28 January - 3 February 2010
Yemen's slide into chaos is sending shock waves throughout the region and even the world, documents Mohamed Hafez
For some time now, Yemen has endured several crises on both the state and societal levels, casting doubts on the viability of the country's unity and security. The current Yemen government is heading towards collapse unless it shoulders its responsibilities in terms of development, creating jobs and regaining control over conflict regions. In the south, the southern mobility movement began a battle three years ago in the southern governorates; in the north, the Houthi rebellion has resulted in military confrontations which were rekindled in 2004. Al-Qaeda has found refuge in Yemen and fertile ground to grow after fleeing the pursuit of international forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda in Yemen has taken different positions with regards to these struggles, describing southern secession as a religious duty. The leader in the Arab peninsula, Nasser Al-Wahishi, declared support for the southern mobility movement, and stated in a recorded message broadcast via the Internet that, "what is taking place in Lahag, Al-Dale, Abeen, Hadramot, and other southern governorates is unacceptable. We are obligated to support them." Al-Wahishi also pledged to retaliate on behalf of slain civilians.
According to government sources, the group also supports the Houthi rebels providing them with logistical support, and has recently escalated operations in Yemen. In December, it claimed responsibility for the failed attempt to blow up a US airline en route from Amsterdam to Detroit by Nigerian national Umar Abdel-Muttaleb. The incident brought the war on terror back to the forefront of global discourse because it directly targeted the US and its Western allies, and clearly signalled that Al-Qaeda in Yemen is capable of reaching its targets. It also confirmed that abandoning Yemen amidst these crises is a real danger to the countries in the region, as well as the interests and security of the world community.
Al-Qaeda's support of the southern mobility movement and its call for secession confirms the group's philosophy of destabilising the state, because it does not believe in the Western-based structure of the state. Al-Qaeda believes in the Caliphate state and acknowledges that any secure and stable nation would not allow the presence of its disruptive activities. Al-Qaeda does not grow or thrive unless the state has collapsed and society is rife with tribalism and conflicting ethnicities, as witnessed in Afghanistan, southern Pakistan, and Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The same conditions are also present in Somalia, which is why Al-Qaeda is operating there. By looking at a map, it is apparent that the failed state Somalia is not far from Yemen. Weakening the current Yemeni state and creating a zone under the control of Al-Qaeda would allow the training of new Al-Qaeda recruits, and would allow the group to control the region of Bab Al-Mandeb straits. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as well as marine traffic in the Red Sea, would be prey to the new Al-Qaeda statelet, and the fear is that its influence could extend to other countries in the region.
The regional and world communities support the official regime in Yemen on all three battlefronts, as demonstrated in the statements and initiatives of the world community. At the same time, world powers have so far ignored the calls and appeals of the secessionists and rebels. International support for the ruling regime is rooted in the fact that Yemen represents a cornerstone in the war against terrorism, and lies on the vital shores of the Red Sea.
The Red Sea is one of the most critical maritime routes in the world because it gives access to the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean. On the political plane and since the 1973 Egypt-Israeli war, the Red Sea has become a vital national security issue for the countries surrounding it. The military importance of the Red Sea stems from the fact that it gives passage to the Indian Ocean via Yemen's Bab Al-Mandeb straits which, along with the Horn of Africa, is of vital importance to the world powers.
US-Yemeni relations have been in a constant ebb and flow, with tensions peaking after the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000. They became further strained in the aftermath of the events of 9/11. These two events have become milestones in relations between the US and Yemen, as both sides strive to benefit from the other by signing several security and military agreements within the framework of the US war on terror.
The challenges facing Yemen today, including Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, the southern mobility movement and the Houthi rebellion, have caused the US to reiterate its support of Saleh's regime, its partner in the war against terror. US President Barack Obama confirmed on 8 May his country's support of a "united and stable Yemen" because this would serve the security and stability of the region. The European Union renewed its call for Yemen's unity and stability on 26 October. In early January, in the wake of the failed attempt to blow up the US airliner, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown called for convening an international conference on Yemen at the end of the month, to be attended by regional and international powers.
Arab states unanimously expressed their solidarity with the official regime in Yemen, as they have since Yemen's civil war in 1994 between north and south. This position is based on long term interests. Saudi Arabia is concerned about the sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias, as well as its 2,000km border with Yemen. Also, the instability resulting from a failed regime in Yemen would jeopardise border agreements between the two neighbours. Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries, see their interests threatened by Iranian ambitions to establish a presence in the Red Sea.
Kuwait believes that close ties between Yemen and the more powerful members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) would serve its interests. Bahrain also wants a privileged relationship with Yemen, despite the fact that conditions there are close to those in Yemen in terms of Sunni and Shia tensions. Oman wants to secure its borders, while the UAE is focussed on pursuing security, stability and unity in all Arab countries.
The Gulf states realise that secession of southern Yemen and the expansion of the Shia Al-Houthi war would give Iran a presence on the Red Sea, and the security of Gulf states would be held hostage to Iran and the US. If the two launch bilateral talks, as reports suggest, the Gulf countries will be directly affected. Alternatively, they would lose the most if the US and the West decide to attack Iran.
Egypt's support of Yemen is based on several principles. Strategically, Yemen is considered part of the Horn of African, and if Iran establishes a foothold there it would threaten Arab interests. Second, as a leader in the region, Egypt is signalling to Iran not to interfere in Yemen's internal affairs, to stop fanning the flames of conflict there and not to threaten its stability. Third, Cairo is lobbying against Iranian expansionism by labelling the Houthis as rebels, and sending an indirect message to the southern mobility movement.
Fourth, Egypt wants to assert itself as a viable player in the affairs of the Arab region, and not allow other powers such as Qatar, for example, to play such a role. It also seeks to strengthen Egyptian-Saudi relations. A fifth reason is because Egypt assisted in creating the state of Yemen in 1962, and it is therefore in Cairo's interest that the regime there hold on to power to ensure loyalty to Egypt. Finally, southern Yemen is considered of great political and strategic importance to Egypt and regional security, since Bab Al-Mandeb straits are an integral part of the national security of the Suez Canal and Red Sea.
When Israel bombed Egyptian naval targets in Safaga, Hurghada and other locations in the Red Sea during the 1968-1969 war of attrition, Egypt moved part of its air force to Wadi Sidna, north of Khartoum, and temporarily sent navy units to ports in north and south Yemen. In 1973, Arab navies demonstrated the importance of Bab Al-Mandeb straits and the Yemeni islands in the Red Sea with regards to Arab security.
Despite official denials of direct interference, Iran has been very supportive of the Houthi rebellion in the north since it began in 2004. In early November 2009, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki publicly warned neighbouring countries against interfering in Yemen's internal affairs. Iran would like a victory for the Houthis because they are Shias and would ensure its presence in this vital region.
The Iranian channel Al-Alam covered the movement's festival in the southern governorate of Abeen, and in a video report described the 1994 war in Yemen as occupation. It also incited Yemenis against Saleh, calling on "Yemeni citizens to resist what Saudi Arabia and President Saleh want."