Foreign Policy Blogs

Ignoring Yemen

Funeral in Sana'a 21/09/2011As the Media and the international community focused their attention on the advances of the rebels against the Gaddafi forces and gasped at the horrors unfolding in Syria, Yemenis were left to their fate, ignored and unspoken of.
Even back in March when the Media was drumming the tune of the Arab Spring onto the air, a passionate observer of the birth of democracy in the Middle East, Yemen got a somewhat tepid coverage of its uprising. While News channels chose to dedicate weeks to Egypt, the deaths of hundreds in Taiz in May 29th only managed to make the ticker line.

While Human Rights groups are demanding yet more sanctions against Syrian president al-Assad, president Saleh is being congratulated in Riyadh for his willingness to negotiate with the Opposition.
President Obama himself weeks ago declared that Assad had lost all legitimacy for he dared used violence against his people. In Yemen, where some 80 people were just buried, and while others are still falling, not a word.

But even more disturbing than this lack of interest for this poorest nation of the Arabic Peninsula, is that little do foreign nations or politicians for that matter realize the importance of Yemen within the region.
Surrounded by ancient monarchies and theocratic regimes, Yemen is the only nation within the Peninsula where democracy could really flourish. The ground has already been laid since it is a Republic with a working Constitution. Very much like in Egypt, Yemenis’ grievances are only directed to a regime they feel has imprisoned them and denied them their freedom of expression., not towards democratic institutions.
Furthermore, as politicians are quarrelling over agreements and proposals, frozen in a power stalemate, Yemenis continue to be the target of random killings. If the blood of innocent is left trickling way, it will soon drawn away the nation.
More troubling yet, is the reality of extremist groups. They could use a chaotic Yemen to their advantage. Hungry and desperate people are always easier to manipulate than happy and content citizens.
Ignorance in this case could prove to be costly.

 The Death of Democracy

Although Yemen is a Republic, Yemenis would all say that it is only by name. for the past 33 years, president Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled over the country with a despotic hand, granting favors to only a favored few while millions were left to bare the pains of misery.
And even though elections are being organized once in a while as if to prove the international community that Arabs too could behave westernly, there is nothing remotely democratic about them. Stage demonstrations, swearing of allegiance to the country’s leader on state television, all staged for the World to see, all stage for the World to go back to its usual apathy.
And if Yemen has a president, King Abdullah al Saud is his ruling monarch.

For several hundred years, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made sure that its unruly neighbor, Yemen, remained just that, unruly.
For too much stability in Yemen could spell the end of the Saudi hegemony in the Peninsula. Yemen is after all the most populous nation of the region with a reported 26 Million inhabitants. It has vast Oil and mineral resources, a great agricultural potential in its eastern province of Hadramout, great fishery reserves, an unbeatable strategic commercial position in Aden and untapped human resources. Given the chance, Yemen could become the fastest and most sustainable growing economy in the Middle East.
So the Saud did what they know best, they fragmented, weakened the foundations of the state by eroding its institutions and supporting a millennia old tribal system.
Now that the people are rising against Saleh regime, the Kingdom has no alternative but to support the ailing president, as he stands in the way of a free Yemen. For obvious ideological reason, the KSA cannot be seen supporting a pro-democracy movement.
Furthermore, they fear that as in Tunisia, the wind of freedom would come blowing nearer to their shores, maybe even in their cities, where too resentment is brewing. As Yemenis are desperately trying to pry open the door of democracy and freedom, the Saudis are determinedly trying to force it shut.

By ignoring the plight of Yemenis, foreign nations are in essence killing democracy, the very thing they claim to be standing for.

Human Crisis

Back in March, when the international community was still lending an ear to the Yemeni Revolution, scores of diplomats and officials were seen travelling to Sana’a, the capital, eager to meet with the Youth Movement and hear their demands. They had found strength in numbers. But most importantly it is because they were so unwilling to negotiate the departure of the regime, that neighboring nations took fright, willing to even consider sacrificing Saleh to the altar of power.
The arrival of Yemen’s political class ruined the Youth chances of a quick power transfer.
Being the shrewd politician that he is, Saleh used the opportunity to his advantage, buying out support and playing up parties discords.

Then the attack of his presidential compound happened. With his departure for the KSA, Saleh took Yemen’s best chance of change with him. As one political analyst put it, Saleh’s arrival in the Kingdom somewhat threw a protective shroud over his presidential legitimacy, making it more difficult for his opponents to oust him.
His prolonged absence has bled out the momentum of the Revolution, making the crisis less of a priority for the international community.

Soon enough, people were turning their attention towards the “hot spot” of the “Arab Spring”. Tripoli was much more riveting than Yemen.
But this lack of interest or belief that it did not matter has now created a catastrophic situation. As witnessed yesterday, dozens upon dozens of people were killed, shot at by a regime which is trying to stifle them; and only because it wasn’t stop in time.
For 8 months, Yemenis have been calling for the end of the regime, for the immediate resignation of president Saleh and his coterie. For 8 months they were told that Saleh had to have immunity, had to have more time, had to have a detailed plan of “the mechanisms of the transition of power.”

Now as the country has further fragmented into political parties, military alliances or tribal confederations, violence seems inevitable. Forced into a corner, a nation which until a few days ago was still chanting “peaceful, peaceful” is left facing the barrel of a gun.

By not taking a stronger stance against the Yemeni regime, the international community has allowed the KSA to send yet more military equipment to Saleh. It has ignored the many human rights violations for it believed that it had time. There are too many parties involved in the resolve of this crisis for one to still believe that more deaths will not ensue.

Regional Repercussions

Despite its so-called fear of terrorism in the region, the United States of America has done little but pound alleged al-Qaeda positions in Yemen’ southern region of Abyan. Rather than address the fact that terror group could use the power vacuum to their advantage in a timely manner, the White House preferred to use its military might to its common sense.

Since June, the regime is claiming that al-Qaeda militants are operating in its southern territories, trying to expand their influence and turn Yemen into the next al-Qaeda hub.
Whether those allegations are true or not is of no concern. What matters, is the possibility that extremist groups could use chaos in Yemen to further their cause and establish a base for themselves in one of the most insecure regions of the World, giving it a platform towards Africa and Asia.

So far Yemenis have been clamoring for Democracy, but if this hope was to be crushed,Yemen’s Youth could very well be looking at other ways to express its anger, falling into the traps of terrorism.
Taking into account that most of the population in Yemen lives with less than US$2 a day, poverty could become an additional incentive.

Finally as a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportion is slowly unfolding in the country, quite similar to the one the World already witnessed in the Horn of Africa, the region might again be facing another snow ball effect.
If streams of refugees are to pour over the Saudi and Omani borders, instability is bound to follow, as less than savory individuals will use this opportunity to cross the borders.



Catherine Shakdam
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.