The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered deal signed in late November that established the transfer of authority from then Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, brought great relief to Yemenis and to the international community. The hope was that Saleh’s departure from office would put an end to the “Yemeni revolution,” which began in January 2011, inspired by the turmoil in the Middle East but not less from Yemen’s already grave domestic conditions. The hope is that Saleh’s exit will stop the country from deteriorating into civil war. But it is doubtful whether his leave will result in the hoped-for stability: Yemen is on the brink of a full scale civil war that, if not prevented, will increase the growing grievances of the local population and expand the safe haven of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliates.
During the 33 years of his rule, President Saleh managed to create a complex system of government patronage for Yemen’s various tribes, helping him maintain effective control of the nation. In a country where the number of uncontrolled weapons is four times larger than the number of weapons in the hands of the security services, Saleh maintained a balance of power among the tribes and confronted internal threats—such as the separatist aspirations of the south and the on-going Shiite Houthi revolt in the north—through a mix of fear and co-option. The tribal leaders, who attained stability, were rewarded with many benefits; even the opposition was bought in a similar way.
The collapse of “Saleh’s order” is liable to damage this fragile fabric and spark armed competition among the tribes for control over the country’s dwindling resources. Evidence of such competition already exists, where tribes closely allied with the regime have continued to support Saleh while others have joined the opposition’s ranks. But whoever wins the upcoming presidential elections will have to deal with a society deeply divided among tribes, religious factions, and armed militias.
The next Yemeni government will have to confront a whole host of internal threats to the country’s stability, first of which is the economy. Yemen is the most populated state in the Arabian Peninsula and the poorest state in the Arab World—about half of Yemen’s population already lives on less than $2 a day. Since the start of the riots in early 2011, Yemen’s economic situation has only grown more acute. Oil exports nearly came to a halt and the Yemeni economy has sustained losses of up to $10 billion. Unemployment has skyrocketed—according to a number of indices it is over 50 percent—while about half of the population is under the age of 16. This reality will complicate any attempt to deal with the social unrest, at least in the foreseeable future. Moreover, “Saleh’s order” of government-by-patronage overly exploited the country’s resources. Oil, the nation’s only natural resource and the source of most of the income from exports, is dwindling fast. Yemen’s water sources, too, are depleting. Saleh in recent years, lacking an alternate plan for economic development, relied on financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to sustain the national budget. It is unclear if the next president will be able, or want, to do the same.
No less important, since the start of the current wave of unrest, the central government has gradually been losing control of many regions to militant groups and tribes, especially in the outlying areas but even around the capital of Sana’a. In the south, the separatists, amid the chaos, have not hesitated to become more assertive about their wishes to secede from Yemen and are threatening to declare independence. If they secede, the Yemeni state will lose much of its already dwindling oil reserves.
Enjoying Iranian support, the Shiite Houthi rebels also took advantage of the chaos and managed to expand the areas under their control. In practice, they control the entire Sa’dah Governorate as well as extensive areas along the border with Saudi Arabia. One of their goals is to gain access to the Red Sea, ensuring an ongoing weapons supply from Iran via the sea.
The government in Sana’a has so far concentrated its efforts on containing these two insurgencies within its borders—the separatists in the south and the Shiites in the north—because it deems them a more serious threat to the integrity and stability of the state than the potential threat inherent in al-Qaeda operating from within its territory. Foreign observers even accused Saleh’s government of recruiting experienced al-Qaeda operatives to help fight the Shiite rebels, reminiscent of the asylum Saleh granted to Afghani mujahedeen and their recruitment to his forces in the 1994 civil war.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), however, is constantly expanding its areas of control; it even managed to take over parts of the southern Abyan Governorate, including its capital Zinjibar, a port city in the Gulf of Aden. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, is, according to Washington, becoming the most dangerous extension of al-Qaeda’s many satellites. The concern is that under the cover of the growing anarchy in Yemen, the organization will continue to carry out deadly attacks and even hamper the freedom of shipping in the Bab El Mandeb Straits, the conduit of over 3 million barrels of oil daily. Naval Routes in the Gulf of Aden are especially under threat amid the growing cooperation between AQAP and the Somali al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, which controls ports across the Gulf.
Saleh’s Lingering Influence
President Saleh himself, though out of office since January 2012, is still causing internal problems; the departure of the fourth Arab leader may help lower the flames, but will not resolve any issues. This is because unlike many of the regimes in the Middle East that have gone through the “Arab Spring,” the reform process in Yemen has not yet seen a wholesale removal of the ruling party or even the ruling family. Saleh’s interest in Yemeni affairs will continue and he will maintain the ability to exert influence within the country through his sons and nephews, who hold leading posts in Yemen’s armed forces.
