of vote rigging.

The government offered simple reforms including an increase in employees’ income, $20, and decreasing the income tax but corruption, slow and useless reforms, an increasing rate of unemployment and low income, have encouraged people in Yemen to follow the people in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria, where the high levels of poverty are actually not as bad as in Yemen. Though many Yemenis share the same grievances and frustrations driving the upheavals in those countries, Yemen’s situation has distinct features. Activists are facing numerous obstacles, straddling political, social and economic fault lines, even as they gain courage and inspiration from the momentous events unfolding in the region.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, impoverished Yemen has a small middle class and a large uneducated and illiterate population. Social networking sites such as Facebook, that helped mobilise the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, are not widely used here. Yemen’s internal security apparatus is at least as sophisticated and deeply entrenched as in Egypt; the army is staunchly loyal to Saleh, as are powerful tribes in a country where tribal allegiance is more significant than national identity. The opposition, while strong in numbers, is divided in its goals.

"There is a popular movement and a political movement in Yemen," said Khaled al-Anesi, a lawyer and human rights activist who helped organise many of the recent protests. "But there is no support from the political parties for the popular movement, which is not organised. It is still weak and in the beginning stages".

The president and his backers

President Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power in 1978, first as president of North Yemen and then as leader of the newly united republic. North Yemen and the Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen (south), merged in 1990 but fought a nasty civil war in 1994. Saleh has marginalised political opposition groups and installed relatives and allies to key political, military and internal security posts maintaining an extensive informal patronage network of tribal leaders, businessmen and clerics.

At the beginning of January, President Saleh proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow him to stand for re-election in the next presidential ballot in two years’ time. However, events in Cairo and Tunisia made that move temporarily untenable and President Saleh has promised to stand aside in 2013. (He made a similar promise before the 2006 presidential election, but eventually reversed this position.)

After 30 years in power, he faces widespread anger, complaints of corruption and the concentration of power within his tribal sub-group, the Sanhan clan. Large areas of the country are already in open revolt against his regime, with a breakaway movement in the south, attacks on the security services by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a de-facto semi-autonomous area under the control of northern rebels. Yemen has emerged as a new base for al-Qa’ida militants driven out of their traditional sanctuaries on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Western governments – worried about AQAP activity in Yemen and reluctant to deploy their own conventional military forces – are providing money and training to Yemen’s elite security and intelligence units. US special forces have helped to plan "track and kill" operations with the Yemeni military and the US has carried out several cruise missile strikes. President Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, and three nephews command these elite security and intelligence units. The president denies he intends to hand power to his son, but many Yemenis still believe he favours an eventual transfer of power within his family.

Al Qaeda

If the simmering insurrection in Yemen boils over, it has potentially dire consequences for the United States. American officials have worked closely with Yemeni leaders to stop al Qaeda from turning the country into the kind of stronghold Afghanistan was before 9/11.Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who was an adviser to President Obama on the Afghanistan-Pakistan review, said a collapse of the government in Yemen would be a major blow in the fight against terrorism.

Al Qaeda has waged a successful propaganda war in Yemen, experts said, using government corruption and Saleh’s overtures to the United States to create unrest. Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said: "We need to support the Yemeni government while they make changes but they need to make changes.”

The terrorist group merged in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to form a single organization in early 2009. It calls itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has emerged as the group’s leader. Al-Awlaki, an American of Yemeni decent, is believed to be hiding in Yemen.

He is the only American on the CIA’s list of important targets to apprehend or kill. Boucek said the people of Yemen are justifiably angry at the Saleh government. "You look at Yemen and you have a very wealthy elite in control and everybody else. Most of the population gets by on a dollar a day," he said.

That creates a dilemma for the United States, experts said — continue to back a corrupt government in an effort to deny al Qaeda a key base, or deal with the inevitable chaos if that government collapses.

The current government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh is corrupt, despotic, and presently fighting northern Shiites and separatist-minded southerners. Saleh’s government has limited influence outside of the capital. “Whoever runs the place,” according to The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, has to contend with “tribal confederations, tribes, clans, and powerful families. Almost everybody has a gun, usually at least an AK-47 assault rifle, but tribesmen often own heavier armaments.”

To make things even more complex, Yemen’s northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia, has sent troops and warplanes to back up Saleh. The Saleh government and the Saudis claim the Shia uprising is being directed by Iran – there is no evidence to back up the charge – thus escalating a local civil war to a regional face-off between Riyadh and Teheran. According to Reuters, “The conflict in Yemen’s northern mountains has killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.” Aid groups put the number of refugees at 150,000.

US imperialism’s interests

The U.S. is already in Yemen, and was so even before the attempted bombing on Christmas Day last year of a Northwest Airlines flight by a young Nigerian. For most Americans, Yemen first appeared on their radar screens when the USS Cole was attacked in the port of Aden by al-Qaeda in 2000, killing 17 sailors. It reappeared this past November when a U.S. Army officer linked to a Muslim cleric in Yemen killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Colorado. The Christmas Day attacker said he was trained by al-Qaeda, and the group took credit for the failed operation.

But U.S. involvement in Yemen goes back almost 40 years. In 1979, the Carter Administration blew a minor border incident between north and south Yemen into a full-blown East – West crisis, accusing the USSR of aggression. The White House dispatched an aircraft carrier and several warships to the Arabian Sea, and sent tanks, armoured personal carriers and warplanes to the North Yemen government.

