Sunday, January 10, 2010

The stakes just got higher for Yemen

Yemen, reputedly the poorest country in the Arab world, is home to around 20 million people wedged between the Red Sea, the treacherous waters of the Gulf of Aden, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and within wind-surfing distance of Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea. (Photo: - Yemeni man sits near the wreckage of a suspected Al Qaeda car bomb attack).

In the wake of the Christmas day misadventures of the 'underpants bomber' on a US-bound flight, we learned of Yemen's role as its al-Qaeda branch claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing. So all eyes are now firmly on Yemen and the usual suspects concerned with battling al-Qaeda have rushed to increase their aid, and specifically their military aid. The US, for example has increased its military aid to Yemen seven-fold in three years while the UK has increased its aid four-fold.

Fragile but not failed
Slightly bigger than Spain and just smaller than Ukraine, Yemen is said to have one of the most open political system on the Arabian Peninsula. But it has also been facing serious challenges arising from the eruption of conflict with Shi'a Houti rebels five years ago in the northern governorate of Saada.

Yemen is a classic fragile (as opposed to ‘failed’) state and after the recent attempted bombing of a US airline it is once again under the scrutiny of countries coalesced to fight 'terror'. Questions are being asked aloud whether extremism can be reversed there and, if not, what this might mean in terms of international military intervention. 

There are many known unknowns surrounding the threat toYemen’s sovereignty and the security of its powerful Saudi neighbors. The hand of Iran is also present and the physical, religious and cultural links with anarchic and conflict-ridden Somalia are obviously reasons for concern. Yemen therefore finds itself in the unenviable position of being a common denominator for many of the key strategic issues and headaches that inform Washington’s view of the Middle East and the “war on terror”.

Protecting the House of Saud and American Foreign Policy

The potential for forces in Yemen to undermine Saudi security (or even oust the ruling family) is the most immediate concern (no need to recall that overthrowing the House of Saud sits atop Al-Qaeda’s manifesto). This is not just a fanciful notion, Saudi Arabia and others are extremely fearful that a well-organized al-Qaeda with a foothold in Yemen can spread operations with relative ease over the border. 

If you are a policy geek in Washington or London or Cairo or Tel Aviv or - well you get the picture - this is not a scenario you want to contemplate, but contemplate it you must. Much of US and western foreign policy towards the Middle East (and the wider Muslim world thanks to the 'war on terror') hinges itself precariously between Cairo and Riyadh, and everything will be done to ensure the hinges remain tightly bolted to their buttressed frames. 

Anything that threatens to undermine this policy will be swiftly and urgently dealt with by the US and its allies as the alternatives are unthinkable. Should things unhinge we would rapidly see a bloody redrawing of borders all over the Middle East, the redistribution of wealth to new power brokers - with unfavorable repercussions for the current international economic systems and trade routes - and a ferocious showdown between Shi'a and Sunni forces in pursuit of hegemonic dominance. 

Above all it could signal the end of American influence in the Middle East, including a sucker punch to its most-favored ally, the fledgling State of Israel. These are the types of stakes being played out today on a blackjack table that stretches from Tehran to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria to Israel and Occupied Palestine, from Sudan to Somalia and, not least, Yemen. And the stakes in Yemen just got much much higher.

Military Outlook and the Somali factor
Given Yemen's high geo-strategic value and its potential influence in the Arab street, such fears seem valid when one considers that the Sana’a government is battling for its life on at least three fronts: fighting against al-Qaeda, facing a Shi'a rebellion in the north and a strong separatist movement in the south. Among the many known unknowns is the pivotal question of whether external military support or intervention will do more harm than good. 

Scenarios are surfacing too of a link between Yemeni and Somali militants (more plausible than preposterous I would think) moving virtually unchecked between the two countries through the lawless, pirate-ridden waters of the Gulf of Aden. Al Shabab, the Somali armed Islamist group, recently played on such fears, vowing to cross the straits and defend Yemen against any American military intervention there. 

This is another nightmare scenario for the policy geeks. It's bad enough Somalia's Islamic brand of anarchy corroding friendly neighborhoods and US allies like Kenya and Ethiopia but if it were to cross the Red Sea and set up shop in the Middle East ... In this context, one might understand why Yemen has rejected the possibility of American intervention. 

Chewin' the Qat

Many Yemen watchers will tell you that to understand it you have to understand Qat - the drug of choice in Yemen. Its consumption is deeply rooted in Yemeni culture, and has long been exported to its neighbors and allies across the Gulf of Aden

Qat is chewed by men and women and is known for its narcotic properties. This phenomenon involves 80% of people spending many hours a day chewing Qat.  What's more the country's ground water is rapidly drying up due to 80% of water being used for Qat cultivation. In essence Qat is the economy and yet hamstrings the economy; a plant that energizes while paradoxically producing societal apathy. Qat is also a very social drug, a very talkative time in your average Yemeni's day so, who knows, Yemen could be the first place where Al-Q and their adversaries start chewing the fat over the Qat (sorry, couldn't resist that).

Shifting gears
Qat apart, the mix of conflict and poverty, natural disasters and climate change, migration and instability, guarantees that Yemen will be an important context for political, military and humanitarian focus over the next number of years starting right now. Indeed, one could argue, it is precisely these factors of chronic underdevelopment that has made Yemen so susceptible to Al Qaeda and irascible conflicts in the first place. 

In 2010 it is certain that the "war on terror" will expand (as opposed to shift) its focus to Yemen – the real battleground is still Afghanistan-Pakistan (and there is still a war in Iraq). A country that till now ‘only’ earned the attention of old school spies and a few hi-tech drones can now expect much more robust involvement from the US, Saudi Arabia and allies. In other words, when the stakes get high, the high rollers follow.


1 comment:

  1. Slightly smaller than France and a tad bigger than thailand would have been better. Ukraine is 76,000 square km bigger, about one Czech republic