Free Aden

Towards The Liberation of South Arabia

Yemen Faces Specter of Anarchy

Posted by FREE ADEN on September 11, 2009

President of Arab Republic of Yemen - Ali Abduallah Saleh Al Ahmer

President of Arab Republic of Yemen - Ali Abduallah Saleh Al Ahmer

By Patrick Seale…

In power for more than 30 years, Field Marshal Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen‘s veteran president, is battling for his political life. He has ruled the north since 1978, and the whole country since 1990, but the problems now assailing him from all sides are the worst he has ever had to deal with.

Many of the problems he faces have roots in the key events of Yemen’s often violent past – in particular, the overthrow of the theocratic Zaidi Imamate by a republican coup in 1962, and the union in 1990 of North Yemen, ruled by Saleh’s People’s Conference Party, with South Yemen, then ruled by the Socialist Party. The union has not been altogether successful.

One might say that history has caught up with the embattled Saleh. The South is once again clamouring to secede from the union and establish its own independent state, under the leadership of Ali Salem Al Beid, a former president of the southern region.

Heading the pressure for secession is the so-called Peaceful Southern Mobilisation Movement, which is clearly not as peaceful as its name suggests. Indeed, the south appears to be arming itself in preparation for a new confrontation. This summer has seen a spate of violent demonstrations against the government in Sana’a – and, in response, a violent crackdown by authorities.

An enemy of the central government who is at least as dangerous is Abd Al Malik Al Huthi, leader of a rebel movement in the north of the country, which has been battling the government on and off since 2004. Al Malik’s relative, Hussain Al Huthi, the first leader of the movement, was killed in the early months of the rebellion. Saleh has vowed to crush the rebels, accusing the Al Huthis of wanting to destroy the Republic and restore the Zaidi Imamate.

This month, he sent his army on a punitive expedition against the northern rebels – Operation Scorched Earth – which, according to Aboudou Karimou Adjibade, the Unicef’s representative in Yemen, has led to the flight, in great distress, of more than 100,000 people, many of them children. The UNHCR in Geneva says that, in the rebel stronghold of Sa’ada, capital of Yemen‘s northernmost province on the Saudi border, 35,000 people have fled their homes in the past two weeks alone. The UN World Food Programme airlifted 40 tonnes of high-energy biscuits to Yemen last week to feed the refugees. But access to them is difficult because of the fighting.

Government troops, backed by aircraft and artillery, have tried to open the roads to Sa’ada, which the rebels had managed to block. But the rebels still control the mountains overlooking the town. This is the worst outbreak of violence in Yemen since the 1994 war of secession. Casualties are said to be very great.

Although the Al Huthis are Zaidis – a branch of Shiite Islam – it is not clear whether they really aspire to restore the Imamate or are simply rebelling against what they consider unfair treatment and economic discrimination by Sana’a. They are certainly demanding a degree of autonomy.

In any event, the conflict is threatening to draw in outside powers. Yemen’s Information Minister Ahmad Al Lawzi has indirectly accused Iran of supporting the Al Huthi rebels, while the Yemeni army has claimed to have captured Iranian-made weapons – including machine-guns, short-range rockets and ammunition.

These uprisings in the north and south have caught Saleh and his government at a difficult moment. Oil production at about 320,000 barrels daily is dwindling. The fall in oil prices has hit the country hard. A population growth rate of well over three per cent – the highest in the Middle East – is expected to boost the population from 18 million at present to 35 million in 2029, exacerbating social and economic problems.

A perennial Yemeni problem is the production of qat, a drug to which many Yemenis are addicted. It is a major source of tax revenue, but also a source of great corruption. It also contributes to Yemen‘s grave water shortage.

If this were not enough, Yemen appears to have attracted Al Qaida cells, including the one responsible for the bombing of USS Cole in the port of Aden in October 2000, which killed 17 US sailors. Many suspected Al Qaida operatives were rounded up and jailed, but in February 2006, 23 of them – including those believed responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole – managed to escape by tunnelling out of prison. Among those who escaped was Nasser Al Wahayshi, a former secretary of Osama Bin Laden, who is thought to be the leader of the Al Qaida in Yemen.

Reports suggest that cells in Yemen and Saudi Arabia have united to form Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula raising fears of Yemen being a terrorist haven.

Yemen may need the mediation of neighbouring countries – including the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia and even Iran – to help it resolve its internal conflicts. Above all, it urgently needs help for health, education, economic development and job creation.

USAID is this year providing Yemen with the paltry sum of $24 million (Dh88.08 million), in scandalous contrast to the billions being wasted by the US on unwinnable and unnecessary wars.


Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.


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