Yemen: Another Somalia In The Making


July 3, 2011:  Opposition to the government is slipping into chaos as fuel, food and water shortages get worse. The main cause of these calamities was interruption of oil flow (caused by a bomb that broke a pipeline, carrying half the national production, in March). That shut down exports, and the refinery in Aden that supplies most of the nation's vehicle, cooking, water pump and generator fuel. The pipeline cannot be repaired because a powerful tribal chief controls the territory around the break, and will not allow repair crews in until the government makes amends for the death of the chief's son last year.  The government has threatened to send in troops to guard the repair crews. But then the army would have to devote thousands of troops to protect the pipeline from further attacks by enraged tribesmen.

The armed unrest has also interrupted the movement of all goods, especially food and dwindling supplies of fuel. Shortages are spreading to areas that have been peaceful. Everyone is getting angry, and most of those angry people have guns. But that won't get the trucks moving again. The coastal towns and cities are a little better off, as they have always received most of their supplies by boat. There are thousands of coastal craft, carrying people and cargo.

Yemen has always been ruled by tribal coalitions. Saleh's coalition is under pressure, but not by an equally large and united group ready to take over. That's because the country is a mess (too many people, too little water and so on) and most tribal leaders are aware of this. Whoever takes over running the government is responsible for a seemingly hopeless situation. The separatist tribes in the south are encouraged by the prospect of seizing the oil fields there. But there isn't much oil being pumped and it's almost gone. But, for the moment, it's something. It's also why the government keeps fighting to retain control of the south.

The shortages, and seemingly endless combat, have caused increasing numbers of soldiers to desert. Some join tribal militias, but most just want to go help their families. Casualties are now over a thousand a week. The causes are many; tribesmen and Islamic radicals fighting the security forces, fighting over scarce items like fuel, increased banditry and Islamic militants attacking civilians who refuse to conform to strict religious lifestyle rules. The military is also taking heavier losses from desertion and, recently, over 30 officers arrested on suspicion of plotting against the government. Most of those arrested were in the Republican Guard, the unit that is supposed to be the most reliable and loyal.

Taez, capital of Taez province (inland, near the Red Sea coast) is largely controlled by tribal militias. In late May, the government declared that Taez city had been taken over by al Qaeda. But there are still army and Republican Guard troops fighting in Taez province.

July 1, 2011: Air force warplanes bombed several rebel targets in the southern city of Zinjibar, which is now largely held by various Islamic and tribal militias. Leaders of local tribes are trying to broker a ceasefire between the army and the Islamic militias (who are the most fanatic and doing the most damage). The United States is keeping an eye on the al Qaeda groups in Yemen, and making attacks (using missiles fired from UAVs) and passing on targeting information to the Yemeni Air Force.

As has happened every Friday for months, several hundred thousand demonstrators turned out in major towns and cities, to protest and demand a new government. But no viable coalition has stepped up. There are Islamic radical groups, most prominently al Qaeda, willing to rule. But the Islamic radicals have neither the numbers (of gunmen), nor the support to take the over the entire country and turn it into a religious dictatorship. For one thing, the northern tribes are largely Shia, and al Qaeda has a long tradition of abusing Shia (who are considered heretics).

While the demonstrators call for a new government free of corruption, that is highly unlikely. Tribalism demands that senior members of any government pay special attention to the needs of their own tribe, at the expense of other tribes. There are few Yemeni politicians willing, or able, to rule for the good of all Yemenis. For most politicians, you either take care of your tribal kinsmen, or lose your core supporters. This sort of thing is a curse throughout the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia.

In Yemen, the most likely outcome now is the country becomes another Somalia. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states are unlikely to let that happen, but are keeping a low profile as long as they can. For thousands of years, Yemen was the power in Arabia (because it was the only area on the Arabian peninsula with water, courtesy of the annual monsoon). For all that time, Yemen had to cope with the Bedouin tribes to the north, who were considered a nuisance and ungovernable. Islam changed that for a while, but after a few centuries, things returned to normal. It was the discovery of oil in the 1920s that changed the ancient power balance again. But the Bedouins to the north are reluctant to get involved, as the Yemenis are stubborn and heavily armed. The northern Arabs are trying to buy their way out of this mess, but the tribalism and corruption makes it difficult to find someone who can be bought, stay bought and keep things quiet in Yemen.  Meanwhile, the Saudis are sending fuel to alleviate the shortages. But the chaotic conditions in the country make it difficult to distribute the gasoline, kerosene and diesel. Saleh's government has told the Saudis that the unrest has cost Yemen over $4 billion so far, and that receiving that much cash would sure help. The Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies have promised $1.5 billion, and, depending on developments, perhaps more.

Many Yemenis understand how dire their situation is, and that viable alternative rulers are in short supply. That's why Saleh and his coalition still have lots of supporters, and some of the Friday demonstrations are pro-Saleh.  President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains in a Saudi hospital, facing months of medical care. He was badly burned, and is trying to cope with that. As much as he wants to return to Yemen, he can't. He was burned on the face, which means that the promised TV appearances keep getting delayed. Saleh knows that appearing on TV with a badly burned face might backfire, and cause morale problems among his dwindling number of supporters.

June 30, 2011: In the southern city of Zinjibar, tribesmen are driven from a sports stadium by army troops.

June 29, 2011: In the southern city of Zinjibar, tribesmen attack a sports stadium that the army is using as a base. There are over a hundred casualties, and the army loses control of the place. The army is under increasing attack throughout the south, but not by a unified force. While many of the attackers are Islamic radicals, most are just tribesmen unhappy with the deteriorating economic conditions, and see the Saleh president as the cause. Zinjibar is in Abyan province, long seen as al Qaeda Central.

June 25, 2011: The government has accused 43 opposition politicians of planning attacks on oil facilities and electric power plants.

Police caught up with, and killed, three of the 60 al Qaeda men who escaped from prison last week.


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