Sunday 18 March 2012

Yemen - What Lies Ahead?

Michael Young

Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi was sworn in as president. Mohammed Huwais/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images.
In a sense, the people of Yemen have emerged largely victorious out of the Arab uprisings that have shaken the region since early 2011. In November last year, Yemen’s president of thirty-three years Ali Abdullah Saleh finally announced that he was going to step down amid mounting protest and rising violence. However he only announced this once he could be sure that he will be immune from any prosecution, and his family can still control most of Yemen including the armed forces. His successor, Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was sworn in as president just last month after elections which have been hailed as representing a ‘new beginning’ for Yemen (despite there being only one candidate to choose from on the ballot, and him winning by 99.6% of the vote). Yemen is therefore going through its first political transition for the first time in a generation, but what lies ahead for the poorest country in the Middle East which is on the verge of economic collapse and currently a hotspot for al-Qaeda?

The change in Yemen received much less Western media coverage than that prescribed to countries such as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and arguably Bahrain. In recent years, the main stories to come out of Yemen have focused on the presence of affiliate ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP) within the country, supposedly operating as an affiliate of al-Qaeda itself. But with the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki by a US drone last year, which Obama labelled as a “major blow to al-Qaeda’s most operational affiliate”, it is clear that the West has taken upon itself to disrupt terrorist operations in the country. 

The situation in Yemen is important. Since the failed Christmas Day bombing of a US airliner over Detroit, and the failed Cargo Plane bombs in 2010, Yemen is now considered as a stronghold for al-Qaeda inspired terrorism – a place where terrorists can easily plan, plot and organise attacks against targets in Europe and the US. Any instability in Yemen provides terrorists with an opportunity to expand and recruit – in fact, it is thought that the West were initially hesitant to accept that Saleh must go, due to his compliance with the West over the issue of al-Qaeda and the fact that collapse of the regime and the resulting anarchy could enable al-Qaeda to take an even stronger presence in the country. Saleh had been submissive to the demands of the West and was a vital ally against al-Qaeda in the region, allowing the US to train Yemeni personnel in the fight against AQAP. 

Upon being sworn into office, Hadi vowed to continue the war on al-Qaeda in the country just like his predecessor. Yet the first terrorist incident in the country under the new regime occurred within just hours of his inauguration, when a car bomb in the south-east city of Mukalla exploded, killing 26. It is clear that the new regime is going to need a considerable amount of help from the West to combat al-Qaeda. Since the attempted Christmas Day and Cargo Plane bombings, the US recognises that it needs to invest heavily in counterterrorism in the country. It is reportedly spending tens or maybe hundreds of millions on it, mainly training Yemeni soldiers.

It is not simply al-Qaeda which is causing divisiveness in Yemen – the country has the problem of many different tribal factions competing for power. There are secessionist movements operating in a South and have been for some time – they are unlikely to be appeased by the Hadi. Rebel tribes have made themselves known in recent years, attacking oil pipelines which have made the availability of oil even scarcer – Yemen is forced to now import oil from neighbouring countries, driving up the price even further. There is also a serious water shortage, and it is thought that Sana’a could be the world’s first capital city to run out of water.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and its economy has been close to collapsing, even before the unrest started last year. Unemployment is high, food prices are constantly rising, and power cuts are daily – all of which contributed to the discontent against Saleh last year. It is thought that through this domestic struggle, and most notably through the poverty which is rife in the country, that al-Qaeda is managing to garner support.

It is unclear what the UK’s current attitude is towards Yemen. The government seems to be acting prudent, largely leaving the US to combat the al-Qaeda splinter group within the country. Hopefully the regime change will bring about the stability that the Yemeni people so badly need, and Hadi will address the internal problems that are not only plaguing the country’s economy but also strengthening al-Qaeda. A strong, stable and anti-extremist Yemen is in the interest of the UK and the West – it is one of the only countries in the region that al-Qaeda seem currently able to operate with ease. From a counterterrorism perspective, securing Yemen should be a foreign policy objective for 2012.

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