Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 22:45 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 22:45 | SYDNEY

Yemen fear of collapse

16 September 2011 10:42

Philip Eliason is a former diplomat who has worked on Libyan issues and is a member of the Advisory Board to the Macquarie University Centre for Middle East and North African Studies.

Yemen is a state of dynamic stasis. It has now had about seven months of political turmoil, many deaths, economic stagnation and rising internal security problems.

Its national leadership — made up of political office holders, custodians of traditional authority, religious leaders and the pro-change youth movement — is divided and without a centre of gravity powerful enough to commence consolidation. Its president may soon return from his extended post-assassination-attempt hospitalisation in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the daily bad news from Yemen, particularly in the south, Yemenis do not see their country as being on the way to collapse. Yet in my discussions with Yemenis recently, I heard that they did fear a real collapse which would result in far graver and more violent fighting across the country than we have seen to date, as each power base and its affiliate tribes and military elements mobilise to protect territory and economic interests and, according to tradition, seize those of others.

The endemic poverty of Yemen and its universal ownership of weapons make it surprising that Yemen is so far so stable. But Yemenis know what the next step means. One of my interlocutors said there are signs of clannish regional divisions beginning.

The Government in Sana'a sees the heart of the current popular revolution as being based in the former Yemeni capital Taez. Taez is the gateway to southern Yemen, reasonably well educated, industrious and influential but, compared to the north and Sana'a, relatively lightly armed. The Government may believe that the suppression of demonstrations and political activism in Taez will stifle political movements in Sana'a, hence Taez has been hit hard by security forces and their proxies.

If Taez is a Government target, then it is also a target for southern Yemenis. In a sign that regional and clan identification is deepening, southern Yemenis are now even talking in public of slaughtering Taez people living in Aden (migrants from Taez have made up a large proportion of Aden's population over nearly 200 years).

Aden and the south of Yemen are no strangers to bloody sortings out (many thousands were killed in the 1986 split in the Aden-based Yemeni Socialist Party). Taez people believe the Government is arming loyalists in the Taez region to attack them. Many may sell these weapons as poverty knocks but the civil protest movement is being increasingly surrounded by weapons.

The political dialogue in Sana'a is complex and multipolar. The swing factor at present is Saudi Arabia, which may be spreading its bets through funding and patronage either as a deliberate policy or as a consequence of powerful individuals in Saudi Arabia supporting their favourites. Many Yemenis see Riyadh as much more influential than Washington in Yemeni politics.

Should the future of Yemen be in Saudi Arabia's hands then we should consider the consequences. Yemenis see their country's increasing religious conservatism a result of Saudi influence. Should Saudi Arabia take a more direct role, Yemen's historical cohabitation between Sunni and Zaidi Shia Muslims would be at risk from Riyadh's visceral dislike of the Shia.

There are two things now to consider: how to maintain Western influence in Yemen for political diversity and economic development and how to ensure any transition of power is as bloodless as possible.

The following steps are needed to address both points. First, Yemen's situation needs to be internationalised further. Most donors are waiting to see what happens in Sana'a's presidential palace before committing further development assistance. They are frightened off by the security situation. This needs to be reversed. Substantive and visible development projects can happen, it is just more complex to achieve them.

Second, the president retains an ability to help the people of Yemen and he can do so by returning to the country within a framework of leadership transition (which is clearly on his mind). He must also unblock political processes and administration, and try to stabilise a difficult security situation. But this needs to be wrapped in an internationalised process.

Yemen is simply too important to leave to Saudi Arabia to manage. Yemenis say they want a good leader, they want independence and they need funds. Being bought off by Saudi Arabia will not give Yemenis the type of independence they want.

Photo by Flickr user IRIN photos.