Yemen: a state falling apart

Submitted by cathy n on 25 December, 2009 - 5:11 Author: Dan Katz

Since a Yemen-based al-Qaeda group was blamed for the foiled Christmas day plane attack calls for foreign “intervention” have grown. But, as Dan Katz explains in this background article, such intervention has already begun.

Yemen’s population is predominantly rural (73%), young (most are under 15), and poor (National Income per capita was $950 in 2008; only 40% have access to electricity).

Its oil sector provides 90% of export earnings, and 75% of government revenue, but oil production has passed its peak and output is declining. Oil revenue is expected to dry up completely by 2017 (BBC).

The World Bank comments, “living conditions for most of the 22 million Yemenis remain difficult… the situation is particularly dire for women.” Female literacy stands at 30%.

Women are not free to marry who they want and some are forced to marry as young as eight. Once married, a woman must obey her husband and obtain his permission just to leave the house. Women are valued as half the worth of men when they testify in court (Amnesty International).


Yemen also struggles with a severe water shortage.

Almost all of Yemen’s water comes from underground aquifers filled thousands of years ago and replenished very slowly. San'a, the capital, a city of two million people, could run dry in as few as 10 years.

Most of the country's arable land is devoted to khat, a shrub whose leaves contain a compound with effects similar to those of amphetamines, which accounts for approximately a third of the country's water usage.

90% of men in Yemen and 25% of women chew the leaves.


In August 2008 officials stated that there were approximately 1,200 political prisoners (HRW).

Yemen retains the death penalty for a wide variety of offences, among them murder of a Muslim, apostasy, prostitution, adultery, and homosexuality. It is one of a small number of states to execute juveniles. In February 2007 Yemen executed Adil Muhammad Saif al-Ma'amari for a crime apparently committed when he was 16. According to Penal Reform International, at least 18 other juveniles are on death row.

The government holds a monopoly on all television and radio, and bans journalists for publishing “incorrect” information. In 2001, journalists at the newspaper Al-Shura received 80 lashes for defaming the leader of the country's largest Islamist party. The newspaper was also shut down.

Yemen’s Jews

Following anti-Jewish riots in Yemen in the late 1940s, tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews were evacuated to Israel as part of an international airlift known as ‘Operation Magic Carpet’.

Jewish leaders in Yemen say that there are now only 370 Jews left in the country, and the number is falling after anti-semitic murders and attacks. This year something like 20% of Yemen's remaining Jews have left. Traditional Jewish villages lie deserted, abandoned by people who now consider the country too dangerous to stay.

North and South

In 1962, an army coup ended centuries of rule by Shiite (Zaydi) imam, establishing the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in north Yemen. The northern state was influenced by Nasser’s Egypt.

South Yemen had been a British protectorate until the people fought for and won independence as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in November 1967. The south lined up with the Soviet Bloc.

In 1989 the Soviet advisers were pulled out of the PDRY, and aid was cut. Demoralised, the south looked for union with the north, which had economic reasons for merger – Yemen’s oil is in the south.

The two leaders - Ali Salim al-Baidh in the south and Ali Abdullah Saleh in the north – declared union on 22 May 1990. The elections that followed in 1993 reinforced the north-south division. Electors in the north voted for an Islamist party, Islah, and Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC). In the south they elected Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) candidates.

In April-June 1994, there was a north-south civil war which ended in southern defeat. Jihadis were enlisted by the north to fight the 'socialist' south. After the war the authorities in San’a pushed many southern military officers and civil servants into retirement, and replaced them with northerners.

Conflict in the South

100,000 retired southern military officers and civil servants only sporadically received their pensions. The origins of the current movement in south Yemen “was a series of small-scale protests mounted in 2007 by an organisation of military officers from the south who had been forcibly retired, calling for their reinstatement and increased pensions. These former officers formed the Society of Retired Military Officers and began a series of sit-ins and protest marches.” (‘In the name of unity’, Human Rights Watch report, December 2009).

Political Security, Yemen’s internal intelligence service, directly responsible to President Saleh, has been responsible for much of the repression directed at the southern movement. Most of the country’s media is state run, but non-government journalists have also suffered intimidation. For example, in July journalist Anis Mansour Hamida of the Al-Ayyam newspaper based in Aden, in the south, was sentenced to one year and two months in prison for “separatism and attacking national unity”. His paper has been shut down; other papers were closed temporarily.

HRW report states that forces “led by the Yemeni Socialist Party but including the local branches of the Islah party, Nasserists, and Ba’athists, used their grassroots networks to mobilise support for the movement. Demands now included more employment opportunities for southerners, an end to corruption, and a larger share of oil revenues for southern provinces.”

By mid-2009 the southern movement had begun to demand secession and the re-establishment of a southern state. “There are elites in south Yemen who feel marginalised, but the groups they head represent real grievances of the people. The people want lower prices, better services, and more employment. That is the reason they line up behind the secessionist slogans.” (HRW).

In June 2009, the Southern Movement reportedly appointed a five-person “Council for the Leadership of the Peaceful Revolution of the South”. Since its birth the southern movement has declared itself opposed to violence to achieve its aims. There has been violence during its protests, but generally following state provocation.

There are increasing tensions between “southerners” and “northerners”, who see themselves as culturally distinct from each other.

“Protesters accuse northern businessmen of siding with the security agencies in cracking down on protests, or even actively participating in crackdowns and violence against protesters. The state-sponsored Committees to Protect Unity participated in violence against southerners.” (HRW).

