Yemen cries for help
Arab news 28 Sep 2014
If you regularly watch television or read newspapers for news of the Middle East, you would most probably never see or read much about Yemen. The small country at the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, with no huge mineral resources, just does not appear much on the radar screens of the western media, despite the country being the home of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), possibly one of the biggest threats to the United States.
It is therefore unfortunate that the alarming takeover of the Yemeni capital Sanaa by Houthi rebels over the past weekend barely made a blip in the western media. All western attention is currently focused on the bombing campaign by the US and its allies of the Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria. Yet the ongoing instability in Yemen, since the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh at the end of 2011, has made the country a perfect breeding ground and hiding place for Al-Qaeda terrorists. Washington has recognized this, boosting US military aid to Yemen to $142 million from 2012 to 2014 just to modernize its security services. According to the Guardian, US aid has included providing the Yemenis with drones, night-vision equipment and enhanced intelligence gear. Yemen has also been a major target of US drone attacks targeting terrorists, 18 so far this year, with 26 strikes in 2013 and 41 in 2012.
The World Bank has been a major funder of development projects in Yemen for the past decade, currently funding 32 projects across the country worth $900 million that focus on increasing access to basic social services and improving infrastructure. An Emergency Grant Recovery Program worth $100 million will funnel cash grants to approximately 400,000 households, and is just one program among several approved to help the poor. So with all of this aid, why is Yemen still in such a bad shape? It remains the poorest Arab country and its poverty rate grew from 42 percent of the population in 2009 to 54.5 percent in 2012 according to the World Bank, due to the instability following the ouster of Saleh in 2011. Saudi Arabia has tried to help by granting three oil grants worth $1 billion each since 2011, which the World Bank says helped stabilize the overall macroeconomic situation.
What is unfortunately lacking in Yemen is good political leadership. Greed and a thirst for power, along with corruption and cronyism, are what have characterized Yemeni politics for the past three decades. That plus a virulent case of tribalism, have allowed the northern tribes to hold political power in Sanaa for much too long. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) tried to negotiate the peaceful departure of Saleh in 2011, but he repeatedly refused to sign the agreements drawn up and when he finally left was given immunity from prosecution and allowed to remain in the country. Many Yemenis allege that he remained in country, free to command the political and military forces loyal to him, and as such sow discord that in large part has led to the failure of leadership of his successor President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Houthi rebels, who hail from the northern Saada governorate, are Shiite and have been battling government forces for years. They have now latched on to popular discontent at an increase in oil prices in order to gain public sympathy and appear to be on the side of the people. But they have been shown to be playing a violent and dual game of doing one thing in Sanaa, and a completely different one back home in their province. Writing in Al-Monitor, Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen points out that in Saada the Houthis ban music and make their womenfolk stay at home, while in Sanaa they support the demands of the women’s movement, including the demand to have a fixed share of political participation. This smacks of the utmost opportunism, which is dangerous and misleading to say the least. Not to mention the violence and threats of violence that the Houthis have been willing to use while overrunning military bases in Sanaa.
The refusal of the Houthis to give up their weapons and the tanks that they stole from the military bases, as requested by President Hadi after he signed the peace agreement agreeing to their demands of sharing power with them, is extremely worrying in that it is a sign that perhaps having tasted power the Houthis do not want to share power after all. But this would be a huge mistake, of which surely they are aware, given that the Houthis are a minority and that the rest of Yemen is majority Sunni.
What Yemenis really need now, apart from all the economic and military aid that the US, EU and GCC are giving, is that its political leadership pulls the country out of the dark hole that it has fallen into. The southern part of the country has been restless for quite some time, saying that it wants to split again from the North, and the eastern part of the country is a Wild West lawless type of place, where AQAP terrorists hold sway and the central Yemeni government has no influence whatsoever. Yemen has held a National Dialogue Conference which agreed on the need for new elections and most importantly the establishment of a federal form of government in order to devolve more power to the provinces. Unfortunately nothing has been done about this. It is in the interests of the region that Yemen gets its political house in order, as only then will the economic side improve.