Sick man of the Arabian Peninsula

Yemen’s precipitous slide into a failed state

by Sami Halabi

Saudi Soldiers gather on the Yemeni border to fight Huthis with the Yemeni Army

The summer months are usually quiet in the Arabian Peninsula, the searing heat prompting expats and locals to pack their bags and head for greener, cooler pastures. But to those paying attention, a war has been raging since August. For several months now, the Yemeni army and rebel Huthi fighters, belonging to the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam, have been engaged in a pitched battle with government forces, leaving tens of thousands displaced and hundreds more dead.

On October 14, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh pronounced to supporters that the northern rebels would be crushed “in the next few days.” Saleh, perhaps tongue in cheek, was careful to attach the archetypal Arab suffix “God willing” to the end of his statement.

This may prove a wise move given that the regime has little control over the mountainous north, where fighters with “conventional weapons” have already taken down a number of Yemeni air force planes. The offensive in the north, coined Operation Scorched Earth by the regime in Sanaa, leaves little to the imagination as to how Saleh intends to deal with his opponents.

Fighting has also broken out in the south, where separatist groups continue to prove a thorn in Sanaa’s eye. Also lurking in Yemen’s underworld are various “al Qaeda types” credited with the USS Cole attack in 2000, before the group became a household name. (Luckily for Saleh, the United States has been more than willing to assist him with the latter problem.)

Pouring fuel on the fire, there are those who are keen to portray the northern conflict as yet another manifestation of the increasing regional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. In Yemen, this translates into a “proxy war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the latter backed by the US. However, the notion that the problem is merely religious is about as accurate as saying that the Lebanese Civil War was a simple Muslims-versus-Christians conflict.

The Zaidi sect is in practice surprisingly close to Sunni Islam, so much that it does not deem the Imam Ali or his descendants as quasi-divine entities. In fact, without the support of one of Yemen’s top Zaidi tribal chiefs, Sadiq al-Ahmar, the regime could hardly maintain its offensive in the north.

To comprehend the conflict’s root causes, one needn’t look further than the walls of Old Sanaa, where homeless, bare-chested men reside in unsanitary squalor, just a stones throw away from the central bank.

One of the world’s poorest countries, Yemen is without a doubt the economic black sheep of the Gulf. One-third of the country is unemployed and 40 percent live in poverty, which has doubled since the country’s unification in 1990.

Sanaa’s answer to these problems so far has been to cling to power by maintaining control over profitable economic sectors through patronage networks or direct ownership. Oil, gas, transport, finance, cement and foodstuffs are either government-owned or controlled, keeping a tight leash on the portion of the population that does have a job.

By 2018, however, Yemen’s oil revenue, from which it paid more than 75 percent of government expenditures last year, is expected to run dry. As a result, its ability to exercise this system of patronage over its economy will weaken. Even if liquid natural gas production, which began last month, does see exponential growth, the prospects for economic disaster are still in the cards.

To sidestep this outcome, Saleh’s regime will have to reverse its “scorched earth” policy, begin to negotiate, release its grappling hold on profitable sectors and enact an inclusive and progressive economic policy.

The US and Saudi Arabia could easily force Saleh in this direction given that the Yemeni government is now begging the Saudis for $2 billion to make up for a 75 percent drop in oil revenue in the first half of this year. For Saleh to change course, however, Iran will also have to cease its meddling and make good on its promise to mediate between the Yemeni president and the Huthis, albeit with a wink and a nudge from Washington and Riyadh.

It all seems like a tall order. The alternative, however, is to let a country with a large and volatile array of extremist groups, situated on one of the world’s most strategic shipping routes, tear itself apart and become the Gulf’s only failed state. If that happens, the implications for the region would be far worse than the present crisis. In short, its time to stop fanning the flames of conflict and to start pouring water on a country that is already ablaze.

First published in Executive Magazine’s November 2009 issue