Yemen in Tatters: Political Risk to Make Your Hair Stand on End!

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for 33 years. He likely won’t make it to 34. Not only has his own tribe in Yemen deserted him, so have his key military officers. And now, he has been abandoned by the United States, long his most ardent foreign supporter. When he goes – not if, but when – what will be the fate of his country?

Under Saleh, the statistics have been discouraging. Yemen’s annual GDP per capita is $2500, the lowest in the Middle East. Yemen has the lowest Human Development Index score for any Middle Eastern country. It also has the lowest rate of schooling in the Middle East. The average Yemeni spends only 2.5 years in school. By any number of measures, the country has the fewest opportunities for women in the Middle East.

Those are the numbers with president Saleh. Here are some of the risks that may follow his departure, risks that if realized would not help the country improve its abysmal state.

The Republic of Yemen is actually a combination of two states, the Yemen Arab Republic, capital Saana, and The People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen, capital Aden. The two states were merged only in 1990. The last leader of the PDRY, Ali Salim al-Baidh, would like his old state back.

Yemen is the most heavily armed country in the world – after the United States. And the Yemenis love to use their weapons. Levels of organized violence, even in the presence of a central government, have been very high. Tribes take up arms against other tribes, political groups do the same, so do different religious sects.

One of the most significant armed struggles in recent years is but one example. The Houthis are a Shiite sect living in the northwest province of Yemen along the Saudi border. They began an uprising in 2004, claiming that the central government was intent on destroying their faith. In response, President Saleh accused them of attempting to set up a Shiite Republic. Despite the Yemeni government’s killing one Houthi leader after another, the violence has increased. The Houthis now have up to 10,000 fighters, by some estimates, and are alleged to receive aid from Iran. The Saudis claimed recently that the Houthis crossed into Saudi territory and struck back with fighter planes. Watch that violence to accelerate.

AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has made its home in Yemen since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in Afghanistan. Jihadists from around the world found a welcome in a country where the central government’s writ barely extends outside the major cities.

The American Muslim cleric, Anwar al Awlaki, born in New Mexico of Yemeni descent, has taken refuge in Yemen. He has had connections with almost all the recent terrorists attempts and successes in the U.S. He met with two 9/11 hijackers in San Diego and is believed to have known about their plot. Most recently, Faisal Shahzad, the would be Times Square bomber, arrested in May 2010, was in touch with Al Awlaki over the Internet. Al Awlaki is the first U.S. citizen ordered assassinated by the President of the United States.

Al Awlaki is believed to be living in the province of Abyan, along Yemen’s coast, east of Aden. On 31 March 2011, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) declared Abyan an “Islamic Emirate” after seizing control of the region.

In addition to these threats to U.S. national security, and many others, an additional threat arises from Yemen’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden and the entry way to the Suez Canal and Red Sea. Its neighbor across the Gulf, Somalia, has become the center of piracy. As recently as February 2011, off the coast of Oman, Yemen’s immediate neighbor to the east, Somali pirates hijacked a VLCC (1100 feet) bound for the U.S. with oil from Kuwaiti.

The prospects for Yemen look grim.

But they look worse when you actually consult the people of Yemen. Glevum Associates conducted an opinion poll of a national sample of Yemenis in January and February of 2011. Glevum used indigenous interviewers in provinces across the country. Even if you thought you were expecting the worst, you would have been surprised.

The Yemenis were asked “what people around here” think of a number of issues. Here are some of their responses.

 

Percent “Agree”
“The West is at war with Islam” 96%
“The West seeks to enslave and dominate Muslims” 66
“AQAP is the true defender of Muslim interests” 84
“Western culture corrupts Muslims” 92
   

 

 

Percent “Approve”

“President Saleh’s cooperation with the U.S. 4%
“Of the U.S.” 2
Percent “Support”
The liberation of Jerusalem 95%
An Islamic Emirate in Yemen 86  

 

 

 

Yemenis were asked about other issues. Some 89 percent thought U.S. economic power was a negative for the world. U.S. military power was seen as a negative by 83 percent and U.S. cultural influence, a negative by 99 percent of the population.

But there is some possible cause for some sort of optimism from the data.

Anwar Al Awlaki was seen as positive by only a slight majority of Yemenis – 51 to 49 percent. AQAP was seen as negative by 86 to 14 percent, probably because so many are not native Yemenis. Osama Bin Laden was perceived as negative by a margin of 91 percent to 9 percent.

One possibility is that the Yemenis are wary of international involvement and will seek to isolate themselves from the political currents of the Arab world. That would mean Yemeni’s troubles stay in Yemen. But you would have to be a wild-eyed optimist to believe that.