Middle East Notes and Comment: Unhappy Yemen
October 21, 2014
Amidst the Middle East headlines of recent months is a quiet but steady drumbeat of trouble out of Yemen. The country, by many accounts the poorest in the Arab world, attracts little attention next to struggles in Syria, Iraq, Libya and beyond. These other conflicts provide more compelling pictures and more gripping stories, and Yemen appears to many to be dusty and remote.
Yemen’s problems cannot be ignored, though, for at least two reasons. First, Yemen’s problems seem unlikely to stay in Yemen. With immediate proximity to Saudi Arabia, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Horn of Africa, a collapse in Yemen will have a profound effect on its neighbors. But even more chillingly, Yemen’s problems follow many years of precisely the kinds of international mediation and support backed by targeted strikes that are being proposed for other Arab conflicts. What does it mean when a prime example of what Western countries and their allies have been trying to do has descended into more chaos?
To be sure, Yemen has a host of problems. Employment is scarce. Water is running out—in part because large fuel subsidies have lowered the price of over-pumping Yemen’s strained aquifers in the populous northern highlands. Water tables in northern Yemen are plunging, and the Sana‛a basin may run dry as early as 2017. With almost two-thirds of Yemenis living in rural areas, farmers are poised to flood into the cities with their families, causing further overcrowding. And much of Yemen is young. Forty percent are under 15, and their economically productive years are far ahead of them.
Yet, Yemen was not always the basket case of the Arab world. Long known as Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia,” the country’s lush terraced hillsides and thriving trading communities were a bright spot in an Arab world that seemed stark and arid. A British colonial effort in the south brought the beginnings of modernity to Aden and its surroundings, but much of the country remained isolated and traditional through much of the twentieth century. While civil war forged a republic in Yemen in the mid-twentieth century, tribes continued to shape Yemen’s political life, the economy relied on worker remittances from wealthier states in the Gulf, and tribal chieftains relied on tribute payments from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Yemen had a flirtation with pluralism in the 1990s, but it fell prey to the same problems Yemen has had for much of the last century: poor infrastructure and communications, a weak educational system, spiraling population growth, not enough money, and not enough jobs. Yemen’s moderately-sized oil and gas reserves fed into patronage rather than progress, and insurgencies in the north and south gathered steam. Jihadi-salafists came to Yemen in the early 1990s and have stubbornly remained; a separatist movement roiled the north for more than a decade, resisting both repeated Yemeni and Saudi efforts to wipe it out. When the Arab world was swept by protest in 2011 and beyond, Yemen had already been straining, and protests pushed President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office after 33 years.
The world rallied to Yemen. The Gulf Cooperation Council States were alarmed at the prospect of failure in Yemen and cobbled together a political agreement that provided for a peaceful political transition away from Saleh. Western states had created a “Friends of Yemen” grouping even before the Arab Spring, providing for billions in coordinated economic assistance, and they promised billions more after Saleh left. Yemen’s new President, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, convened a ten-month “national dialogue” process beginning in March 2013 to try to forge a national consensus. The United States also attacked al Qaeda in Yemen to try to ensure it did not destabilize the country. The United States has reportedly carried out more than 100 drone strikes in Yemen since 2010, killing an estimated 500 fighters.
And yet, this month disaffected tribesmen from the north swept into Yemen’s capital, Sana‛a, and displaced the current government. Meanwhile, southern separatist forces are demanding Western oil companies cease exports from the south immediately and for the government to pull out by November 30.
It is easy to shorthand the conflict in Yemen as yet another Middle Eastern sectarian conflict. Many of the northern tribesmen are Shi’a, while much of the rest of the country is Sunni. Politicians have pointed to an Iranian hand pushing northern tribesmen for more than a decade, almost certainly before any Iranian support was forthcoming. Al Qaeda’s presence in the center of the country fans the flames of sectarianism as well.
Yet, the closer one looks, the less sectarianism fits. Most Yemeni Shi’a are Zaydis, a small and distinctive group that is doctrinally much closer to Sunnis than they are to other Shi’a. Al Qaeda has as much opposition among Yemen’s Sunni population as among its Shi’a. Further, what fuels the protests—in the north and the south—is not religious fervor. Instead, it is the perceived corruption, incompetence and hostility of the government.
While it is tempting to dismiss Yemen’s failures as peculiar to Yemen, there is far more of a universal thread in them than most are willing to admit. Like many of its neighbors, Yemen has suffered from poor government performance for decades. Corruption is rampant. Patronage payments have kept the peace, creating economic incentives based on loyalty rather than innovation or hard work. Schools have turned out young people who are often literate but unskilled, with little prospect for employment outside of the security business: either helping provide security, or threatening to deny it if money is not paid.
It does not sound much different from the conflicts now raging in Iraq, Libya, and even Syria. In each, the sort of process that took place in Yemen—leadership transition, international support, political reconciliation combined with some air support to defeat malign actors—would be a textbook case of how these countries can succeed, if it worked. Except, in Yemen, the formula hasn’t created success. It’s yielded to turmoil.
This is not to blame the United States and its allies for Yemen’s unfolding tragedies, or even to suggest that what we are seeing now could have been avoided. Instead, it is to suggest that as the United States contemplates multi-billion-dollar efforts in Iraq, Syria, and Libya to do the same sort of things that were tried in Yemen, it is worth taking some time to understand what went wrong.