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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The case of Bahrain

18 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

As protests erupt across North Africa and the Middle East, the tiny island nation of Bahrain is seeing its share of unrest. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital Manama to protest against a regime that is viewed by many as oppressive and discriminatory. Bahrain seems to be following the examples set by Egypt and Tunisia, who have each toppled longtime rulers.

As an Arab country seeking a democracy, Bahrain appears to have much in common with other nations in the region that are facing unrest. But its sectarian makeup and geographic position make it a special case, especially for the United States.

Bahrain is an island that sits off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.  It was a part of the Persian Empire until it achieved independence in 1783. Today, it is the home of America’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The country’s Sunni majority rules over a Shiite minority. For our purposes, these are the key facts.

BahrainBahrain

Shia outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain 2 to 1. However, the country is ruled by Sunnis who occupy the upper echelon positions in military and government.  Sunnis are aware that toppling the regime means toppling their cushy position in Bahraini society and as a result, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it is unlikely that the military will side with the protesters. In the past 24 hours, we have seen an up-tick in violence, with soldiers opening fire on demonstrators. The state-sponsored use of violence will likely only add fuel to the fire of the rebels, but don’t look for the regime to go down without a fight. As said, Egypt and Tunisia had the help of the military, and it is unlikely that any of the revolutionary movements taking place in the region today would get far without it. Right now, the protesters in Bahrain don’t have it and aren’t likely to get it.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are concerned with growing Shiite (and therefore Iranian) influence. As mentioned, Bahrain is two-thirds Shiite and Iran is almost entirely Shiite. Saudi Arabia has its own population of Shiites, though not as many as Bahrain and Iran. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s Shia population lives in the oil-rich eastern provinces, which happen to border Bahrain. If the regime in Manama falls giving way to a Shia dominated government, Iran is clearly a beneficiary, as the Islamic Republic would then have an ally right off the coast of its biggest rival in the region.

Saudi Arabia was already concerned with creeping Iranian influence before this mess, going as far as taking sides with Israel against the Persians and supporting the Yemeni government in their war against Shia Houthi rebels near their common border.  The current unrest has to be deeply troubling for The Kingdom, and it is rumored that Riyadh has dispatched security/intelligence advisors to Bahrain to aid in the crackdown and to report back events on the ground.

United States

The United States is in a tricky position. The Obama administration wants to be “on the right side of history”, but Washington has proved over the last few weeks that it has a hard time deciding what exactly that is. When it comes to old allies, the United States prefers the status quo.

This was true in Egypt, but when it became clear that the Mubarak regime was falling America had to readjust to the reality on the ground and support the protesters in their pursuit of democracy. Washington will take the same approach to Bahrain, as the American public has a soft spot in their hearts for the image of besieged patriots trying to overthrow a king.  But the strategic implications of the Shiite majority taking power in Bahrain is likely causing sleepless nights for the officials who are paid to worry about such things.

As mentioned, America’s Fifth Fleet is parked in Bahrain. The Fleet represents US power projection in the region and sends the message to state actors and non-state actors alike that American bombers, fighters, warships, and Marines are never that far away. If a Shiite regime that is allied with Iran takes power in Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet will quickly find itself in need of relocation, with few options*.

*Slim pickens here. Saudi Arabia is out, because stashing US warships in the Custodian of the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina is controversial to say the least. Iran is out for obvious reasons, though it would be funny to ask. Oman or Qatar could do it, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Kuwait is the most likely choice, as “they owe us one” for repelling Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I.

Along with Bahrain and the Saudis, the United States is also concerned with creeping Iranian influence (see Lebanon and Iraq). The US economy depends on the free flow of oil, much of it originating in the Persian Gulf, and maintaining the flow of oil is a key national security goal of the United States.  America is playing a zero sum game with Iran, where any gain by Tehran is seen as a loss for Washington. And a Shiite revolution in Bahrain would be seen as a huge win for Iran.

 





Saudi border war with Yemeni Shia

24 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Yemeni government, is waging a quiet and fierce war against Shia tribesmen located near their shared border in the Saada region of northwest Yemen.

Tensions have been building for months, but the conflict erupted after two Saudi border guards were allegedly murdered by Yemeni Houthis in a cross-border raid in the remote region of southwestern Saudi Arabia. Since then the Saudi air force has been pounding  Houthi rebel sites across the border in Yemen.

The rebels have criticized the Yemeni government for allowing Saudi Arabia to violate Yemen’s territorial sovereignty, but the government likely welcomes the help from the Saudis as it struggles to gain the upper hand in the situation.

As a result of the bombardments, thousands of Yemeni citizens from the region have been displaced and are now caught between the Yemeni Army, the Houthi rebels, and the Saudi air force in a conflict with a high potential for escalation.

The Houthis are part of Yemen’s Shia, which make up about 40% of that countries total population. The rebels accuse the  government of sectarianism, while the Yemeni government considers the conflict political in nature.

While the Houthi rebels are clashing  with the Yemeni military, and Saudi officials claim that they are only trying to keep the conflict from spilling over onto Saudi soil. The Saudi-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat has reported that nearly 1000 Houthi rebels have been taken prisoner by the Saudi military.

For years the conflict had been between the rebels and the Yemeni government, but recently the escalation of violence has led to Saudi involvement, with Iran and even Al-Quaida being dragged into the mix.  As a result, the conflict has taken a more regional tone, with both Iranian and Saudi governments trading barbs.

The Saudi’s accuse Iran of aiding the Houthis in a way to gain a foothold in another country that is politically dominated by Sunni, such as it did in Iraq and Lebanon. Tehran has denied aiding the rebels, but has expressed concerned for the safety of the Shia in that country.

This week, protests erupted in Tehran in support of the Houthis, as hundreds of students reportedly rallied in front of the Saudi and Yemeni embassies there.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been particularly frosty in recent years, as Riyadh grows increasingly weary of expanding Persian influence in the region.

 

 

With the decision of Mahmoud Abbas not to seek reelction and the apparent dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, the situation is entering a new phase.

End of PA

Hamas Quiet

Quote about Jews living under persecution for 4000 years

Clear that Israel has no intention of leaving the Palestinians enough territory to make a state

Obama fails, is called out by Nasrallah

World may still be concerned, but is fed up with Palestinian leadership

What awaits: passive acceptance, or third intifada?

Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Yemeni government, is waging a quiet and fierce war against Shiaa tribesmen located near their shared border. Tensions have been building for months, but the conflict erupted after a Saudi policeman was murdered by Yemeni Houthis in a cross-border raid in the remote region of southern Saudi Arabia.