Political and Economic Crisis in Yemen

On the Brink

Fighting in the north, food riots, and shocking child marriages are currently drawing media attention to an obviously unstable country which has long been heading for collapse. Philipp Schweers reports from Sana'a

Military checkpoint in Yemen (photo: Philipp Schweers)
Political and economic difficulties – military forces adopt strange tactics to maintain control over the still-flowing oil wells

​​Yemen, which is somewhat of an "also ran" according to public opinion and is either exaggerated as a violent eastern tribal country or characterized as the stronghold and home of snarling, apocalyptic terrorists, has recently shifted rather involuntarily to the forefront on international news tickers.

The reason was not only tabloid-style stories about forced marriages of young girls of elementary-school age or two-line items about attacks on foreign residential complexes. Even the familiar reports on kidnappings of foreign tourists were a long time coming up to now.

The poorest country on the Arabian peninsula is not only struggling with economic turmoil, social problems, and runaway population growth, but increasingly with itself as well.

In addition to bloody hunger protests, which illustrate the growing difficulties in the Yemeni system of oil-financed consumer subsidies, the ever deeper rift between the two former states also threatens stability.

The North dominates, the South drifts away

Since the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, and particularly since the civil war of 1994, the country has been dominated politically by the northern Yemeni Hashid tribal federation.

Riots in the city of Dhalae (photo: AP)
Dissatisfaction is growing in south Yemen. Demands for a new secession are increasingly louder – riots in the city of Dhalae

​​Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president since the unification and, prior to it, the president of North Yemen – also a member of the Hashid tribe – gradually established a power structure based on the loyalty of his own tribe which systematically prevents rival tribes from having a full share of the power.

The tribes of southern Yemen, in particular, who are notorious for being extremely proud, do not accept such political and, often, economic restraints and have established or reactivated their own tribal structures.

Even innately optimistic development workers, such as the German Development Corporation (GTZ) representative in Yemen, Dr. Thomas Engelhardt, see a great danger as the two parts of the country drift apart.

Failing State?

This unilateral tribal dominance in Yemen, which is still influenced by tribal identity, and the government's authoritarian style have led to a continuing weakening of the central government.

Map of Yemen (source: Wikipedia.net)
Yemen was not reunited until 1990, yet only four years later civil war broke out and the south was defeated by northern Yemen. Since then, the people of southern Yemen speak of political occupation by the government in Sana'a

​​In reality, this situation is prevalent only in the heartland around the capital of Sana'a, in the northern Yemeni highlands. It is little surprise that this is also the principal settlement area of the Hashid and their tribal allies.

In other areas of the country, the central government is only present in the form of roadblocks and military posts at strategically and commercially important locations and is regarded with suspicion by local tribal leaders.

The military forces adopt strange tactics to maintain control over the still-flowing oil wells and protect the facilities and transport routes. Thus, approximately 18 hours are needed for a 600-kilometer cross-country trip on good roads from Sana'a to the eastern coastal city of Al Mukalla.

The reason for this is the over 70 roadblocks and control points along the way, at which soldiers housed in barracks and sometimes in Russian armored combat vehicles inspect every car with extreme thoroughness.

War Is raging

At the moment, the situation is the most unstable in the province of Saada, around two hours north of Sana'a. An open but quiet war between Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government has been raging there since 2004.

These rebels, named after their leader, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, who was killed during fighting in 2004, are adherents of a Shiite Islam in Yemen, where Sunni Muslims form a majority of the population.

As a result of the conflicts between these two currents within Islam, which have intensified recently, Yemen's Zaidi-Shiite minority sees itself increasingly on the defensive.

The rebels are members of the Zaidi sect, which was previously the ruling power until the Zaidi Imam was deposed in 1962 but is virtually powerless today.

Despite intensive Qatari mediation efforts, which in June 2007 and, most recently, in February 2008 led to cease-fire agreements between the rebels and the government, fighting has broken out again recently.

After a bombing attack in the provincial capital of Saada in which 16 people died, including seven government soldiers, the two sides are blaming each other for the renewed escalation.

As ambiguous as the precise goals may be in this conflict – they range from speculations about a desire to restore the Imamate on the Houthi side to a complete expulsion of the Shiites supposedly envisaged by the government (President Saleh is himself a Shiite) – a quick and lasting peace agreement is equally questionable.

One thing is certain, however – this conflict is having a fragmenting and seriously destabilizing effect on Yemen.

Economic downturn

In addition to, and intensifying, the political conflicts within Yemen, increasingly obvious economic problems are threatening the country. The economy, which is dependent on oil exports, is on the verge of collapse due to falling production quotas and dwindling reserves.

If one believes the estimates of foreign producers, this key resource will be exhausted within the next eight years. Investments in leading-edge sectors have been neglected, and there is no industrial base.

Yemeni campaign to conserve water (photo: Philipp Schweers)
Economic recession and food shortages – Yemeni campaign to conserve water

​​The optimistically cultivated tourism trade suffered tremendous losses after a deadly suicide bombing of Spanish tourists in summer 2007 and a machine-gun attack on a tourist convoy in January 2008, in which two Belgian tourists died.

Yemen's population growth exceeds that of the economy, and the actual unemployment rate is over 30 percent. Combined with the increasingly precarious water shortage, which has developed into an existential threat, not only for agriculture, this paints a grim scenario for the future.

On the verge of collapse?

The two parts of the country are drifting apart, and tribal and religious conflicts are growing. The economy and, with it, the rudimentarily developed social system are on the verge of collapse. War is raging in the north. Even essential basic needs, such as water supply, are no longer covered.

In the words of the well-known Yemen expert, Dr. Robert D. Burrowes from the University of Washington, if a decisive stimulus does not come now, a slide into anarchy, à la Somalia, or civil war, as in Lebanon, can no longer be prevented in Yemen.

Philipp Schweers

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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