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In a region of global concern, Yemen teeters on the brink

By BAYLY WINDER | April 19, 2012

As the Arab Spring has swept across the Middle East, many countries have fallen into a chaotic and violent mess. Cries for reform in Damascus and Manama have been answered by brute force, and the American media has obsessively reported on the fragile situations in Syria and Egypt.

But what about the Republic of Yemen?

Once a global center of trade and prosperity, today’s Yemen is on the verge of civil war and in a state of economic ruin. One would be hard pressed to find a nation riper for upheaval or collapse – a place with so many fundamental problems.

And this is not merely a regional concern. Yemen occupies the southernmost portion of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering crucial waterways and the most important oil supplier in the world. The Gulf of Aden, which cuts between Yemen and Somalia, is notable for two reasons: it is the global capital of piracy and it is one of the primary global sea routes for petroleum transport. Yemen’s neighbors are Oman and the enormously important Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The only Arab member of the G-20, Saudi Arabia is home to the earth’s largest oil fields and the crown jewels of Islam - Mecca and Medina. Saudi-Yemeni ties have been strained by territorial disputes and political tension in the past, and remain problematic today. Last month, in an attempt to prevent further unrest in Yemen, Saudi’s King Abdullah announced an aid package to Yemen consisting of enough oil to last two months. Clearly, the Saudi leadership is deeply concerned with the turmoil in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.

With a population of approximately 25 million, one of Yemen’s chief issues is demographic. The Yemeni people are young, fragmented and poor. Religious and tribal cleavages practically guarantee that Yemen will remain unstable for years to come. While the southern portion of the country is primarily Sunni Muslim, the North is mainly Zyadi Shia. Tribal competition is fierce, in a land where rough terrain and isolated areas result in a collection of fiefdoms vying for influence. The two most prominent northern tribes, Hashid and Bikal, often face off with the national government. To make matters worse, Houthi insurgents have taken control of multiple governorates.

Not only are Yemeni citizens frustrated and divided, but they are also incredibly well-armed. In 2002, the Interior Ministry estimated that there were 60 million firearms in Yemen. Much like nearby African states such as Somalia, men walk the city streets with AK-47 rifles slung over their shoulders.

This is of course advantageous for the myriad terrorist groups that operate in Yemen. Despite government crackdowns and American drone strikes, al-Qaeda’s presence continues to grow. To say that Yemen is an ideal terrorist hideout is putting it mildly.

The majority of the Yemeni government’s revenue comes from oil. Yemen exports 105,000 barrels per day, but that supply is dwindling and alternative sources of income are negligible. The economy is underdeveloped and stagnant. The GDP per capita is $2,500, which ranks 181st in the world. The unemployment rate is 35 percent, once again ranking 181st.

One reason why the workforce is especially unproductive is because of a narcotic called qat. The plant, which induces a state of euphoria, is chewed by a whopping 90 percent of Yemeni men and occupies its users for an average of six to eight hours a day.

One of the most devastating effects of Yemen’s qat addiction is felt in the water basin of Sana’a. Qat irrigation accounts for 43 percent of the nation’s water consumption and scientists predict that it will be the first country in the world to run out of water, in as little as five to 10 years. When Yemen runs out of oil and water, it is difficult to imagine how this impoverished population will manage to avoid a humanitarian crisis of daunting proportions.

After 33 years of dictatorial rule, President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally gave in to public pressure and stepped down earlier this year. On February 21st, Saleh’s second-in-command Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi was elected to take over. The results suggest, however, that the voting process was more of a formality than anything else – Al-Hadi received 99.8 percent of the votes. Clearly, Saleh’s departure has not meant the departure of an authoritarian regime. Ironically, though, President Obama sent a letter to the new leader which applauded the peaceful transfer of power.

The letter also emphasized the necessity of continuing to combat terrorism, which continues to plague the country. On April 9th, insurgents with links to al-Qaeda attacked a military camp in southern Yemen, killing 23. On April 16th, a roadside bomb killed three children on their way to school in a southeastern province. This grim portrait leaves little hope that peace can be restored in the foreseeable future.

Anxious American and Saudi policymakers look on as the frail Yemeni government tries to maintain its sovereign control. But until strict gun control and anti-qat laws are enacted, there is little doubt that the Yemeni cup is half empty.

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