Middle East & North Africa

Sanaa in the Distance: Why Yemen Matters


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June 21, 2013 23:50 EDT

Although Yemen has played a significant role in the Arab Spring, the country has garnered only limited media attention. This is despite the fact that stability in Yemen has huge geopolitical consequences.

Over two years after initial protests commenced in the Middle East and North Africa, the “Arab Spring” has become synonymous with the revolutions and conflicts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Far less attention has been focused on Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria and particularly Yemen, where protests began on January 27, 2011—only two days after initial demonstrations in Egypt—and culminated with the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power.

Yemen’s revolution is no less important and its accomplishments no less significant than those of other countries, yet it has received far less attention in Western media. Despite significant violence (Saleh himself was almost killed in an attack on the Presidential Compound), involvement from the United Nations (UN) and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and a widely publicized transfer of power, media coverage of the uprising was meager.

The lack of media attention is even more surprising given United States operations in Yemen, which are critical to the Obama administration’s overall counterterrorism strategy, including its drone program. Southern Yemen is a major operational area for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and a transit point for weapons into the Gulf and the Horn of Africa.

A Misunderstood Nation

Perhaps the simple answer as to why Yemen has not featured prominently in the media is that Yemen is not understood well enough for comprehensive coverage or for existing public demand to merit greater investment in information gathering. The title of Gregory Johnson’s 2005 book, The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, as well as that of Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Yemen, the Unknown Arabia seem to embody the perception of Yemen as both misunderstood and mysterious.

A recent article from the Yemen Times offers a frank assessment of this situation: “Al-Qaeda has overshadowed most reporting on Yemen. Mainstream media has not only perpetuated and enhanced stereotypes but by doing so, has unintentionally caused damage to Yemen’s reputation. Journalists are slowly erasing the long history of Yemen and its traditions, and depriving people of their voice. Yemen at large remains extensively unexamined.”

Local and International Ramifications

Stability in Yemen matters not only for the sake of the Yemeni people but for regional and Western interests as well. The country’s geopolitical significance is evidenced by its integral position in American-led counterterrorism efforts as well as its strategic location at the meeting of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. All merchant traffic from the Suez Canal must pass through this roughly 10-mile wide waterway.

Additionally, given the size of Yemen’s population, which at 25 million is the fifth largest in the region and nearly equal to that of Saudi Arabia, the effects of a significantly weakened Yemeni government would reverberate throughout the region. The prospect of a protracted period of Yemeni instability, particularly in the areas near the Saudi border, has already prompted greater Saudi investment in a Yemeni political settlement.

Domestically, Yemen’s political and social problems are expanding, largely due to the slow pace of reforms and public dissatisfaction with the concentration of power. Despite the end of Saleh’s 22-year reign, he was granted immunity from prosecution as part of an exit strategy brokered by the GCC and continues to play a significant, if nebulous, role in Yemeni politics—much to the dismay of many Yemenis. Yet political instability and dissatisfaction with Saleh and his replacement, former Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, are only a small segment of Yemen’s issues.

A southern separatist movement (known as the South Yemen Movement) and an Al-Qaeda-linked insurgency (led by Ansar al-Sharia) are straining the limits of the government’s security operations. Additionally, a separate Shia “Houthi” insurgency in the North has left large sections of the country along the Saudi border effectively outside of government control.

The Next Step: Inclusive Reconciliation at the National and Local Levels

Without an inclusive reconciliation process, the government faces serious challenges in both providing basic services and maintaining any semblance of security. The daily violence committed by al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia—which has included amputations, beheadings and even crucifixions—will continue.

Additionally, the groups will continue to build support within the Yemeni population by providing local governance where none exists. As Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen noted to CNN, “They [Ansar al-Sharia] established their own police system, their own court system… They started to dig water wells, string electrical lines in villages that had never had these before, that had essentially been ignored by the Yemeni government for decades.”

The government, in conjunction with GCC- and UN-supported mediation efforts, has taken steps in the right direction with the recently initiated National Dialogue Conference, which aims to bring all segments of Yemeni society together for negotiations. The effort has had several notable successes. Most recently, Houthi representative Mohammed Nasser Al-Bakhiti reaffirmed in May his movement’s commitment to the success of the conference.

In addition to an inclusive reconciliation process, conflict resolution efforts should respect community-based practices and acknowledge tribal grievances, as Yemen remains a deeply tribal society. Such an approach proved effective in January 2012 when tribal negotiations successfully removed AQAP from the town of Radda without a single act of violence. Unfortunately, both the American and Yemeni governments continue to rely more on tactical strikes to forcefully eradicate Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in southern Yemen than they do on local tribal mediation.

In a recent interview, former President Saleh stated that the Arab Spring has started to “devour its own children,” an apparent reference to the increasing violence and political instability in Egypt and Tunisia. Yemen today faces a historic crossroads.

A successful national reconciliation may catapult it into the news as the “success story” of transitional and indigenously-crafted democratic governance. Continued decline, on the other hand, may relegate it further into the frontier obscurity it has already managed to obtain, with dangerous consequences for its population, its neighbors and the Western world, which has failed to grasp its significance.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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