Yemen: On the Brink

Global Centre Stage

An unstable Yemen is a regional as much as an international problem. Even though the country seems more likely to muddle through the crisis than collapse, it will remain a place that will need long-term regional and international support, insist Robert Sharp and Murad Alazzany

Yemen’s 2011 Arab Spring1 revolution claimed over 2,000 lives2 and ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years3 of dictatorship. Passing power, Saleh claimed immunity for his family and associates.4 The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative and Implementation Mechanism5 signed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 21, 2011, facilitated Saleh’s immunity and set conditions for a new Yemen. The mechanism’s three phases formed a Yemeni National Unity government representing the General People’s Congress6 (GPC) and the Joint Meeting Party7 (JMP) – 50 percent nominated from each – and also a National Dialogue Conference (NDC)8 to garner issues for resolution in later stages. The intent was a presidential election at the end of the first phase, a new constitution referendum and then parliamentary elections later.

The draft constitution9 angered factions, particularly the Houthis, who moved from politics into violence and occupied Sana’a, imprisoning President Hadi and his cabinet. Hadi is now running the country from the old Presidential Palace in Aden, south Yemen, and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh still meddles in Yemeni business.10 Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to destabilise the country.11 Yemen is on the brink.

On the Verge of Disintegration

On February 6, the Houthi Zaidi12 faction announced a Constitutional Declaration13and claimed power. President Hadi and his government resigned.14 Despite valiant negotiation efforts by UN Special Yemen Envoy, Dr Jamal Benomar, the Houthis lost faith in what they feel is a corrupt government,15in the planned new constitution and with the intent to divide Yemen into six smaller states under federal control.16 Houthis consider the Constitution unacceptable. It appears former President Saleh has been orchestrating the actions of the Houthis.17 He wishes to destabilise the country to allow his ‘Saleh Junta’ to rise from the ashes and seize control.

Up to the start of March 2015, the Houthis had acquired by force a large western swathe of Yemen creating ‘Houthistan.’18 Equipped with tanks and heavy weapons,19 they have 100,000 men under arms20 and constitute a force sufficient enough to engage in open battles with Yemen’s Army. AQAP hold some parts of Abyan Province where they provide non-voluntary governance and thus encourage the ideal environment for radicalisation among disadvantaged youth. The youth – like most of Yemen’s population – suffer high unemployment and high illiteracy. They are depressed about their future. Additionally, Yemen is running out of oil because exploration has been prevented due to poor security. Sana’a is likely to be the world’s first dry capital by 2050;21 the water table is descending annually through mismanagement and also by over usage through flood watering of Qat fields.

AQAP is fighting the Houthis. The Islah22 party – Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood – were active in the early stages of the power struggle, but have recently retreated into insignificance. The GPC remains strong, but is always in constant conflict with the JMP. Most Yemenis believe both the GPC and JMP have lost touch with the intent of the GCC mechanism.23 The situation is very tense and armed groups patrol the capital Sana’a. The Houthis are forging links with Iran, Russia and China.24 The American Embassy – like many others – has been evacuated and many countries aligned with the West have established formal links to ‘Hadi in Exile.’ Unless Yemen’s leaders devise a plan to get the transition back on track, the GCC effort is moribund and Yemen will disintegrate. President Hadi’s escape to Aden has changed the situation as he is no longer under threat, but if politics cannot drive a way forward, Yemen will either be in civil war, polarised and divided into the former north and south, or just splintered into multiple combative statelets.

Urgent Need: Coordinated Regional and International Efforts

Yemen’s domestic context is complex and aggravated by a range of social challenges. It is also negatively influenced by regional and international actors. A non-GCC member, Yemen has always been viewed as the poor child of the Peninsula, and the GCC has no plans for adoption.25 Yemen’s borders are porous to Oman and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are building a wall to keep the Houthis, violent over-spill and revolution, out. They have previously been extremely generous with aid to Yemen26 and if that were not the case, Yemen would have collapsed long ago. Yemen needs jobs now to bolster its collapsing economy.

When former President Saleh supported Saddam Hussein with his invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the GCC determined Yemen an irritant; 500,000 Yemeni jobs in Saudi Arabia were lost. Yemen could not absorb the loss of the largesse that occurred then and could not find replacement employment. Yemen has not recovered.

Other GCC countries have provided aid, most notably UAE and Qatar. Outside the region, the support has been mixed. American aid and support to special operations forces in the past were used as resources by Saleh to prop up his regime. The US retains an interest in Yemen because of AQAP; two underwear bombers and a printer cartridge bomb demonstrate capability and intent for attack. It considers AQAP the most dangerous terror group active on the planet.27 Their recent Paris attack against the Charlie Hebdo magazine28 proves it. The US is currently more focussed on Daesh (ISIS), but AQAP remain a clear and present danger.

The US is pivoting into the Indian Ocean region in an attempt to police that ungoverned space and has forged stronger relations with existing allies, Australia and Japan, and also reached out to China and India, the region’s rising powers. The US understands that it will draw ever more energy resources from Africa and the Middle East to feed its growing economy. The flow of those resources through the Strait of Hormuz and also through the Suez Canal around the Bab el-Mandeb and into the Arabian Sea means that a stable Yemen is in American interests.

With the Houthis distracting AQAP, the US has left them alone. There is linkage to Iran, proof of arming,29 but Yemeni think of Houthis as rebels rather than proxy Iranians. The UN has been active throughout publishing multiple resolutions and most recently, Resolution 2201 concerning the Houthis. The role of UN Special Envoy, Dr Jamal Benomar, has retained Yemen’s stability. There appear to be no GCC, American or UN plans to intervene to save the peace.

Power Vacuum: Worldwide Implications of the Fragile Security Situation

Yemen is the place where coffee was first refined at Mocha and from where the Arab world originated before it migrated north. Yemen is steeped in history and a beautiful country with wonderful people. Sitting astride the Bab el Mandeb, its strategic location could support stability across the Arabian Sea and provide a block to the currently unfettered Somali pirates. Yemen’s security forces not only possess valuable counter-piracy maritime knowledge, but also counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency experience.

If Yemen falls to dust,30 it would quickly be a breeding ground for violent extremists; there is some suggested linkage in Yemen between AQAP and Daesh.31 AQAP have sworn to attack American, Middle Eastern and European targets and will not stop their campaign until suppressed or destroyed. Their military capability can be eroded, but not their ideas;32 solutions rest in longer-term soft power to address root causes.

An unstable Yemen is a regional as much as an international problem. A power vacuum in Yemen – if a new deal cannot be reached and maintained – will attract GCC and American interests. Boots on the ground are unlikely; Yemen’s instability generates raised eyebrows, but not plans for intervention. Violent extremists migrate to fight in ungoverned spaces and the next moderate-extremist battlefield might be Yemen.

For now, it is likely that Yemen will have to muddle through; even Syria and Iraq are not tipping interest despite the violence. Yemenis have unusually high capacity for trauma. The state functions despite significant destabilisation. A regional and international watch-and-see approach is most likely, until Daesh appear on the menu. Groups will jockey for power yet keeping their eyes on the moods of external actors. Yemen seems more likely to muddle through than collapse, but it will remain a place that will need long-term support.

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Robert (Bob) Sharp & Murad Alazzany

Robert (Bob) Sharp is an associate professor, the UAE National Defense College Associate Dean for Academic Programs and College Quality Assurance Advisor.

Murad Alazzany is an assistant professor in the department of English Studies at Sana’a University, Yemen. The views expressed in the article are the authors and do not represent the views, opinion or policy of the UAE, Yemen or US governments.

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