By Stephen Brown
Apr 5, 2011- While fighting in Libya has been dominating the news, Yemen, a Middle Eastern country extremely critical to American strategic interests, is emerging as the next domino in the wave of protests engulfing the region. Unfortunately, the prospect of Yemen’s collapse carries devastating implications for world security, as the country stands a great likelihood of becoming a lawless incubator of terrorism.
The poorest and most unstable of all Middle Eastern countries, Yemen occupies a strategic position in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, straddling one side of the 20-mile wide Mandab Strait, through which all shipping from the Indian Ocean must go to reach the Suez Canal. While Yemen borders a vital shipping lane, equally important for world commerce are the oil fields located in adjacent Saudi Arabia. Most importantly, Yemen is also a well-known haven for al Qaeda.
For these strategically important reasons, the White House has been paying close attention to Yemen’s inner turmoil over the last few weeks. A tribal society like Afghanistan, Yemen has always had a weak central government. Widespread protests calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster are making that government even weaker. Six of the country’s 18 provinces, it is reported, are no longer even under the government’s control.
And it is this unravelling of Yemen that has, according to the New York Times, caused the Obama administration to withdraw its previous support for Saleh, and to begin negotiating the president’s departure after 32 years of rule. The final straw that stirred the White House to action was the killing of more than 50 anti-government protesters on March 18 by Saleh’s security forces.
However, the White House is deceiving itself if it believes that Saleh’s departure, like Mubarak’s in Egypt, will improve an increasingly chaotic situation. Problems that existed before the current unrest are becoming worse, and new ones are sure to develop. In Yemen, the West may soon be faced with another Somalia or Afghanistan, countries with weak or no central governments, in whose chaotic environments anti-Western terrorist organizations thrive.
“Groups of various stripes – Al Qaeda, Houthis, tribal elements and secessionists – are exploiting the current political turbulence and emerging fissures within the military and security services for their own gain,” a Yemeni official told the Times.
Before the outbreak of the anti-Saleh unrest, Yemen’s government had been battling internal enemies on three fronts with different degrees of success. Federal security forces had been hunting al Qaeda terrorists with American help. But with the recent breakdown in security and splits in the Yemeni army, the terrorist situation has worsened. Al Qaeda is reported to have captured a town in South Yemen’s Abyan province, where it is strongest and where it receives tribal support. With the government’s collapse, al Qaeda’s cancerous growth and new attacks are assured.
Besides turning Yemen into a terrorist base for Islamic extremists like North Waziristan, a stronger al Qaeda presence in Yemen represents another disturbing danger for American and Western interests. Even before the current unrest, the terrorist organization had called upon its fighters in Yemen to close the strategic Mandab Strait.
Such a development is not beyond the realm of possibility. In 2002, the French tanker Limburg was rammed by a small suicide boat in Yemeni waters that saw one sailor killed and 90,000 barrels of oil pour into the sea in an attack similar to the one on the USS Cole in Aden, a Yemeni port, in 2000. This single suicide attack on the Limburg led to a “short-term collapse” in shipping traffic in the Gulf of Aden. The effect on world shipping of several such attacks in the narrow Mandab Strait can only be imagined.
On another internal front, in the south, the government is facing a serious secessionist movement. Southern Yemen had been an independent country until unification with North Yemen in 1994. But a majority of the people living in the south believe independence has brought them no great benefit and wish to re-establish their independence. They have been staging protests, sometimes violent, to this end for several years, and may be able to take advantage of the central government’s current weakness to realize their ambition.
But it is in the northern Saada region where perhaps the acutest danger exists. An ongoing proxy war there between Iran and Saudi Arabia, part of the Middle East’s Sunni-Shiite showdown, could turn Yemen’s breakdown into a regional conflict. Saada’s Shiite Houthi tribes, supported by Iran, have staged six rebellions against Yemen’s central government, supported by Saudi Arabia, from 2004 to 2009. The last outbreak of fighting saw the Houthis cross the porous Saudi-Yemeni border and occupy three villages until Saudi air strikes drove them back, after which Saudi troops were sent into Yemen.
With Yemen’s central government just struggling to survive, the Houthis are reported to have now taken control of their tribal area bordering anti-Shiite Saudi Arabia. It probably won’t be long before they use it again as a launching pad for attacks against the Saudi kingdom. Like the Iran-supported Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain, Shiite attacks from Yemen could galvanize the Shiites living in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where oil fields are located, and upon which America and other countries depend.
Tribal fighting will also continue to add to the chaos. Saleh had played the tribes off one another to keep them from challenging the central government.
“The best way for him to rule us was by creating crises among us, to keep us busy,” one tribesman told the Yemen Times.
However, the tribes appear to have united, at least for the moment, to get rid of him. The Times reports that tribes with 30-year records of revenge killings against one another have reconciled for this purpose. But this unity probably won’t last long. Last year, one tribal leader’s murder sparked “a series of revenge killings.” In northern Yemen, tribal fighting has claimed 15,000 lives in the past 30 years, indicating a deeply embedded tradition.
Other important contributing factors to Yemen’s growing instability are the country’s economic crises: rising food prices, job shortages, corruption among the ruling class, and a water shortage. Yemen has one of the highest birthrates in the Arab world, and there are simply too many people, especially young people (in 2007, the United Nations estimated 46 per cent of the population was under 15), for the economy to provide jobs and for the country’s resources to support. And while Yemen does have oil, production fell by $2 billion in 2009. Oil production has fallen further during the ongoing protests, and tourism, the country’s other primary foreign currency earner, has dropped off to nothing due to terrorist attacks and internal unrest.
Besides signaling that America is abandoning another ally, Obama’s withdrawal of support for Saleh in favour of a new leader is simply a rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Yemen’s ship of state will continue to sink further into chaos and, most likely, civil war. The United States and other countries in the region have always regarded Yemen as a buffer between anarchic Somalia and Saudi Arabia and strove to maintain that buffer. But with Yemen’s pending internal collapse, the lawless area between Kenya and the Yemeni coastline will now expand to the Saudi border. The worldwide war against the international jihad is about to enter a new and precarious phase.