The Case of Yemen

23 03 2011

Yemen

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s grip on power grew even more tenuous this week, as top generals, politicians and tribal leaders defected to the opposition. The news of the defections was met by the protestors with jubilation. At this rate, the question of Saleh losing power has shifted from “if” to “when”.  However, this Machiavellian politician has managed to stay in office for three decades and his survival skills should not be underestimated.

Right now, Yemen appears to be following the lead of the Tunisia and Egypt; other countries that managed to overthrow despots who had ruled for decades.  But even if Yemen manages to shake off Saleh and his regime, the country still faces monumental challenges in the days ahead. These issues need to be addressed immediately and a prolonged conflict could spell doom for this Arab nation.

Before the Arab revolution, Yemen was dealing with rebels in the north and separatists in the south. The country will be out of oil and water in ten years. There is a strong al-Qaeda presence. Now we can add widespread political unrest to the list. Complicating matters is the fact that Yemen shares a border with Saudi Arabia. For our purposes, these are the relevant facts.

Timeline

Ali Abdullah Saleh was selected by parliament to be president of North Yemen in 1978. North and South Yemen were united in 1990. In January 2011, protests erupted in the capital, Sana’a. The protests continued throughout February, with demonstrators demanding Saleh step down. On March 18, up to 50 protestors were gunned down in the capital by men believed to be regime loyalists. The killing of the protestors seemed to mark a turning point, as several major figures (tribal leaders, generals, high-level politicians and diplomats) began siding with the opposition.

The biggest hit to the regime came with the defection of Major General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. It is now believed that at least half the army is with the opposition. There have been reports of army soldiers clashing with loyalist Republican Guards, which are led by Saleh’s son Ahmed.  General Ahmar has sent forces to protect the protestors from the state, similar to the role the military played in Egypt.

Tribes

Like Libya, Yemen has a strong tribal presence. Some major tribal leaders have begun defecting to the opposition, but it is unclear how they would fair in a democracy. The tribes wield a tremendous amount of power, which is sure to be diluted in the installation of a true representative government in Yemen.  Saleh may not be much of a leader, but he might be the only force capable of holding the country together. Yemen could fragment along tribal lines if and when Saleh steps down or is removed.

Saleh

Saleh’s deft political maneuvering is what has kept him in power for over thirty years. Many factions have been upset with him during that period, just not all at the same time.  Saleh was a master of juggling alliances to keep enemies at bay to remain in office. When threatened by one group gaining too much power, he would prop up another group to balance things out, and the next month he would do the opposite. Saleh made sure that no faction grew too strong or too weak, and somehow he always managed to come out on top.

Externally, he was almost as skillful. Yemen borders Saudi Arabia, and Saleh was able to play on Saudi paranoia of Iran to guarantee support from the Kingdom. Saleh’s diplomatic overtures to Iran would be countered by Saudi Arabia, who would use its influence with the Yemeni tribes to help the Saleh avoid trouble and remain in power. He used the same strategy with the United States, always playing on fears of Al-Qaeda to extract aid and support from Washington.

Challenges

Yemen is in rough shape. It is already the poorest country in the Middle East, with unemployment around 35%. Three quarters of government revenue comes from oil, which is expected to run out within the decade.

During that same time, Yemen is also predicted to be the first country to run out of water. There are two main reasons for this: drought and qat. Nothing can be done about the drought, but problems from qat are manmade.

Qat is a mildly-narcotic plant whose leaves are chewed for the desired stimulant effect. It’s use in Yemen is rampant, especially in men. The usefulness of the plant is debatable (life in Yemen is hard and it’s natural for people to look for an escape), but its effects on the environment are undeniable. The plant sucks up an atrocious amount of water yet bares no fruit, only the leaves.  But try telling that to the people who grow it, who have no other sources for earning an income for their families.

Qat farming is one of the only viable industries in Yemen and the use of water in its cultivation takes an enormous toll on the nation’s aquifer. Hundreds of illegal wells have been dug and used up dry. Competition for water sources is fierce and is often the cause of violence.  This will continue to be a growing problem for Yemen, especially with a guns per capita ratio second only to the United States.

To make matters worse, the state is using oil to fuel water pumps and desalinization plants. Running out of oil or water would be a disaster for any country. Running out of both at the same time could be fatal. Yemen faces the possibility of running out of water, its largest natural resource and supplier of government revenues (oil), and its only major crop and employer (the qat industry) all at the same time.

Conclusion

Whatever results come from the protests, Yemen faces a historic catastrophe in the not-too-distant future. Any government that comes out of the turmoil will have to address these problems immediately, and should seek support from the international community to do so.

 

 

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