Yemen is Bleeding: Civil Services Mentor Magazine July 2012

Yemen is Bleeding

A suicide bomber killed more than 90 soldiers and left over 200 people injured in Yemeni capital Sanaa. Terrorist group Al-Qaida claimed the responsibility of the attack. The suicide bomber, dressed in military outfit, detonated his hidden explosives when the chief of army staff was watching the parade. The two top military officials managed to survive the multiple bombings. The west Asian country, which is also the poorest among the Arab nations, is facing a great danger from the radical Islamic elements in the country. It has been battling the Islamist militants scattered across the region. Yemen over the past few years has emerged as a strong base of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The strong presence of Islamic fanatics in the country poses a grave threat not only to regional security but also to the global peace. Militants have taken the maximum advantage of political turmoil in Yemen over the past one year to gain a foothold in the country. The political uprising in the country in 2011 saw the president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down after a long year of rule.

The ultimate fate of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains unclear. More than a month after he rushed to Saudi Arabia to seek medical treatment for injuries he sustained in an attack on the presidential mosque, there are still questions about his health. Rumors continue to swirl about whether or not Saleh will be able to return to Yemen. Without credible information and with little progress in resolving the country’s political crisis after months of protests, tensions are still high and the threat of further violence—and potentially broader, more widespread fighting—is very real. The truth is that it is increasingly unlikely that Saleh will be able to get back to Yemen and actually govern again anytime soon. That is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, the alternative may be that Saleh’s family attempts to take on the opposition and wrest control of the government. Violence would likely erupt, and a country with huge numbers of weapons would inch closer to a complete meltdown.

The unrest has pushed up prices. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the cost of bread has risen by 50 percent in the past few months. There is also concern that the currency could collapse, pushing another 15 percent of Yemenis below the poverty line. Statistics indicate that one in three people are food insecure and undernourished, and more than 50 percent of children are stunted, OCHA said in a 1 July re port. Economists predict the situation could get worse if Yemen’s food reserves run out in the coming two months and the government fails to pay staff salaries. In the last few months, many poor families have faced increasing malnutrition because they are unable to buy staple food, according to local thinktank the Studies and Economic Media Center. Nine million Yemenis are having diff iculty meeting minimum food needs. “The prices of food staples such as flour, sugar and milk have increased 40- 60 percent while ongoing unrest has caused unprecedented shortages in fuel supplies, the price of which increased by 900 percent in the past five months,” it said. The UN World Food Programme (WFP), in a recent assessment, found that four of the country’s 21 governorates - Rayma, Amran, Hajja, Ibb - were the most food insecure. In the south, more people have recently been displaced, and currently more than 15,610 internally displaced persons are in Aden, about 11,890 in Lahj and an unconfirmed 15,000 in Abyan. Some 90 percent of those in Aden, according to OCHA, depend on donations by host communities to meet their daily food needs. Media reports suggest the Yemeni economy lost around US$5 billion during the first three months of the political crisis and is now teetering on the brink of collapse. The situation has been compounded by a crippling fuel shortage.

The fear in the West is terrorism. The thing that really separates Yemen from all other countries swept up by the Arab Spring is that the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchise in the world calls the country home. As the protests grew earlier this year, the government began pulling its counterter rorism units away from a focus on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and used its assets to protect the regime and control the protests. AQAP is taking advantage of the instability and enjoying more space to plan and prepare for terrorist operations on Western targets. AQAP has had its hands in a number of terrorist incidents in recent years, with direct
implications for America. And it should go without saying that a failing state with a strong al-Qaeda branch next door to Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, and prime shipping waters is a r ecipe for major international economic problems. But even with this in mind, an exclusive focus on terrorism is the wrong choice for Washington. This will make matters worse. Until Yemen’s confluence of crises is dealt with, the United States won’t be saf e from the threat coming out of Yemen. Washington is ramping up a so-called covert war targeting extremists in Yemen with drone strikes, but there needs to be a balance. The United States must be focused on improving the life of the average Yemeni. Washington must aim to address the systemic sources of instability in Yemen— and not simply terrorism and AQAP.

