Friday, January 08, 2010

Yemen: maybe not deja vue all over again...

US hand stayed - for now
By Ian Williams

Asia Times 9 Jan 2010

WASHINGTON - From Mexico to Iraq, we can see the practical consequences of "wars" against abstractions, whether drugs or terror. In Yemen, there are signs that both President Ali Abdallah Saleh's government and the Barack Obama administration are drawing back from repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan, and perhaps even of Somalia.

Indeed, it is worth comparing Somalia with Yemen. In traditional Western terms, Somalia should have been almost the most successful state in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its population was homogenous in religion, language and culture, with a strong sense of identity. But what outsiders did not realize was how much clan diversity there was beneath that seeming unity. What looked like strong central government under Siad Barre, the last

effective national president, looked like a monopolization of resources by one group to all the other clans. Since then, no putative national government has been able to come up with an offer that the various parties cannot easily refuse.

Just across the mouth of the Red Sea, in Yemen, there are even more crosscutting fault lines. There is a Zaidi/Sunni divide, there are the divisions between the north and the former Marxist People's Democratic Republic in the south, which are not so much ideological as based on Saleh's government cutting the former leadership down there from the access to power and wealth that they thought the reunification of 1990 entitled them.

In the north, in Saada province, the Houthi tribe used to provide the emirs for the thousand-year dynasty in what is now the capital, Sana'a, and now feel excluded. Because they are Zaidi, and therefore technically Shi'ite, opportunistic Yemeni officials linked them with Iran, thereby encouraging Saudi and American support for the central government. Yet they are no closer to Iranian Shi'ites than Anglicans in Britain are to American Pentecostalists, even if both are technically Protestants. But since they are Shi'ite, they are anathema to the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and their al-Qaeda offshoot.

In the mountains, the various clans happily ignore the central government, and some of them seem to be tolerating, at least, al-Qaeda, quite likely for a mixture of financial and theological reasons.

The Yemeni government has always been weak and decentralized, dependent on mediating the demands of the clans and localities whose physical isolation is reinforced by the national habit of weapon-bearing. Yemen is the National Rifle Association's paradise on Earth, and most men would consider themselves naked without their jambiyas, the knife stuck in the belt.

Much of the recent internal conflict is about distribution of scarce resources. Yemen is a desperately poor country, whose poverty has not been helped by frequent civil wars and which was enhanced even more when Yemen's envoy voted in the United Nations Security Council against resolutions authorizing the 1990-1991 Desert Storm after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

United States diplomats told the Yemeni envoy at the time that this was the most expensive vote he'd ever cast, and for once, an American prediction came true. Saudi Arabia expelled hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers whose remittances had kept the economy afloat, and foreign aid shrank even more. Needless to say, Saddam Hussein's gratitude was strictly limited.

Things have improved now. Saudi Arabia and Yemen finally broadly agreed their long-disputed frontier in 2000, even though it did not restore the former privileged position of Yemeni workers in the kingdom.

However, the oil revenue which provided much of the central government's funding has been declining, and foreign aid has not been expanding, even if the post-1991 boycott is no longer in effect. However, the nepotism and corruption of the Saleh government, now in power for three decades, has taken a visibly disproportionate share of what there is left, and has provoked widespread agitation from those left out.

The main industry and commerce is the growth, distribution and mastication of qat, which takes a huge amount of land and water and anything up to a third of personal income. (Qat is a tropical evergreen plant whose leaves are used as a stimulant.)

On its positive side, the cultivation of a cash crop so lucrative that fields have armed guards has also, according to some economists, been a means of transferring wealth to the countryside and absorbing the deported workers from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

At first, when the government faced widespread dissent, it seemed to have seen an opportunity. By characterizing all the dissident groups as Iranian or al-Qaeda-influenced, they effectively rang the right bells in Riyadh and Washington, and hoped for military and financial aid.

Since the abortive Christmas Day bombing of the North West Airlines flight by a Nigerian linked to al-Qaeda and Yemen, both sides seem to have drawn back. The Yemenis who had been canvassing for heavy weaponry that would allow them to defeat all their various rebels seem to have realized that if they wanted to put truth in the rumors about al-Qaeda being behind them, all they had to do was get too close to the US and West - as in fact they had already shown signs of doing with bombing raids.

Any visible intervention by the US could unify Yemen like nothing else - against the invader. The same thought seems to be occurring in Washington, despite the apocalyptic language from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the Yemeni situation being a regional and global threat. Support for police units has already been announced, and the international meeting that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has convened (with American and Saudi support) for the end of the month seems based on the premise that economic, social and political development are crucial to hold the country together and dampen the various conflicts.

It is not so much that Yemen is a failed state, but as Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi one said when asked what he thought about Western civilization, a functioning state would be a good idea. There are unlikely to be any quick and easy answers, but it could be that the right questions are being asked this time. If there is to be a war in Yemen against abstractions, it should be against tangible and real abstractions: poverty and one of its causes, corruption.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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