Yemen Crisis: Risk of Internationalization and Arab Response

Dr. Mustafa Abdel Aziz Morsi: Yemen Crisis: Risk of Internationalization and Arab Response

  • 21 February 2010

In recent years, Yemen has had to endure recurrent crises that have led regional and international powers to interfere in its affairs. This foreign intervention has been accentuated by Yemen’s strategic location, as the country borders the Bab el-Mandeb Strait that lies at the entrance to the Red Sea. In addition, Yemen is also close to the oil-rich Arab Gulf region. Some regional and international powers have tried to exploit the weakness of Yemen in order to secure their political interests and to gain the upper hand in widening their regional influence.

Although, Yemen was not accorded great importance in the strategic equation of the big powers, particularly of the United States, events over the last decade have drawn global attention to the critical importance of Yemen’s strategic location; such as the suicide attack that struck the US naval ship Cole in the Gulf of Eden in 2000, followed by the attack on the French tanker Limburg. In addition, there has been increased activity of the so-called ‘Al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula’ in the country. With its base inside Yemen, this organization has started spreading its terrorist activities beyond the country’s borders—as is evident from the failed assassination bid on the life Saudi Arabia’s Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz on August 2009. Then there was the failed attempt of the Nigerian Umar Farouq Abdul Mutallab to blow up a US airline en route from Amsterdam to the city of Detroit towards the end of December last year. US national security has traced the links of this operation to Yemen, along with that of another crime committed on US soil, just before this operation. The earlier incident relates to Nidal Malik Hasan, the US psychiatrist of Palestinian origin, who killed US soldiers in the Fort Hood camp in Texas last November. According to US sources, Nidal Malik Hasan was incited into carrying out this crime by a Yemeni religious figure. These incidents forced the US to put Yemen on top of its priorities in the war on terrorism and to protect its vital interests in the Gulf region.

Undoubtedly, Yemen is suffering from a complex and unprecedented crisis that has turned it into a magnet of different regional and international agendas. To begin with, the country is buffeted by the “southern movement,” which at a minimum wants a larger share in power, failing which it threatens to secede from the country that has failed to integrate its regions, even after two decades of the unification of the country. The Shabwa province and the adjoining areas that have been the main hub of activity for the movement has become a source of regional and international concern because of the infiltration of Al-Qaeda elements in the area, as it has become a safe haven for its members, who have benefitted from the weakness of the state. In addition, bloody confrontation in Saada and its neighborhood with the Yemeni regime for the last six years are raising an additional regional concern for neighboring countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The fragile situation in Yemen and the weakness of the Arab system has made it possible for regional parties like Iran to interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs to expand their regional influence. The infiltration of Houthi group into the Saudi territories and the rumors of Iranian support provides a partial peek into current relations between Tehran and Riyadh.

In this context, international forces are considering the possibility of setting up bases in Yemen on the premise that they have legitimate and justifiable reasons, problems and circumstances for doing so—given the fact that the Yemeni government is incapable of confronting the problems and of running its writ across the country. The call for a London conference in support of Yemen gave the impression that the Yemeni crisis has been internationalized. This apprehension had forced the Yemeni government to announce, even before the convention had begun, its rejection of foreign intervention in its internal matters under any pretext. The most noteworthy opposition from Yemen in this regard came with the meeting of 150 Yemeni religious leaders on January 14, who strongly opposed the presence of any foreign forces on Yemeni territories. These religious scholars went so far as to threaten ‘Jihad’ against any foreign force that may seek to enter Yemen.

The reason behind this rejection can be drawn from the lessons learned by the country from the intervention of international forces in conflicts of the region. The memory of Iraq war still weighs heavily over the Arab mind. There is a fear that such interference could lead to the “Afghanization of Yemen”. The most important reason for the official Yemeni refusal of any foreign military presence is that international forces would soon impose their reform agenda on the country, which would likely be at variance with the policies of the Yemeni regime or would at least bring down the basis for its authority.

However, it is to be noted that the US, for example, is currently trying to avoid expanding its military involvement in new conflict areas as it is still mired in Afghanistan, and has still not extracted itself from the Iraq crisis. In addition, Iranian nuclear crisis is still exposed to all kinds of possibilities. In fact, US President Barack Obama clarified his position in this regard when he announced that he had no intention of sending US forces to Yemen or Somalia. Washington has limited itself to providing Yemen with intelligence and logistic support and has been hesitant in venturing into its difficult terrain. In fact, General David Petraeus considered the rejection of Yemen against the deployment of US forces in its land as “good news for his country”.

Yemeni position has received a clear approval of Arab countries and has opposed the sending of foreign forces into Yemen. Egypt has supported this view based on two bases. Firstly, Egypt believes that Yemen is fully capable of confronting any threat to its security and stability on its own. Second, Egypt has made a gesture of support to Yemen in its war against the insurgency by vowing to provide all logistical and intelligence-related support, which is the norm among friendly countries. For its part, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—as a regional power that is directly affected by the conflict in Yemen (with which it shares a common border)— has tried to contain the conflict within Yemen and has attempted to prevent its spill over into the region. The other Gulf Cooperation Council countries have also been quick in providing aid to Yemen in order assist it in confronting the crisis.

The international convention that was held in London last January— attended by delegates of over 20 countries and several international organizations—issued a statement that was very succinct, as it was largely sensitive to the approach of the Yemeni government that is against any foreign intervention in its internal affairs. The communiqué confirmed the need for preserving the unity and integrity of Yemen and for respecting its sovereignty and independence as well as affirming the commitment against interfering in its internal affairs and of supporting Yemen’s economic and social reform process for the long-term stability and prosperity of the country. The participants agreed to support Yemeni government for developing its abilities in fighting terrorism and for enhancing the safety of its borders and air space, as well as for building its legislative, judicial and security capabilities. There was a strong agreement against the idea of sending foreign forces to Yemen. In this context, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton assured that the problems of Yemen cannot be solved through military means, but by supporting development that would bring about stability in the land. Yemeni Ministry of Interior Abu Baker Al-Qorba emphasized that the support of the international community would only be within the framework of “preserving the independence and sovereignty of Yemen”. However, the statement placed a condition on the Yemeni government in return for this support. The condition is that the government should commit seriously to reforming the internal situation. The conference also hinted at the need for introducing internal reforms and Hillary Clinton categorically stated that the commitment of the Yemeni government toward internal reform would be closely monitored. Questions were also raised over the true objective behind instituting the ‘Friends of Yemen’ club, which the final statement said would handle challenges facing Yemen. ‘Friends of Yemen’ would hold its first meetings by the end of March for discussing the measures needed to implement Yemen’s national reform plan.

Despite international and regional denunciation of any military intervention in Yemen, there can be no guarantees that the present position would last for long. In fact, if the current situation continues to fester in Yemen, this stance would grow weaker. It is possible that the United States might alter its position following the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq and as soon as its current economic crisis is settled. This scenario would be plausible in case Al-Qaeda Organization of the Arabian Peninsula succeeds again in striking against US interests, just like the attempt made by the Nigerian Umar Farouq. In addition, there are indicators that regional and international attempts to stop interference in Yemeni affairs have not fully succeeded. The Yemeni battleground could still be exploited for settling regional and international disputes. Unless a strong Arab stance is forged that helps Yemen in withstanding any threats, the possibility of the internationalization of the Yemeni crisis would grow. Therefore, quick action for adopting a common and comprehensive Arab action plan has become the need of the hour so that the unity, stability and development of Yemen is achieved.