Things Fall Apart: Violence and Poverty in Yemen

By Barron, Owen | Harvard International Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Things Fall Apart: Violence and Poverty in Yemen


Barron, Owen, Harvard International Review


Recent unrest in Yemen indicates that the Gulf state--for decades the region's poorest--may be in slow-motion collapse. On April 6, 2008, an Al Qaeda bombing shook the capital city of Sanaa, capping a spree of political violence that killed 21 people. Riots have flared in response to stagnant economic conditions and rising food prices. The most dismal omen came in March, when the state's oil ministry admitted that oil production has fallen considerably and will continue to drop. Indeed, while the current violence affects Yemen's political stability, it is economic security which, in the long run, is most endangered. Though Yemen's current instability is worrying, only more trouble lies ahead for the nation.

Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQIY) is the most prominent of the recent threats to Yemen's stability, mounting a recent surge in anti-government propaganda and violence. A new generation of jihadis, battle-tested in Iraq and virulently anti-American, have rejected the conservatism of AQIY's old guard and criticized the Yemeni government for cooperating with the United States. Since mid-2007, Al Qaeda has supplemented its propaganda with a series of attacks on military compounds and tourist convoys. In April 2008, those attacks increased in severity.

A second destabilizing factor includes the renewal of the four year-old Houthi rebellion of Zaydi Shi'a in northern Yemen. The rebellion began in 2004 under Zaydi leader Badr al-Din al-Houthi and was revived, several years after al-Houthi's death, by his brother Abd al-Malik. According to experts, the Houthis aim to overthrow President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government and restore the Shia imamate that was toppled in 1962. The Houthis maintain that their real objection to the Sanaa government stems from its partnership with the United States. Regardless of their intentions, the Houthis are responsible for four years of on-and-off guerrilla violence and have been accused of terrorist attacks.

The third indicator of the country's weakness is the long-term rift between North and South Yemen. Riots have threatened the precarious unity of the two regions, which were only joined in 1990 after a 30 year separation. Residents of the former South Yemen accuse Saleh, president of North Yemen before 1990, of favoring the North through government patronage and employment. Southerners have also recently protested against Sanaa's treatment of soldiers who fought against the North in the 1994 civil war. This unrest prompted Saleh to deploy troops and tanks to South Yemen, further exacerbating the violence.

Solutions to these conflicts are more elusive than they might seem. In 2001, for example, Saleh parlayed Yemen's strategic importance in the war on terrorism into promises of US economic and military aid. After gaining US support, Yemen cracked down on domestic militancy by casting a wide net and rounding up militants and dissidents it deemed to be terrorists. By 2002 the threat of Al Qaeda in Yemen seemed to recede. However, Saleh's US ties themselves spawned a new wave of violence from Sunni and Shia alike. Moreover, Saleh's counterterrorism initiative is dependent on the willingness of tribal leaders to cooperate with the government. More than once, terrorist suspects have escaped prison to seek asylum with their tribes; Saleh, not having the power or the desire to force their capture, has let them go. …

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