Yemen on the Brink of War

Yemeni protesters in Sana'a demand an improvement of the economic situation in the country on March 27, 2008. (Photo: AFP-Getty Images)

On May 3, the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a issued a statement on the political violence in South Yemen that claimed eight lives last week. The United States stressed that "Yemen's unity depends on its ability to guarantee every citizen equal treatment under the law." What the Yemeni government calls unity, the protesters call occupation.

Since protests erupted in South Yemen in May 2007, dozens were killed, hundreds injured and over a thousand arrested. As police shot into the crowds, Southern claims of institutionalized discrimination turned into calls for independence. After regional protest marches last week, Yemen began shelling the town of Radfan. Some Southerners took up arms for the first time.

Southern grievances include overt theft of public and private land by Northern officials, the embezzlement of oil revenues and the subjugation of the south after Yemen’s 1994 civil war.

Northern citizens outside President Ali Abdullah Saleh's ruling elite are just as impoverished and face the same brutality. The Yemeni military bombed cities and villages in the northern Sa'ada province, countering an isolated Shiite rebellion that flared from 2004 to 2008.

The government withheld food, medicine, and aid from the 700,000 residents in Sa'ada—a practice Human Rights Watch called collective punishment. The United States and the European Union were largely silent as 130,000 Yemenis fled their homes and Hashemite men and boys were arbitrarily arrested and often brutally tortured.  

The state used jihadists to train and lead tribal militias in Sa'ada and convicted a journalist, Abdulkarim al Khaiwani, of terrorism for "demoralizing the military" with an article about the war.

The bombing of Radfan may signal the beginning of a similarly brutal campaign in the south that deploys the deadly trio of bombing, blockade and jihadists.

U.S. efforts to repatriate the ninety-four Yemenis at Guantanamo Bay are at a "complete impasse." The United States is understandably concerned by President Saleh's penchant for making deals with escaped terrorists and presumably by his open support for the "resistance" in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza.

The state's legitimization of the jihad ideology works to repress progressives, silence critics and short circuit reform. The official media cast both Shiite rebels and Southern socialists as apostates. Six independent newspapers have been shuttered including Aden based al Ayyam. Government preachers declared a holy war against the southern separatists last Friday.

After suicide bombers assaulted the U.S. embassy in Sana'a last September, the Saudi branch of Al Qaeda regrouped in Yemen.  The country is a terrorist safe haven in part because Yemeni law does not criminalize jihad abroad or terror financing. As in Pakistan, aspects of the Yemeni security forces are subverted by Al Qaeda, and vast rural areas have no government presence.

What the international community must recognize is that the primary dysfunction in Yemen is the criminalization of the state. The current bloodshed in the south, the resurgence of Al Qaeda and the northern rebellion all have roots in the failure of the state to act in the public interest. As Yemeni officials thwart reforms and subvert the law to protect illicit profit flows, poverty and frustration grow.

Corruption and embezzlement documented in 2007 totaled over YR 72 billion (about $360 million) but no prosecutions occurred. The quite substantial corporate holdings of officials—including the president—violate the law.

In April, President Saleh's son (and heir apparent) was named in U.S. federal court as the intended recipient, along with other government officials, of over a million dollars in bribes from a U.S. telecom company. Yemen has been called a kleptocracy—a government of, by and for thieves. It’s like a mafia with an air force.

Yemen is one of the most water scarce countries in the world, but the implementation of water strategies proves impossible time and time again. The city of Taiz gets water once every 40 days, and water barons reap the profits of thirst.

The electric, medical and education sectors are equally perverted by corruption. Half of citizens have no medical service, and what exists is poor. Over 70 percent of medicine in Yemen is either counterfeit or smuggled. Medicine donated to the Health Ministry disappears from the shelves. Three quarters of women give birth without a doctor. There is a lethal shortage of dialysis machines.

Unpacking regional concerns, piracy, violence in Somalia and criminal networks of drug smuggling, gun running and human trafficking all have a Yemen component. 

Somali pirates hide their mother ships in Yemen’s waters. NATO Commander, Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, said the pirates receive "a lot of the logistical supplies" from Yemen. Pirates say they receive information on ship location from Yemeni collaborators.

The U.N. committee that monitors the arms embargo on Somalia found Yemen to be the primary source of illegal arms and ammunition. Yemen's inability to stem the large-scale arms trafficking is "a key obstacle to the restoration of peace and security to Somalia," the panel determined. 

Weapons are also smuggled to Saudi Arabia and Gaza. Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East, spends a third of its budget on the military. President Saleh inked a billion-dollar weapons deal with Russia in February.

Narcotics from Pakistan, Iran and Syria, including millions of Keptagon tablets and tons of hashish, enter Yemen and flood the Gulf States. Yemeni children are sold to beg in Saudi Arabia and have their kidney's harvested in Egypt. In some border villages, one third of children are missing.

Poverty drives child smuggling. Yemeni children are among the hungriest on earth. But foreign aid, like oil revenue, is subject to elite capture. Yemen can't effectively absorb the aid it has and pay interest on unused loans.

The United States says it supports "a stable, unified, and democratic Yemen." Yemenis chose a democratic system in 1990, but they haven’t seen it yet. What exists in Yemen is a criminal enterprise that bombs its own people, smuggles weapons, frees terrorists and kidnaps journalists.

Solutions exist, and have been promised by the Saleh regime many, many times, including substantive decentralization, combating corruption and electoral reform.  But President Saleh, in power since 1978, does not have the political will to solve legitimate grievances or they would have been solved already.

With Yemen on the brink of civil war and deaths in the South mounting daily, the United States has called for dialog, not violence. However, many Southerners (and Northerners) have no confidence in Saleh's ability to negotiate in good faith. He has lied too many times and stolen too much. Two years of peaceful southern protests brought only tanks and bullets.

Dialog at this point requires regional or international oversight. Southerners have been calling for U.N.-supervised negotiations for years. A caretaker government under the guidance of the Gulf Cooperative Council is another possibility. But almost any strategy is better than pinning the future of 22 million Yemenis on dreams of rehabilitating President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Jane Novak is an American  blogger, researcher and journalist. The author of over 50 articles on Yemen, her website armiesofliberation.com is banned by the Yemeni government.