Home inContext Yemen: A Battleground State?

Yemen: A Battleground State?

Erin Dwyer

Escalating violence between Yemeni troops and al-Qaeda militants left 133 people dead in 48 hours, reported military and tribal sources on Tuesday. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) rising presence in Yemen follows the successful ousting of 33-year ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and February’s inauguration of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Analysts fear AQAP — deemed by the U.S. as the most deadly and active branch of the global terror network — is exploiting the fragile state of post-Saleh Yemen and showcasing its enduring efforts to expand its domestic footprint. But al-Qaeda is not alone. Iran currently stands accused of working with rebels in the north and secessionists in the south at the expense of Yemen’s neighbors and the Gulf Cooperation Council — in which Saudi Arabia is a profound stakeholder. The impoverished, militarized, and fractious Yemen appeals to al-Qaeda and Tehran, as its weak condition lends itself to opportunities for wielding influence and establishing a strategic foothold in the most populated Arab Peninsula state.

A framed photo of Osama bin Laden hangs below a sign advertising a gas station in Jaar, Yemen. (Photo: Coombs/Foreign Policy)

Saudi Arabia has responded to the tumult in Yemen by drafting plans to build a wall along its southern border in what is conceivably an attempt to thwart any overflow of popular uprising mentalities that could threaten Riyadh. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal explains the Kingdom’s opposition to such uprisings, which have resulted in the downfall of critical allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, by warning: “Revolutions have brought good things, and some revolutions have brought bad things. The French Revolution was followed by a reign of terror.”

Saudi Arabia’s rising fear that excess turmoil shed from regional unrest could potentially destabilize the Kingdom likely comes from its strict religious practice of Wahhabism — an ultra-conservative branch of Islam taught in schools and mosques across the state, which could be threatened by the introduction of an alternative strand of political Islam.

As the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Kingdom’s unique standing in the Muslim World and wealth attributed to oil revenues will likely protect its change-resistant culture. However, as the backlash of the Arab Uprising of 2011 continues to emphasize the growing hostility between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, as well as the increasing regional turmoil exploited by opportunistic Islamic extremist groups, the threat of a proxy war, in which Yemen’s conditions are ripe for hosting, is an emerging concern.