From Sana’a with love: A UM student in Yemen explores the country’s recent instability
Sitting south of U.S. backed Saudi Arabia and west of oil rich Oman sits Yemen, a nation which over the past few months has drawn a considerable amount of publicity due to the recent exploits of one Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, better known as the “Christmas Day bomber.”
News outlets have been billing the small Arabic Republic for the past few years as one of the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest and most underdeveloped countries, but more recently the media has focused on the mounting threat of terrorism from inside Yemen, supported by a reactionary tribal theocracy. While Al-Qaeda is very much on the rise within the country’s borders, the history behind its ascent to political viability has been largely ignored.
The Yemen Arab Republic has only existed for the better part of the past decade, its formation the result of a bloody civil war which left current president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General Peoples’ Congress (GPC) holding power. Before the unification of Yemen in 1990, the country was divided along the civil war’s boundaries, with Saleh’s GPC presiding over the Northern Territories, while most of the South and East were left in the hands of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) under the backing of the former Soviet Union.
Unified in 1990 under a coalition government, the stability of the country has eroded following a power dispute between the GPC and YSP, which led to a minor civil conflict in 1994. In the aftermath of the tumult, Saleh’s GPC consolidated its hold on power, and have continued to lead the country since. Saleh has ruled over at least part of the country since 1978.
Yemen is arguably the least blessed of all the Arab states. As with Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s major resource is oil, yet Yemen is not a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the world’s primary oil cartel. Further, unlike many of its neighbors, Yemen is dependent on foreign drilling for infrastructural reasons, relying on so-called production-sharing agreements (PSAs), which allow Yemen to keep some of the revenue from drilling but less than if the country conducted drilling itself. Thus, while the country derives the majority of its GDP from its oil deposits, it is only making a share of what it could.
According to a Nov. 2008 report in the BBC, black gold accounts for around 70 percent of government revenue and about 90 percent of exports. Yemen’s economic homogeneity poses even more of a dilemma for the Republic nestled into the southernmost corner of the Arabian Peninsula given that some geologists estimate Yemen has already passed its peak output, and predict oil deposits could be depleted by 2017.
Yemen’s energy predicament is more halting considering that natural fresh water resources in the Sana’a basin – home to Sana’a, the nation’s capital – have by some accounts, been almost completely depleted. A majority of the fresh water in Yemen is now trucked in from desalinization plants located in Aden, the former capital of South Yemen. And, while Aden and the southern provinces produce the fresh water, keeping their government in power, they are the most heavily taxed and least represented region thanks to the increasingly repressive actions of the Saleh government against its former opposition.
It was under these circumstances that, on Christmas day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a connecting flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Abdulmutallab was apprehended after failing to ignite an explosive device hidden in his underpants. It was later revealed that he had received training and explosives from Al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives while studying at a language institute in Sana’a.
Terrorist organizations have operated out of the Arabian Peninsula for years. In 2000, the USS Cole was bombed off the coast of Aden, with AQAP taking responsibility. The Yemeni Government has been fighting a sporadic civil conflict with Northern separatist movements based out of Sa’da for close to a decade. Beyond jihadist violence and ongoing civil unrest, Yemen is notorious for its kidnappings. In fact, kidnappings in Yemen are nearly a joke among those working, studying and living there. Men armed with AK-47s have been known to ride into areas where foreigners gather, and tell students and visitors to come with them, only to snatch them for a period of time for what can only be described as Yemeni hospitality. The often-affable kidnappers will then release their targets in return for imprisoned family members, or the promise of government services such as schools or roads. One pair of kidnapping victims, a Danish couple, even reunited with their affable captors for a friendly lunch months after being released.
So it was nothing short of a surprise when news reached Sana’a that half of the victims kidnapped in Sa’da in early June turned up on a mountainside dead – with no group claiming responsibility. Needless to say, local conspiracy theories were in no short supply. Some claimed that it was AQAP, other that it was Houthi separatist fighters from the North, but most adamantly believed that the Saleh government had kidnapped and murdered these people to justify another civil war and draw attention away from Yemen’s mounting resource and infrastructure problems. Ask any Yemeni about Saleh, and the question garners the same proverbial response, a shake of the head and some sarcastic comment about his “great achievements.” The tact is necessary, as any criticism of the president can land one in jail for a minimum of five years.
It is under these circumstances that American aid to Saleh and the GPC has skyrocketed in an attempt to curb AQAP influence in the more remote areas, where sensitivity about criticisms leveled at Saleh lack the same tact found in Sana’a. Just for clarity’s sake, when asked about the current government, a former opposition reporter and current language instructor in Sana’a only related to me stories about friends being imprisoned and newspapers being shut down in response to critiques of current domestic policy. Compare that to an account of a wedding in the Eastern M’arib province, the location of recent bombings aimed at rooting out AQAP leaders, from one American student based in Sana’a.
“It was incredible; the army didn’t even look at us twice,” recounted Matt Rugger, a fellow student and researcher in Sana’a. “The only reason I was able to get out of the city without my passport was because I was sitting in a caravan of at least thirty armored SUVs, each one carrying at least four tribal members carrying a loaded AK-47 and a side arm.”
“When we got out of the car,” said Rugger, “even the women were walking around with guns.”
With portraits such as these disassociated from the country’s cultural and historical legacy, it is little wonder Western media outlets have had such an easy time painting a picture of disenfranchised, religious radicals with a hatred of democracy and capitalism. Many Yemenis outside Sana’a own and regularly carry at least one AK-47 assault rifle. Most regions in the country are governed according to ancient tribal customs. Yes, the Saleh government is struggling to maintain a grip on the country it has purportedly ruled for over thirty years. But, when one stops and considers why these remote regions have fallen back on their historical and cultural roots as a basis of government, it is really not so surprising.
The Saleh government has held an iron grip on politics since the late 1970s, but has done little else to better the Republic. Saleh’s regime managed to construct a $60 million mosque in the nation’s capital bearing the president’s name, but have largely failed to prepare for multiple ecological disasters and have generally ignored the needs of the outlying regions, which are growing more and more unstable.
When one keeps in mind that Yemen’s remote regions consider themselves autonomous because of government policy, these remote regions’ political volatility begins to make more sense. Al-Qaeda suddenly seems to be more a group of opportunistic foreigners capitalizing on the instability, rather than a legitimate movement. Similar to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, these areas in Yemen are viewed by Al-Qaeda as a sparsely-populated country where they can operate without the fear of strong and focused government retaliation.
Max Calloway recently spent five months in Yemen studying the Arabic language. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.