The tension between the two Yemens was hardly accidental. According to UPI, the CIA funnelled $4 million a year to Jordan’s King Hussein to help brew up a civil war between the conservative North and the wealthier and so-called socialist south.

The merger between the two countries never quite took hold. Southern Yemenis complain that the north plunders its oil and wealth and discriminates against southerners. Demonstrations and general strikes by the Southern Movement demanding independence have increased over the past year. The Saleh government has generally responded with clubs, tear gas and guns.

When Yemen refused to back the 1991 Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait, the U.S. cancelled $70 million in foreign aid to Sanaa and supported a decision by Saudi Arabia to expel 850,000 Yemeni workers. Both moves had a catastrophic impact on the Yemeni economy that played a major role in initiating the current instability gripping the country.

In 2002 the Bush administration used armed drones to assassinate several Yemenis it accused of being al-Qaeda members. The New York Times reported that the Obama administration launched a cruise missile attack on December 17 at suspected al-Qaeda members that, according to Agence France Presse, killed 49 civilians, including 23 children and 17 women. The attack has sparked widespread anger throughout Yemen that al-Qaeda organisers have heavily exploited.

So is the current uproar over Yemen a case of a U.S. administration over-reacting and stumbling into yet another quagmire in the Middle East? Or is this talk about a “global danger” just a smokescreen to allow the Americans to prop up the increasingly isolated and unpopular regime in Saudi Arabia?

The game in play is considerably larger than the Arabian Peninsula and may have more to do with the control of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea than with hunting down al-Qaeda in the Yemeni wilderness.

The Asia Times’ M.K. Bhadrakumar, a career Indian diplomat who served in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Pakistan and Turkey, argues that the current U.S. concern with Yemen is actually about the strategic port of Aden. “Control of Aden and the Malacca Straits will put the U.S. in an unassailable position in the ‘Great Game’ of the Indian Ocean,” he writes.

Aden controls the strait of Bab el-Mandab, the entrance to the Red Sea through which passes 3.5 million barrels of oil a day. The Malacca Straits, between the southern Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is one of the key passages that link the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

“Energy security” has been at the heart of U.S. foreign policy for decades. The 1980’s “Carter Doctrine” made it explicit that the U.S. would use military force if its energy supplies were ever threatened. Whether the administration was Republican or Democrat made little difference when it came to controlling gas and oil supplies, and the greatest concentration of U.S. military forces is in the Middle East, where 60 percent of the world’s energy supplies lie.

Except for using Special Forces and supplying weapons, it is unlikely that the U.S. will intervene in a major way in Yemen. But through military aid it can exert a good deal of influence over the Sanaa government, including extracting rights for its bases.

The White House has elevated the 200 or so “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” members in Yemen into what the President calls a “serious problem,” and there are dark hints that the country is on its way to becoming a “failed state,” the green light for a more robust intervention. However, as Jon Alterman, Middle East Director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, argues, “The problems in Yemen are not fundamentally problems that military operations can solve.”

Arab autocracy under threat

Tawakel Karman, a female activist who has led several protests in Sanaaa, said on being released from detention:"We will continue until the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime". She explained that the ’Southern Movement’ in the south, the (Shia) Huthi rebels in the north and the parliamentary opposition are all calling for political change.

As Arab Royals and Arab “Presidents” peep through their palace windows, watching their nations’ unemployed and disenchanted use cell phones and laptops to communicate their daily struggles on Facebook and Twitter, a cold and forceful breeze can be felt in backstreet bazaars, university campuses and palace corridors. The breeze’s scent is not that of leather furniture and new money but rather the aroma of old suitcases and travel trunks. Could this be the end of Arab autocracy? Only time will tell.

Yemen is a country slightly smaller than France with a population of 22 million – perching on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It is the poorest country in the region, with one of the most explosive birthrates in the world. Unemployment hovers above 40 percent and projections are that its oil – which makes up 70 percent of its GDP – will run out in 2017, as will water supplies for the capital, Sanaa, in 2015.

Yemen’s economy depends heavily on oil production, and its government receives the vast majority of its revenue from oil taxes. Yet analysts predict that the country’s petroleum output, which has declined over the last seven years, will fall to zero by 2017. The government has done little to plan for its post-oil future. Yemen’s population, already the poorest on the Arabian peninsula, is expected to double by 2035. An incredible 45% of Yemen’s population is under the age of 15 and nearly 70% is less than 24. These trends will exacerbate large and growing environmental problems, including the exhaustion of Yemen’s groundwater resources. Given that a full 90% of the country’s water is used for agriculture, this trend portends disaster.

Yemen’s population has tripled since 1975 and will double again by 2035. Without a transformation of its economy through state ownership and democratic planning state revenue is forecast to decline to zero by 2017 and the capital city of Sanaaa will run out of water by 2015 – partly because 40% of Sanaaa’s water is pumped illegally in the outskirts to irrigate the narcotic ’qat’ crop.

A governmental report has revealed that there are about 1.4 million Yemeni children still outside education and unable to attend schools. The report, issued recently by the Supreme Council for Education Planning says this will mean a doubling of the number of illiterate people in the country. Widespread poverty forces parents to withdraw their children from first school grades and push them into the labour market, the report explained.

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February 2011