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Michael Jansen: A bubbling cauldron
October 24, 2014
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Yemen’s most recent political convulsions have ushered in a new order empowering formerly marginalised rebel Houthi tribesmen from the far north of the country. Under a power-sharing agreement, Khaled Bahah, Yemen’s UN ambassador has been appointed prime minister with a mandate to form a government of technocrats approved by all factions, including Houthi tribesmen who a month ago seized control of the capital, Sana’a, and proceeded to sweep into central and southern Yemen.

An economist who has served as oil minister as well as envoy to Canada, Bahah has to deal with both the Houthi rebellion and Al Qaeda which is deeply rooted in the country as well as its longstanding problems of poverty, soaring birth rate, and popular addiction to the leaves of the narcotic plant, qat. Although the Houthis were meant to withdraw from government buildings and return looted weapons after Bahah was appointed, they have remained in Sana’a, advanced southwards into Hodeida province, capturing its port, and seized the city of Ibb and Al Qaeda stronghold of Al Bayda, encountering popular resistance and clashes with Al Qaeda fighters.    

The country’s latest troubles began in early 2011 when Yemenis followed the examples of Tunisians and Egyptians and revolted against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled united Yemen from 1990 and the north from 1978. He resigned in 2012, after being granted immunity from prosecution, and continues to dwell in Sana’a where he is accused of stirring the Houthi rebellion with the aim of returning to power. Like the Houthis, Saleh is a member of the Zaidi off-shoot of the Shia sect which accounts for one-third of Yemen’s populace. His shift to the Houthi side is pure political opportunism: forces loyal to Saleh fought a six-year Houthi insurgency that ended in 2010.

Since 2011, the Houthis have created a broad-based political movement to counter the influence of the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islah party, which is popular but distrusted by many Yemenis for partnering Saleh during his long, corrupt reign.

Al Qaeda is another major player in the Yemeni political drama. Due to a harsh Saudi crackdown, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda merged in 2009 to form Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), with the majority of Saudi adherents finding refuge in Yemen. AQAP has gained recruits in the country’s central, mountainous, and coastal regions. During the 2011 uprising, AQAP seized control of towns in Abyan province and proclaimed an “emirate.”

Although government troops expelled Al Qaeda elements in 2012, there have been repeated clashes in Abyan and elsewhere, and the US has mounted drone strikes against militant leaders and concentrations of fighters.

Since the Houthi sweep across the country, AQAP has staged a massive bombing in Sana’a, killing 50 Houthis and civilians, and AQAP fighters have clashed with Houthi units. Some in government favour backing AQAP against the Houthis but this is not a solution to what can be called the “Houthi problem.”

To complicate the situation, dissident AQAP members are said to have sworn fealty to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and appear to be ready to do battle with the Houthis.   

The final key political player in Yemen is the Marxist-led separatist movement, Southern Herak, which wants the south to secede from the union. Secession has been a threat since 1994, only four years after the union was proclaimed, when southern army officers mounted a revolt against the north-dominated government, complaining about misrule and corruption. From time to time, fundamentalists have made common cause with this movement, adding to confusion over the objectives of the warring sides. The latest round of the secession struggle began in April 2009 and has been waged by both peaceful and violent means.         

Two days after the Houthis seized control of Sana’a, a group of retired army officers based in the southern port city of Aden proclaimed the formation of a military council with the object of reviving the former state of South Yemen. The council has called for mass demonstrations and civil disobedience in the south with the aim of taking control of its cities and declaring a new republic.

The division between north and south is rooted in history. During the early 20th century, the country Yemen consisted of the British occupied south and a Zaidi kingdom in the north. The Yemen Arab Republic in the south was established under British protection in 1962 and gained its independence in 1967 after a violent freedom struggle. The north united with the north as the secular Arab nationalist Yemen republic 23 years later. But this has always been an unstable union due to tribalism, poverty and mismanagement and corruption on the part of the government.

Yemen has a largely tribal population of 24 million, nearly half under 15 years of age. Oil accounts for about a quarter of the country’s GDP but Yemen’s yield is diminishing due to a decline in its ageing oil fields and attacks on production facilities and pipelines. Agriculture has fallen from around 25 per cent of GDP to just seven per cent although the majority of Yemenis depend on farming. 

Food crops have been supplanted by qat, the mildly narcotic plant that consumes great quantities of water. Chewed by most Yemenis, its leaves induce lassitude.

Production of grain, cotton, vegetables, fruit, coffee, and tea has fallen, forcing the country to import staples.   

In addition to constant warfare and political turmoil, Yemen faces a severe water shortage because of the government’s failure to build dams to capture rain in the mountains, provide for storage and establish water distribution networks. Half of the populace has no access to clean water. Public fountains in urban areas and open reservoirs in the countryside provide most of the water consumed by Yemenis. Sana’a could become the world’s first capital city to run out of water if, in a decade, the struggling authorities continue to ignore the crisis.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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