Yemen Crisis and the Desired Arab Role

Dr. Mustafa Abdel Aziz Morsi: Yemen Crisis and the Desired Arab Role

  • 15 December 2009

For about a decade-and-a-half, Yemen has witnessed many recurrent crises that point to a disturbed internal situation that is bereft of the prerequisites of stability. The Houthi insurrection erupted many years ago in the northern region of Sa’ada, the center of the Yazidi sect. They are a group accused by the government of extremism, terrorism and isolated from the moderate Yazidi stance, and closer to the Ja’fari Shiite school of thought.  For their part, the Houthi group blames the government for targeting the entire Yazidi sect (the source of the Imamate), and for intentionally excluding the northern provinces from its development programs.

The Houthi movement began in the 1970s and the ruling Popular Convention Party supported it, but the movement later turned against it and the war between the two sides lasted for more than six years in which the movement gained control of vast swathes of Sa’ada and the adjoining areas. For the ruling right-wing regime this represented a major challenge that led it to extensively use air power in areas of the Houthi stronghold, which forced the latter into its recent initiative for a cease-fire, which Yemeni authorities responded by suspending military operations from September 4, 2009, particularly in response to calls made by international aid organizations. However, this truce collapsed within a few hours and the fighting resumed.

There is a lot of debate about the role of some foreign forces in supporting this revolt even inside the Yemeni government itself. From the beginning, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh stated that the Houthi group was receiving support mostly from within the country and not from abroad. Probably, it was hard at that time to enunciate the role of foreign powers in the conflict. In addition, Yemeni government did not desire to increase the animosity with Iran and to avoid its regional repercussions. However, this attitude changed recently and official sources accused Iran openly of supporting the Houthi revolt. Thus, Yemeni information minister even warned: “Yemeni government could resort to making difficult decisions in case this support continues”. The mayor of Sa’ada mentioned in a statement that “the Houthi revolt has a regional dimension” and the Yemeni army declared that it found Iran-made weapons in areas controlled by the Houthi group.

In the south, the situation is not better either. The vexed crisis was exacerbated by the unification that took place between the two parts of Yemen in 1990, due to a bilateral agreement between the Popular Convention Party (north) and the Socialist party (south). However, the Yemeni leadership was not able to set the framework for power-sharing and President Ali Abdullah Saleh was able to absorb an important section of the southern political elite and to concentrate power in one person. Mistakes and deviations then led to a civil war in 1994, whose aftermath is still plaguing the country today. Southerners gradually started believing that northern officials are slowly siphoning off the wealth of the region, which has led to an uncomfortable political situation.

The perception was enhanced by the growing economic, social and developmental problems and injustice. However, it is noteworthy that all prime ministers after the unification came from the south. In addition, the problems faced in southern governorates were not much different from those of the north with respect to rising unemployment, poverty and corruption and other problems that Yemeni government did not act effectively to confront and that pushed the situation to the point of explosion. A so-called peaceful movement has organized protests throughout southern governorates since 2006. The popular protests have increased in recent times and raised demands for reforming the Yemeni unification and have even been calling for the independence of the south. They have also been demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down from the presidency.

What is dangerous about the recent Yemeni crises is that it has succumbed to violent showdown between the ruling power and the political groups who refute its legitimacy. Their demands range from securing political and economic rights and for secession from the state. Matters have reached to the point of a civil war in the north. For this reason, the current Yemeni crisis can be viewed as a twofold crisis. On one hand, it represents a power struggle and on the other it can be viewed as a civil war.

Many factors have started to threaten the integrity of the country itself. The first is the absence of a peaceful mechanism for transfer of power. After announcing his desire not to run for the presidency in July 2005, President of Yemen retracted from his declaration in December of the same year, by stating the exact opposite. The parliamentary elections were also delayed and the term of the current parliament with ruling party majority was extended. Time was not devoted to carrying out a serious national dialogue on different issues and this led to the outbreak of the situation.

The second factor has been the failure of the Yemeni government in achieving development.  The country’s resources have been squandered in futile conflicts instead of directing them in favor of Yemeni progress, by eschewing vengeful acts, redressing grievances, spreading social justice, respecting the law, expanding the range of participation and the transfer of power. The third factor relates to foreign intervention in Yemeni affairs. That interference is a result of the internal political vacuum, accompanied by a structural social and economic weakness, which facilitates the infiltration of regional parties especially from a country like Iran that places the extension of its regional influence on top of its priorities.

In this context, Arab action is important for helping Yemen overcome the crises. This importance emanates from the geographical location of Yemen, and its geopolitical standing. This country holds the keys to the southern opening of the Red Sea (the strait of Bab Al-Mandeb) and controls its links with the Indian Ocean. The location of Yemen also covers the width of the Arabian Peninsula. Consequently, the results of having Yemen slide into a civil war or large-scale chaos will not be limited to itself alone but would spread to the entire Arab region, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab countries.

The spread of conflict in Yemen along with the continued state of anarchy in Somalia would make the country and the region an attractive haunt for radical elements like Al-Qaeda. This poses an additional threat to Yemen and neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia that has been suffering from a flood of radical elements entering the country from Yemen. The recent example of this fallout was the person who carried out a failed assassination attempt on Prince Mohammed Ben Naïf Ben Abdulaziz, Saudi deputy foreign minister. That is why there was an important need for an Arab role to get Yemen out of its current situation, so that the predictions that some proclaim about its breakup into many small countries or it turning into another failing state in the region will not happen.

In the absence of an Arab role, the likelihood of internationalization of Yemeni conflict is possible as it would promote the ambitions of many regional and international players. Perhaps, what we are currently witnessing with respect to the demand by Iraq for international arbitration over its accusations against Syria, and what happened before in Sudan, represent strong evidence on the existence of foreign forces that seek to widen the internationalization of areas of conflict. This matter should be the basis for another motive for Arabs to act quickly to resolve the crisis because internationalization of the Arab crisis is not in the interest of any Arab party.

Concerns over Arab interference in Yemen’s internal affairs could be raised but Arab intervention seeks to protect Yemen and preserve its security and stability, unlike other non-Arab parties that seek to achieve their own vested interests and try to impose their influence even at the expense of the region’s security and stability. In addition, this Arab interference must be fully coordinated with the Yemeni government so that there are no sensitivities or fears of its objectives. For this reason, it is important that Amr Moussa declare the Yemeni crisis placed on the agenda of the meeting of the Arab League to be held this month in order to launch a conciliatory initiative between various Yemeni parties.

The problems and crises that Yemen is witnessing need effective and quick Arab intervention to prepare the atmosphere for achieving a comprehensive reconciliation among its various factions. This should be an attempt to convince them that the only solutions to those problems are constructive and serious dialogue and not the use of violence that harms the development process in the first place and bleeds the country of its resources. Unless Arabs takes action to resolve the current Yemen crisis then the worn-out epithet of “Happy Yemen,” would ironically lead to a miserable Yemen.