Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yemen up for grabs?

Justifiably, Libya's seemingly stalemated civil war is receiving huge attention in the media. After all, "the troops" - or at least the ones who fly warplanes and launch missiles - are involved, and Muammar Qaddafi's long history of oppressive rule, terror tactics, and off-the-wall political visions (as well as a new report about how he was planning to kill civilians almost as soon as the protests against him began) has endowed the Libyan dictator with a certain "star" quality that journalists and pundits can feast upon.

Meanwhile, though, the situation in Yemen is spinning within a maelstrom of young secular reformers, tribal politics, vested elite interests, and sectarian tensions that have the potential to drown that country in civil war.  At the Foreign Affairs website, April Longley Allen provides an excellent analysis of much of the current turmoil.  Much of it centers around the strengthening protests against the long-time rule of Ali Adullah Saleh, whose presidency is now opposed by the second most powerful officer in Yemen's military, even while Saleh's son and nephews control other organs of state security.  So far, these forces ranged against each other have held off on attacking, but the situation obviously is dangerous. 

Alley notes,
 If Yemen’s political elites can negotiate a peaceful, honorable transition for Saleh and his kin, they will avert the immediate threat of civil war. But equally important is what follows Saleh’s exit. The youth, civil society groups, and pro-democracy reformers are institutionally weak. Should vested interests dominate a potential post-Saleh transition, Yemen may end up with a political system remarkably similar to Saleh’s, controlled by powerful northern tribal elites from the Hashid confederation, aligned with Sunni Islamists. This result would undoubtedly alienate southerners, who legitimately complain of political and economic marginalization under the current system. It would also inflame tensions in the far north, where Zaydi Shiite revivalists have long resented the encroachment of Salafism.
Complicated, no?  And made even more so by other factors, including a dearth of natural resources, with concomitant poverty; and, very worrying, a looming shortage of water.  A recent BBC piece made this clear:
  • Poorest country in the Middle East with 40% of Yemenis living on less than $2 (£1.25) a day
  • More than two-thirds of the population are under 24
  •  More than a third are jobless; illiteracy stands at over 50%
  •  Dwindling oil reserves and falling oil revenues; little inward investment
  •  Acute water shortage

As the NY Times reported recently, the US, which previously had backed Saleh as a dependable "moderate," has evidently decided to encourage him to step down; and the Saudi monarchy likewise seems no longer willing to back him either.  Indeed, according to a recent analysis by George Friedman at STRATFOR, the Saudis have long had a hand in keeping Saleh's hold on Yemen relatively weak:

 Yemen has long had to contend with the fact that Saudi Arabia has the money, influence and tribal links to directly shape Yemeni politics according to its interests. The Saudis view Yemen as a subordinate power on the heel of the Arabian Peninsula, one that, if partitioned in a civil war, could potentially provide Riyadh with direct access to the Arabian Sea, but that if left to fragment, could also spread instability into the Saudi kingdom. The Saudis have thus relied primarily on their tribal links in the country to maintain influence and keep a lid on unrest, thereby keeping the central government in Sanaa weak and dependent on Riyadh for most of its policies. Given Saudi Arabia’s heavy influence in Yemen, the Saudi view on the situation in Yemen serves as a vital indicator of Saleh’s staying power. Saleh’s case is more akin to that of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, who presides over a tribal society split along an east-west axis like Yemen’s north-south axis. Though Yemen is more advanced politically and institutionally than Libya, both Gadhafi and Saleh have insulated their regimes by deliberately preventing the development of alternative bases of power, relying mostly on complex tribal alliances and militaries commanded by nepotism to rule. Such regimes take decades to build and an iron fist to maintain, making the removal of a single leader typically more trouble than it is worth.

Two things to note from this:
  • Like Libya, Yemen has few civil institutions that are established enough to provide a basis for a reformed political system.  If Saleh departs, the aftermath will likely be chaotic.
  • As has been noted in several places, this kind of chaotic scenario opens up lots of spaces for "al-Qaeda" - which is already well established in Yemen - to spread and become more deeply rooted. . . .

Which means that the US will not be simply turning its back and walking away, but will be working very hard to ensure that whoever follows Saleh will go along with the US program in Yemen: i.e., "democracy would be nice, but no complaining, please, about those missiles we'll be sending in."

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