Yemen on the verge of collapse

Oliver Scanlan
3 June 2011

On Friday, heavy fighting continued in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Street protests that erupted in January against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have escalated to the point where the capital has been divided between those forces loyal to the President and rival tribal militias. The fighting has killed at least 135 people in the last ten days. Street combat between government and tribal forces has also led to the temporary grounding of flights at Yemen’s main airport. Domestic oil pipelines and electricity lines have been largely cut off by tribal groups; Sanaa also now lacks a secure water supply. Today, the presidential compound was hit by shellfire, injuring senior figues inside.

Saleh has reneged on an agreed plan for him to step down, resulting in continuing political deadlock. Under a deal worked out by Gulf States, Saleh agreed to end his 33 year reign peacefully; however, he has refused to sign the detailed transition plan prepared by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). The United States has dispatched envoy John Brennan to the United Arab Emirates from Saudi Arabia to discuss the deteriorating situation in Yemen. The United States’ strategy appears to hinge on the ability of these two powerful neighbours to pressure Saleh into accepting the transition agreement.

The openSecurity verdict: The security situation in Yemen is unusually complex. In addition to the fighting between government forces and tribal groups under the banner of the powerful Hashed confederation, there are several other battles being fought across the country. The most important to Western security logic is that between the government and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; political chaos in Yemen will allow what is already considered to be the most active Al-Qaida affiliate outside of South Asia to gain further ground in building its support base among the tribes.

Other fighters have apparently seized the coastal city of Zinjibar in a repeat of events earlier in the 2011 Yemeni uprising. Then there is the long standing Shi’ia Al-Houthi rebellion, centred on Sa’dah governate on the Saudi border. Conflict between government forces and the al-Houthis has flared six times since 2004, and the Shi’ites have declared themselves for the rebellion against Saleh. This is arguably the crucial aspect of Yemen’s current crisis, as the Shi’ia rebellion has provoked Saudi military intervention in the past.

In 2009-2010, the Houthi rebellion crossed into Saudi Arabia, leading to a Saudi naval blockade and a ferocious military counter attack that involved shelling rebel positions inside Yemen. The Shi’ia religious identity of the rebels prompted allegations from Riyadh that they were backed by Iran in an attempt to destabilise the peninsula. In a similar manner to the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to sustain a Sunni minority dictatorship against a Shi’ia population, the Al-Houthi group has the potential to ignite widescale communal warfare within Yemen, potentially drawing in external actors.

Regardless of the political fallout, the economic damage to Yemen may already be irretrievable. Capital flight has caused the depreciation of the riyal, pushing even more Yemenis into poverty. As it stands, with 250 riyals to the dollar, some 50% of Yemen’s population live below the poverty line; if the riyal falls in value to 300 to the dollar, another 15% of the population will join them. This has been compounded by the Saudi monarchy withdrawing payments to friendly tribal chiefs across the border. Most pressing is the lack of water, which has risen in price by up to ten times; the lack of oil has caused diesel powered water pumps to shut down. The total damage to the economy caused by the ongoing violence is estimated to be $5 billion, which represents about 17% of the country’s GDP. If a stable arrangement to transfer power is not agreed upon soon, the results could be nothing less than the total collapse of Yemen as a nation state.

Nato extends Libya mission as Tripoli defections continue

On Wednesday, Nato announced that it was extending the duration of its mission in Libya beyond the 90 day limit implemented in March. In a statement, Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that the alliance was determined to continue operations ‘to protect the people of Libya’. The decision follows the controversial announcement of the dispatch of attack helicopters by the UK and France to Libya last Monday. Such aircraft will undoubtedly bolster the alliance’s military options on the ground by being able to attack smaller targets and operate in built up environments. The move was, however, criticised as ‘escalatory’ by several commentators.

Nato’s announcement comes days after a string of defections from among Libya’s top military and political establishments. On Monday, eight senior Libyan military officers, including five generals, appeared at a new conference in Rome to announce that they had defected to Italy. One of the defectors suggested that the Libyan army’s effectiveness had been reduced to 20% of its former strength, and that no more than ten generals remained loyal to Gaddafi. On Tuesday, the top official in Libya’s oil industry, Shokri Ghanem, defected because of the ‘unbearable violence’.

Former Israeli Intelligence Chief criticises Netanyahu

In a speech at Tel Aviv University on Wednesday, Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, criticised Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu as being ‘absent of vision and responsibility.’ In a robust statement, the former spymaster also called on Israel to show ‘military restraint and political initiative’. His view is that there should be no pre-emptive attack on Iran and that Israel should pursue the Arab Peace Initiative.

The speech is seen by Israeli commentators as an opening gambit in Dagan’s move into politics. As a former security official, he is barred from seeking public office for three years, and lacks experience of party politics. This is in contrast to Netanyahu, who, as a career politician, has developed a well-deserved reputation as a seasoned political street fighter. Despite this, Dagan has an unquestioned gravitas as head of Israel’s renowned Mossad, and counted former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a patron. This may make him a contender in Israeli opposition politics in the near future.

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