The brazen December 5, 2013 attack which rocked the Defense Ministry in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, killing 52 people, including women, children and doctors at the ministry’s hospital, is yet another reminder of the country’s growing lack of security. Even before the dust had settled, the usual suspects were named: al-Qaeda-affiliated militant jihadists.
However, tabloid-style sensationalism and the narrow fixation on al-Qaeda’s rhetoric and tactics obscure the fact that the biggest source of insecurity in Yemen’s post-Arab Spring climate is not the active presence of al-Qaeda, but rather the power struggles and lethal factionalism within the military and state security entities. It is a strategic misperception to attribute the country’s ongoing political violence to ideological, sectarian, tribal or regional motives.
On the ground, everything seems to indicate that the Yemeni state is caught in a spiral of elite-orchestrated systematic chaos which is threatening to push the fragile country over the brink. Seasonal militant jihadists, mobile sectarian outfits, elite defectors, autonomists, criminal networks and armed militias under the patronage of different local and external patrons all have stepped up their activities—either to settle accounts, maintain material interests, expand their political power and territory, or hamper efforts aimed at a post-Arab Spring renegotiation of Yemen’s social contract. Old rules and networks are being rejected, but new rules and networks are not yet formulated. Dangerous uncertainty is the name of the game.
Since President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi assumed office in February 2012, the country has been plunged into large-scale violence targeting the military-security apparatuses. Three months after Hadi took office, a suicide bomber wearing a Yemeni army uniform killed about 100 soldiers during a rehearsal for a National Unity Day parade. In addition to attacks on military installations and checkpoints in various parts of the country, “shoot and scoot” attacks against military, intelligence and security officers have become common. In the first half of 2013 alone, more than 85 middle- and high-ranking officers were assassinated.
Another vital sector under attack in Yemen’s post-Arab Spring climate is the country’s energy infrastructure. Acts of industrial sabotage and the resulting shutdowns of oil fields have become as regular as clockwork. In the first seven months of last year, more than 115 attacks on the country’s main oil pipelines, electricity grid and fiber-optics network were reported. Although Yemen is not a major hydrocarbon producer, its oil and natural gas resources account for over 90 percent of the country’s exports, finance up to 70 percent of national budget spending, and, above all, are the main machinery of patronage and the regime’s politics of survival.
Securing the country’s pipelines and other critical energy infrastructure is a stated goal of Yemen’s current president. The 34-member transition government cabinet, sworn in in December 2011, has adopted a “Transitional Program for Stabilization and Development” which aims to enhance security and ease poverty. Paralyzed by partisan gridlock, however, the transition government is in no position to take serious measures to enforce its authority, control and protection. In the northeastern province of Marib, where the heart of Yemen’s energy infrastructure is located, there is a newly emerging popular saying which goes: hit a pipe (pronounced “peep” by locals), get a jeep. The saying refers to the government’s distribution of jeeps to local figures in return for their cooperation in stopping the sabotaging of energy infrastructure in the province.
Responding to the string of assassinations in Yemen’s southern, central, eastern and northern provinces, the central government could only implement a temporary two-week ban on motorbikes in the capital city. The Interior Ministry described the ban as a step aimed at “preserving security and stability.”
Yemen’s security crisis is compounded by a sharp overall rise in poverty, exacerbated by a large budget deficit and soaring unemployment—as well as economic stagnation, high inflation, misdirection of resources and a decline in public development expenditure in real terms. These factors have led to an increase in human misery and grievances in Yemen’s urban, rural, coastal and tribal communities. After three years of Yemen’s version of the Arab Spring, an estimated 13.1 million Yemenis, of a total population of 24.5 million, require humanitarian aid. According to the World Food Program, about 5 million Yemenis are suffering from severe hunger, and an additional 5 million have insufficient access to food. Child labor has increased dramatically, while school attendance has decreased. More than half of Yemen’s population does not have access to clean water and sanitation, and 6 million lack access to basic health care, including life-saving reproductive health services.
Contributing to the country’s vulnerability is the fact that, in the past six months, Saudi Arabia has deported some 200,000 Yemeni expatriate workers, with the number expected to reach at least 600,000 in the coming months, according to the Yemeni government. Remittances of Yemeni expatriates in the Saudi kingdom, estimated at $3 billion a year, are one of the backbones of Yemen’s fragile national economy.
The convergence of these crises has taken its toll on the entire range of livelihood strategies open to the Yemeni population. Even social cohesion and resilience, which has always been Yemen’s strongest social capital, has been damaged.