Hundreds of tribal gunmen are on the outskirts of the southern port city of Aden. Described as “al Qaeda,” many of these groups of armed tribesmen are allied or influenced by al Qaeda, or just Islamic radicalism. Mostly, however, tribal militias are armed tribesmen led by someone out to expand the power and influence of the tribe. An increasingly important item worth fighting for is food. Hunger is growing as food prices increased over 40 percent this year. The economy is in decline, meaning there is less money to buy food. A third of the population is showing signs of malnutrition and are regularly underfed. One thing southern tribes are fighting over is oil money. For over three months, the largest oil pipeline has been shut down, costing the economy over $10 million a day (about half the oil income). Some 70 percent of the government income is from oil revenue. Repairs cannot be made because the tribes controlling the areas the pipeline passes through, will not guarantee security (of repair crews as well as the pipeline). In a country as poor as Yemen, this loss of income is keenly felt. The tribal militias are small compared to the huge (often over

100,000 people) crowds of unarmed people demanding change (improvements in the economy and more efficient government). But a lot of the demonstrators just want more power and money for their tribe. This is taken for granted in Yemen, where “Yemen” is just another term for “my tribe.” Historically, the large demonstrations (armed or unarmed) are followed by tribal leaders noting the number and determination of each tribe’s followers, and negotiating a new deal. But this haggling has been prolonged because the Saleh crowd is unwilling to give up as much as they must to buy peace. Yemeni and American intelligence experts are disagreeing over who the most important al Qaeda targets are in Yemen. There is increasing American UAV activity over Yemen, seeking out al Qaeda leaders that can be killed with Hellfire missiles. The Yemenis prefer that the Americans go after foreign Islamic militants, while the Americans want to kill the most powerful and influential Islamic radicals first. Many of these guys are Yemeni, and have tribal connections that cause problems if one of them is killed. All politics is local. The Yemenis are very concerned about the foreign Islamic radicals, not just because they are outsiders, but because they are armed outsiders who are quick to kill native Yemenis.

The political unrest in Yemen existed long before the recent wave of protests in Egypt and Tunisia. In early January, the Yemeni parliament backed the removal of term limits, thus allowing Saleh to serve more than two terms and run again in 2013. Opposition politicians and the Southern Movement rose up in anger after the changes, fueling many of the incidents of turmoil on Yemen’s streets. Demonstrations in the south of the country have built upon a foundation of tensions that go back to the 1994 civil warin Yemen, which itself resulted from divisions that lingered after the 1990 reunification. Events in Egypt and Tunisia have, however, helped spur the rallies, providing inspiration to protesters that governmental change can be brought about through nonviolent action.

The situation actually provides  an advantageous window of opportunity for the US though because it should give us time to work with the government to prepare for a smooth transition, and work with political parties, civic  groups and election monitors to prepare for the 2013 election. TheU.S. could shift the current situation in Yemen from chaos to opportunity, setting Yemen on a path to greater economic and political freedom, reducing its attractiveness as a safe haven for ter rorist groups. This would require a real strategy for the country, however, and regular and direct engagement with constituencies in Yemen other than those tied to Saleh and beyond those located in the capital of Sana’a. It remains to be seen whether U.S. representatives in the country are willing and able to take on such a challenge. Yemen needs to begin the transition to a new government— and the sooner the better. The faster the country is able to move past this political crisis, the faster the government can tackle the problems that underlie the countr y’s insecurity.

Yemen is facing a multitude of major challenges, all at the same time. The long list includes poor governance, rampant corruption, major security concerns, unemployment and a lack of desperately needed resources— notably water. Most significantly, the country is also plagued with a catastrophic economic situation. It’s getting worse every day. The average Yemeni relies on only two dollars per day—less in certain regions— and the prices of food, water and cooking gas ar e climbing sharply. To make matters worse, the riyal is getting devalued and Yemen’s foreign currency holdings are drying up. So the government is left with little to no money to pay for salaries, pensions and subsidies. And the government, even before the protests, has little capacity to deal with the challenges. The country is not going to be able to solve any of these issues in the short- or even medium-term—this is true regardless of how much international support and funding is available—but they need to be managed to prevent them from getting worse and fueling more instability.

Pankaj Kumar