The enduring influence of Saleh’s family, tribe, and allies within Yemen’s military will have to be balanced in a careful manner so that Saleh himself does not feel that his interests or those of his family are under threat. A peaceful de-escalation will have to be handled carefully and Saleh’s sons and nephews in charge of large segments of Yemen’s military forces will have to be willing participants in the process. This particular course of action can lead to difficulties for the transition process since it involves many of the major combatants.
Moreover, exacerbating the situation, Yemenis are unhappy with the agreement that secured Saleh’s leave. That deal grants the former president immunity from prosecution and charges the old elites and Saleh’s vice president with drafting Yemen’s new constitution. It also remains unclear to what degree Saleh and his main rivals are truly committed to the deal.
The Threat to Washington
Unlike the other “Arab Spring” countries, Yemen’s internal unrest poses a direct and current threat to Washington. Due to the fracturing of the Yemeni government’s authority in the countryside and the new powers that emerged from the chaos, multiple power centers now exist that the U.S. will need to understand and engage in order to continue to counter the terrorist threat posed by AQAP.
To date, Yemen has not been at the top of America’s list of priorities in the Middle East. The scope of trade between the two nations is marginal, Russia and China are its traditional arms suppliers, and most of the tribal chieftains look askance at American involvement in the region. Since the attacks on the USS Cole in 2000 and the American embassy in 2008, the Yemeni government has strengthened its cooperation with the United States: American military personnel equip and train the Yemeni security forces and use them to gather intelligence, though not always with full cooperation. U.S. financial aid to Yemen has also grown considerably as an incentive for the Yemeni government to fight al-Qaeda.
There is no need for any further proof of how dangerous and unexpected the long reach of AQAP is. The organization has, in recent years, almost succeeded in assassinating the Saudi counterterrorism chief Mohammad bin Nayef, nearly exploded an American airline over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, and managed to hit a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. AQAP is also known to build connections with Muslim extremists in the West, inciting and guiding them to commit terrorist activities against their countries. It is expected to maintain such efforts despite the death of its most talented recruiter, American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. It is a dynamic and creative organization with high ambitions to attack Western targets in the Gulf and beyond.
Drone attacks against AQAP operatives and leaders will not be enough to tackle this strategic threat. As al-Qaeda expands its safe haven out of government control, the U.S. will have a harder time securing reliable intelligence about its activities and operatives, and the organization will have better ground for operation and recruiting.
However, increased American involvement in Yemen, certainly if it results in civilian deaths, might contribute to antagonism towards the United States and is liable to increase the ranks of new al-Qaeda recruits. Moreover, military and financial assistance by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in the past has often not been used for its designated purpose—i.e., fighting elements identified with al-Qaeda—rather it serves the Yemeni government in its struggle against its political rivals, as in Saleh’s warfare against the Houthis.
Even though he was reliable to a very limited extent, Saleh was a partner of the Saudis and of the West in the fight against AQAP. He did not wage a full-scale battle against al-Qaeda to ensure that the threat—and with it, foreign assistance—was kept alive. He did, however, provide intelligence that was, at least in most cases, reliable and crucial to the U.S. drone war against al-Qaeda. He also managed to keep the Islamists under control. At this point, it remains uncertain to what extent the next regime will assist the West in its fight against AQAP.
Order and Stability
The revolution in Yemen, which began as a call for democracy by the Yemeni youth, has since turned into a power struggle between the existing elites. Even in the most optimistic scenario of an orderly transfer of power, the governance of the nation during the transition period will likely be placed in the hands of senior officials of the old regime, who will presumably try to prevent, or at least delay, the transition to a democratic form of government. This may spark a new wave of violent resistance should the youth of “Change Square” stick to their positions and demand real change.
For 33 years, Saleh served, to a large extent, as the “glue” that held together the divided Yemeni arena. Without that glue, Yemen has the potential to break down into a bloody and devastating civil war that can wreak havoc on the country’s fragile economy, people, and system.
In order to prevent a civil war from breaking out, thus serving both the Yemeni people and itself, Washington should assist the new government in returning order and control to Yemen’s peripheral districts. That would be the first step in the right direction, but would be impossible to achieve without regaining stability. Stability will be very hard to achieve as long as the protests against the new-old regime continue and the dire economic conditions prevail. The U.S. and its allies in the region should formulate a plan that would be able to appease both the Yemeni elites and the revolutionaries, as Yemen makes its first steps towards democracy, bearing in mind that addressing Yemen’s socio-economic problems is essential for achieving both stability and security in the long run.
Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow, and Erez Striem is an intern, at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.