National Dialogue: Particularities and Shortcomings
In stark contrast to the distinction of being one of the most heavily armed societies on earth, and home to one of al-Qaeda’s deadliest branches, Yemen is the only Arab Spring state in which youth-led peaceful popular protests resulted in a negotiated solution. This is due in part to the convergence of Washington, Riyadh, Brussels and Moscow’s interests in the southwestern corner of Arabia; Yemen’s deep-rooted cultural acceptance of third-party mediation; and a delicate balance of power among domestic elites.
One of the milestones in the country’s political transition is the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which brought together 565 delegates representing a wide array of parties and social groups as diverse as Yemen itself. Launched on March 18, 2013, the NDC is part of a power transfer deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that paved the way for the exit of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years. The NDC structure was based on creating nine main channels of discussions, in the form of thematic working groups, with the aim of drawing up blueprints for state building and a new constitution under the U.N.-facilitated transition plan. Although plagued by would-be spoilers, in comparison with the Syrian and Libyan scenarios Yemen’s NDC is undoubtedly a noteworthy accomplishment.
But no national dialogue or reconciliation among the elites can help Yemeni society move from a divided violent past to a shared peaceful future without tangible positive changes in the economic and security spheres. In the case of Yemen, the steady and rapid deterioration of security and living conditions during the transitional process has turned the mixture of expectations, ambitions and fears into a toxic trigger of violence. Sadly, in the current context of an internally divided fragile polity, polarized security forces, and a balkanized and demoralized military with tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers” on the payroll, halting violence, creating a peaceful platform for negotiation, and protecting the strategic interests of the Yemeni state is just wishful thinking. No military in the region has such a massive number of ghost soldiers and officers than in Yemen. Some experts estimate that more than one-third of the country’s 100,000 soldiers exist only on paper. Commanders with tribal influence and political connections not only pocket the salaries of these ghosts, but also sell guns and munitions on the black market.
Nor is Yemen’s ghost worker syndrome limited to the military and security agencies. The syndrome exists across all tiers of government, causing massive leakages from the national budget. In the public sector, for instance, the tens of thousands of “ghosts” on the payroll include dead people, retired civil servants and purely fictitious names.
Another pitfall in Yemen’s current transition is the overwhelming focus on formal political parties as the main partners of the international community. Such a focus misses the fact that many of Yemen’s political parties are neither institutional expressions of citizen interests nor tools for nation-building and political modernization, but patronage parties with close ties to economic elites and the military-tribal establishment. The competition between Yemen’s political parties is one among tribal, military and economic elites.
To complicate an already complicated situation, since the beginning of the U.N.’s relentless efforts at facilitating the transition process, the number of U.S. drone strikes has escalated. In 2011, for example, the U.S. launched 18 strikes; in 2012, 53; and last year it launched a reported 30 strikes. The strikes have killed many innocent civilians, including women and children, in tribal and rural areas of the country. One such fatal mistake took place on Dec. 12, 2013, when a U.S. strike killed more than a dozen people in a wedding convoy in the village of Qaifa, in Yemen’s central al-Bayda province. These tragic incidents are war crimes which not only stir anti-U.S. sentiments and boost militant jihadism, but also provoke resentment toward the weak central government and outrage against the entire transition process.
Breaking the Vicious Cycle
For decades Yemen has been trapped in a poverty-conflict cycle which has made it vulnerable to shocks and crises. Its population is scattered, remote, and largely isolated from state services. In local communities throughout the country, and across the socio-political spectrum, there is increasing frustration and a collective loss of patience with the dysfunctional transition government. One of the most dangerous potential outcomes of a prolongation of the current chaos would be government paralysis, and the implosion rather than explosion of structures of power and authority in the vast rural and tribal areas, where more than 70 percent of the population reside. This bleak scenario would surely plunge the country into further atomization and a destructive war among political elites, warlords and sectarian groups, with dire regional and international repercussions.
It is imperative that Washington step back and reconsider the results of its controversial and counterproductive war on terror in Yemen. After more than a decade of a narrow fixation on militarized and hardcore security solutions, it has become clear that the U.S. still struggles to understand Yemen’s larger socio-cultural, historical, political and developmental environment. As in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia, there can be no effective counterterrorism policy in Yemen without a radical and deep change in the current U.S. strategic mindset.
As for the GCC countries in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, they should not view Yemen simply as an incubator of security nightmares. Yemen is an ancient civilization which has contributed much to the shaping of history and culture of the Arabian Peninsula. It is both strategic and moral to launch a GCC Marshall Plan consisting of a comprehensive financial-aid package aimed at improving the basic quality of life of its citizens during Yemen’s painful transition process. Removing obstacles to Yemen’s economic and human development is the key to security and stability in the southwestern corner of Arabia.