Foreign Policy Blogs

Understanding Yemen Unrest


Democratic Movement in Yemen

The recent social unrest in Yemen has brought this rather unknown south Arabian country in the mainstream media. However, even though the news coverage has increased, little is really known of the country itself and its political/social landscape. Many often associate Yemen with Al Qaeda, as it is believed to be one of its strongholds. But whether this statement is accurate or not, it is important to note that if this group of radicals, has found some support within Yemen, it has a lot to do with the crippling poverty that its inhabitants suffer, and the lack of State infrastructures.
Political tensions in Yemen are not a new phenomenon but rather the legacy of the Saleh’s Regime and its inability to harmonize Yemen’s political and social divisions. To make matters worth, Yemen has a tribal tradition which exacerbates regional tensions. Since its unification in 1990, the country has known very little stability.
The current government is faced with a multi-front opposition which puts the integrity of the country at great risk. There is the Separatist movement in the South, the al-Houthi rebels in the northern region of Sa’ada and at last but not least, a growing anti-government opposition from within the Yemeni society.

The South Yemen Separatists

When the PDRY (Popular Democratic Republic of Yemen) and the YAR (Yemen Arab Republic) decided to join up their two nations; a repartition of power was set in place and agreed upon in 1990 Constitution in order to preserve both parties’ interests.
But the Civil War which broke out in 1994 following deep political divisions within the coalition government tipped the balance in favor of Ali Abdullah Saleh, leader of North Yemen. After a quick intervention of the army, the city of Aden was recaptured and most former South leaders left for exile, amongst who was the former South Yemen President Ali Salim el-Beidh. President Saleh then modified the Constitution and extended his grip on the country.
It is in 2007 that the growing disapproval of the Sana’a government materialized itself by the creation of the Southern Separatist Movement. Many southerners complained of injustices against them which had passed unaddressed for years: illegal lands requisitions, corruption, nonpayment of government pensions and intimidation are but a few of their grievances.
But the main issue lies with the claim of electoral forgery, in favor of the ruling party and a non compliance of the power sharing agreements set up by the 1990 Constitution.
The economical disparity between the 2 regions is also a source of tensions. Although rich in mineral resources, South Yemen remains under crippling poverty while the northern part of the country thrives and prospers.
If at first, President Saleh remained dismissive of the Movement and the legitimacy of its claims, the more frequent clashes with the authorities led to some attempt of compromise. But still, the State failed to address the core issues and the anger grew stronger.
As of now, most southern tribes have sworn allegiance to the Movement and they are offering men power and military support.
The recent explosion of revolutionary sentiment has ignited unprecedented scenes of anti-government protests across the main southern cities; Aden and Taiz having seen the most deadly clashes.
As the number of protesters grow bigger and their determination stronger, it seems as though South Yemen is closer from Independence than ever before.

Al Houthi Rebels

Sheikh Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi is a Shia religious leader of the north part of Yemen, Sa’ada, accused of organizing terrorists attacks against the Yemeni government. Al-Houthi has for many years made no effort to disguise his disapproval of Yemen alliance to the United States of America.
Al-Houthi wants to reinstates the rule of the Imam.
In 2004, the Sheikh formed an army of rebels and renounced his allegiance to the Yemeni government. Despite many efforts of Sana’a to dismantle the rebellion, al-Houthi remains at large and the rank of his supporters is swelling. President Saleh even accused the Saudi government of supporting the dissidents by smuggling weapons and money through the northern borders.
After 7 or so years of fierce fighting, no solution seems so far feasible as both parties remain entrenched in their claim for power and control.

Anti-Government Sentiment

After 3 decades of living under the Saleh family rule, many Yemeni have grown tired of the high level of corruption and fundamental social inequalities. In the 1990’s Yemen’s economy was left reeling from the repercussions of its Civil War and the first Gulf War and the once middle class part of the society became impoverished while the rich became richer.
Over recent years vast unemployment, corruption and the rise in cost of staple products has led an entire portion of the Yemeni society to disengage with its leaders. This mistrust is now so deeply rooted that Yemenis are asking for the immediate departure of their ruling President.
If all opponents agree on the need for President Saleh to resign; what is to happen on the wake of his departure is not at all clear. If the different political factions do not find some common ground, Yemen could very well end up being fragmented in many pieces, governed once again by tribal leaders with no real sense of national cohesion.

If Al Qaeda represents a security risk, I personally don’t think that it will gain ground politically as its power lies in people’s rejection of the current rule.



Catherine Shakdam

Although French by birth, my studies and my professional life led me to live for many years in the United Kingdom and in the Middle East.
Armed with a Master in Finance, a Bachelor degree in Psychology and 5 languages under my belt I managed to make my way through the maze of the Trading World of Wall Street, as an equity consultant. However, my interest for Politics and the Middle East gave me the necessary push to launch me as a "writer". Since then, I have voiced my opinions via my Blog and various publications such as the Middle East Post, the Guardian UK, and now Foreign Policy Association. I currently live in London.