Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Yemen's Insecurity Dilemma

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Yemen's Insecurity Dilemma

Article excerpt

The brazen Dec. 5 attack which rocked the Defense Ministry in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, killing 52 people, including women, children and doctors at the ministry's hospital, is yet another reminder of the country's growing insecurity. Even before the dust of the attack had settled the usual suspects were named: al-Qaeda-affiliated militant jihadists.

However, tabloid-style sensationalism and the narrow fixation on al-Qaeda's rhetoric and tactics obscure the fact that the biggest source of insecurity in Yemen's post-Arab Spring climate is not the active presence of al-Qaeda, but rather the power struggles and lethal factionalism within the military and state security entities. It is a strategic misperception to attribute the country's ongoing political violence to ideological, sectarian, tribal or regional motives.

On the ground, everything seems to indicate that the Yemeni state is caught in a spiral of elite-orchestrated systematic chaos which is threatening to push the fragile country over the brink. Seasonal militant jihadists, mobile sectarian outfits, elite defectors, autonomists, criminal networks and armed militias under the patronage of different local and external patrons all have stepped up their activities-either to settle accounts, maintain material interests, expand their political power and territory, or hamper efforts aimed at a post-Arab Spring renegotiation of Yemen's social contract. Old rules and networks are being rejected, but new rules and networks are not yet formulated. Dangerous uncertainty is the name of the game.

Since President Rabbo Mansour al Hadi assumed office in February 2012, the country has been plunged into large-scale violence targeting the military-security apparatuses. Three months after Hadi took office, a suicide bomber wearing a Yemeni army uniform killed about 100 soldiers during a rehearsal for a National Unity Day parade. In addition to attacks on military installations and checkpoints in various parts of the country, "shoot and scoot" attacks against military, intelligence and security officers have become common. In the first half of 2013 alone, more than 85 middle- and high-ranking officers were assassinated.

Another vital sector under attack in Yemen's post-Arab Spring climate is the country's energy infrastructure. Acts of industrial sabotage and the resulting shutdowns of oil fields have become as regular as clockwork. In the first seven months of last year, more than 115 attacks on the country's main oil pipelines, electricity grid and fiber-optics network were reported. Although Yemen is not a major hydrocarbon producer, its oil and natural gas resources account for over 90 percent of the country's exports, finance up to 70 percent of national budget spending, and, above all, are the main machinery of patronage and the regime's politics of survival.

Securing the country's pipelines and other critical energy infrastructure is a stated goal of Yemen's current president. The 34-member transition government cabinet, sworn in in December 2011, has adopted a "Transitional Program for Stabilization and Development" which aims to enhance security and ease poverty. Paralyzed by partisan gridlock, however, the transition government is in no position to take serious measures to enforce its authority, control and protection. In the northeastern province of Marib, where the heart of Yemen's energy infrastructure is located, there is a newly emerging popular saying which goes: hit a pipe (pronounced "peep" by locals), get a jeep. The saying refers to the government's distribution of jeeps to local figures in return for their cooperation in stopping the sabotaging of energy infrastructure in the province.

Responding to the string of assassinations in Yemen's southern, central, eastern and northern provinces, the central government could only implement a temporary two-week ban on motorbikes in the capital city. The Interior Ministry described the ban as a step aimed at "preserving security and stability. …

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