The government claims links between the movement in the south and al-Qaeda. Southern Movement leader and former MP Salah Shanfara claims, “We have no links to al-Qaeda and we do not accept any such [violent] talk or position.”

Al-Qaeda in Yemen’s leader, Nasir al-Wuhaishi, has publicly expressed support for the Southern Movement. But on 22 June al-Wuhaishi was contradicted by Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a member of the global al-Qaeda group’s highest ranking Shura Council and identified as the “general chief” of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Abu al-Yazid denied al-Qaeda’s support for southern secession. He stated that al-Qaeda was fighting for the establishment of a unified Islamic state, first in Yemen, then of the Islamic world.


Al-Qaeda is closely associated with Yemen. Osama bin-Laden’s father was born in Yemen. The first al-Qaeda action against the US was a bomb attack on American troops in a hotel in Aden, the major port in southern Yemen, in 1992. And in 2000, two suicide bombers in a speed boat attacked the USS Cole in Aden harbour.

Of the 250 prisoners still in detention at Guantanamo Bay, more than 100 are Yemenis, the largest group by nationality.

Thousands of Yemeni mujahedeen who fought against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s are back in the country. Many are loyal to a former mujahedeen leader, Asker Zuail, who now has a senior position in the Yemeni army, often acting as a government spokesman.

But a new generation is being won to al-Qaeda, which is establishing itself in the south and east of the country. US media are reporting that there are up to 1000 al-Qaeda members in Yemen (eg. Christian Science Monitor, 24 December).

Unlike those loyal to Zuail, these recruits are said to be influenced by the Jordanian jihadist cleric, Abu Muhammad al-Makdissi. Makdissi insists the Islamists must not help Yemen’s pro-Western government. The country’s main Islamist opposition, the Islah party, says the same.

In 2008 al-Qaeda in Yemen launched an online magazine, Sada al-Malahim (Echoes of Battles), urging jihadists to kidnap Westerners to secure the release of jailed members. In 2008 there were two attacks on the US Embassy in San’a – one with mortars, which landed on a nearby school, and a second involving six suicide bombers.

In January 2009, al-Qaeda's branches in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged to create al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - a product of the defeats al-Qaeda has suffered in Saudi Arabia. Now the Saudis are worried that al-Qaeda is using Yemen to regroup and to launch attacks against them; they are particularly concerned to control movement across the porous Saudi-Yemen border.

On 3 November al-Qaeda suspects ambushed a Yemeni government convoy in the Hadramawt region, near the border with Saudi Arabia, killing three senior security men.

On 17, and again on 24 December, Yemeni forces, heavily backed by the US, launched air attacks on al-Qaeda in Yemen. The government claims 34 al-Qaeda members were killed and 30 others were arrested in operations in San’a, Arhab, and Abyan, on the 17 December.

The strike on 24 December appeared to target the home of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a Yemeni-American preacher linked to Major Nidal Hassan, the gunman in the Fort Hood army base shootings in November.

The fact that the Yemeni state can only make arrests around San’a, and uses air-strikes elsewhere, indicates how weak the government is. The state has control in about a quarter of the country.

The US has increased its military aid from nothing in 2008 to $70m in 2009, and is pressing the Yemeni government to act against al-Qaeda.

Fighting in the north

Conflict in Sa'da governorate, in the north of the Yemen on the border with Saudi Arabia, between government forces and an ethnic group known as the Houthis, first erupted in 2004.

There have been six rounds of fighting since then. The most recent, beginning in August, has seen the fighting escalate. The Yemeni offensive is called Operation Scorched Earth and the government is using tanks, rockets, MiGs and helicopter gunships. In total 250 000 civilians are now displaced.

The Houthis have between 2000 and 10 000 fighters (5 December, The Economist) and used a ceasefire after July 2008 to rearm and reclaim territory.

Yemen is awash with guns, and weapons including RPGs can be bought openly in the regional capital, Saada. Other materials have been captured during fighting, or bought from corrupt army officers. The rebels use IEDs and film posted on YouTube shows captured tanks and soldiers.

The Saudi air force bombed Houthi positions in November, declaring a 10km exclusion zone inside Yemeni territory, and the Saudis are also blockading the coast to prevent weapons getting to the Houthis. The Houthis have attacked Saudi bases claiming the Saudis have allowed Yemenis into Saudi territory to attack them from the north.

Both the Yemeni and Saudi governments say Iran is arming the insurgents and training fighters at an Iranian-run camp across the Red Sea in Eritrea. As yet there appears to be no hard evidence to support these claims, and both states have an interest in claiming Iranian involvement.

The Houthi clan is part of the Zaydi sect, a branch of Shia Islam that is unique to Yemen. One in three Yemenis is Zaydi. Although the government is – essentially - Sunni, there is Zaydi representation, including the President.

The Houthi fighters consider themselves mujahedeen. Their slogans are: “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!” They claim the central government has done little for them and that widespread corruption favours President Saleh’s own clan.

The origins of their dispute with the government seems to go back to the first Gulf War in 1990-1 when Saudi Arabia expelled a million Yemeni workers to punish Saleh for backing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This influx drew recruits into a radical Zaydi cult, known as the Believing Youth, that had been launched by a charismatic member of the Houthi family, and building on government neglect of the north where the lucrative smuggling trade was badly hit during the row with Saudi Arabia.

The future

The future is bleak for Yemen, which is falling apart under pressure from various reactionary and ultra-reactionary forces, and therefore vulnerable to the power play of all kinds of outside powers.

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