By Jay Holmes
The spice trade has dried up, and the 24,000,000 well-armed people in “The South” suffer an unemployment rate of close to 70%. The fragile economy relies on Yemen’s very limited oil supplies, and these are expected to dry up by 2017. Yemen has natural gas reserves, and, since its access to the Indian Ocean is outside the Straits of Hormuz or any other choke points, Yemen is well placed to develop liquefied petroleum gas exports. However, in keeping with strong, regional traditions Yemen is plagued by rampant corruption that sucks any efficiency from economic development. This is one facet of Yemeni life that fuels the recent protests.
Yemen is the only republican government in the region. Two houses of government share legislative power with a president. Everyone over the age of 18 is allowed to vote, including women and non-Muslims, though only Muslims can hold office. The president and the legislators pick a prime minister, who then acts as head of government operations while the president remains the Head of State. Ali Abdullah Saleh is the current president, and he has been since 1990.
Yemen was previously two countries, North Yemen and South Yemen. Prior to its unification in 1990, Ali Saleh was the leader of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990.
Beneath this seemingly manageable government organization lies a reality of tribal competition and outright warfare. In the North, the Houthi tribes are usually at war with Yemeni government forces, or anyone else unfortunate enough to wonder into their neighborhood. There is currently a truce between the Houthis and the government, but no one expects it to last much longer. If the Houthis have anything in common with Yemeni President Saleh, it’s a strong instinct for opportunism, and Saleh’s government is fragile now.
Saleh is a Shia Muslim and is ruling in a Sunni majority country, but the breakdown of loyalties is far more complex. There are multiple sects of both Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the sect alignments are reinforced by tribal lines. However, there is no reason to believe that the current protests in Yemen have anything to do with Sunni vs. Shia. It appears to be more a case of Young vs. Old driving unemployment protests, and Nearly Everyone vs. Saleh the Imbecile driving the growing Saleh Drop Dead movement. Yemen has a young population, and the youth in Yemen are likely no more impressed with Saudi, Omani, or Iranian propaganda efforts than they are with President Saleh.
Saleh is truly a self-made man. His formal education ended prior to 8th grade and did not resume until he received his unimpressive military training. His instincts and management style seem to resemble those of a post WWII Sicilian mayor. But, unlike the stable mafia mayors of Sicily in the fifties and sixties, Saleh presides over a community that lacks a sense of unity. In Yemen, Them vs. Us management techniques are hampered by the day-to-day Us vs. Each Other and Anyone Who Shows Up reality of rural Yemen.
To understand the protesters in Yemen today, it’s handy to look at a few high points in the Saleh Circus history. While Saddam Hussein was still warden of Iraq, Yemeni President Saleh simultaneously claimed strong fraternal ties and undying loyalty to both Iraq and its enemy, Iran. No, I’m not making this up. The usually humorless Iranian government tolerated the farce because, when your only other “friend” in the world is the oil-less Assad mob in Syria, anyone even pretending to be friendly is tolerable.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saleh proudly entered the Guinness Book of Records under the Monumental Miscalculation category. To the quiet and curious amusement of realists on planet Earth, Ali Saleh backed Saddam Hussein. In response to this idiotic move, Saudi Arabia responded by sending home the nearly 900,000 Yemenis that were in Saudi Arabia doing what Yemenis can rarely do at home—earning wages without committing felonies. Many of those ex-wage earners and their hungry adult children are likely enjoying the protests in Yemen this week.
In 2000, an Al-Qaeda kamikaze boat attack bombed the USS Cole while it was fueling in Aden, Yemen, killing 17 American sailors and wounding 29 more. In another bout with Reality Deficit Disorder, Saleh claimed in 2005 that he single-handedly stopped the occupation of Aden by the United States Navy at the time the USS Cole was attacked by standing fast against the crews of eight US warships. If there had been any US warships in Aden besides the badly damaged USS Cole at the time, the claim might not have been quite so ridiculous.
Just in case anyone might question Saleh’s highly developed talent for absurdity, he also fervently supports Iran’s right to produce nuclear weapons. . . .Those nuclear weapons that the Iranian mullahs claim they are not producing.
Saudi Arabia has all but given up on Yemen as a neighbor and is constructing expensive border barriers to staunch the flow of smuggled goods, Yemenis, and Al-Qaeda visitors via Yemen.
In a sense, Saleh’s dilemma is that Yemen has outgrown him. Many Yemenis have become more aware of the world outside of Yemen, and they are not enjoying the comparison.
Saleh responded to the recent protests with moderate rhetoric and promises of a new constitution. As the protests persisted, Saleh claimed that he would step down as long as he received a guarantee against any prosecution.
As ridiculous as Ali Saleh often is, I would be surprised to see him risk his life by remaining in Yemen after a change in government. Saleh has burned his bridges with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, and Iraq. Perhaps he can finally use his one real talent by moving to Detroit, USA or Sheffield, England and opening a comedy club. Both places could use a bit of his illicit cash.
Saleh’s only supporters at the moment are his frantic pals from Iran. The Iranian government wants to maintain access to Yemeni ports for the trans-shipment of weapons and trouble to East Africa and other locations. The Iranians are calculating that no other Yemeni would be crazy enough to ally with them, so they are desperate to keep Saleh from leaving office.
The Yemeni police also stand between the Yemeni people and reform. So far, the Yemeni police have been willing to respond with gunfire, even though their loyalty to Saleh is somewhat questionable.
Over 200 Yemenis have been killed since the protests began. Saleh has agreed to the Gulf Cooperation Council Proposal to resign in 30 days, and for his vice president to take over for an additional 30 days with elections to be held in 60 days. The protestors, however, are impatient and do not want to wait, as they might see this as a stalling tactic to give the security police a better chance to crush the protests.
Al-Qaeda has attempted to co-opt the protest movement, and Saleh has been willing to use that as a bargaining chip for gaining support from the US. Although Al-Qaeda survives comfortably in the mountainous areas of Yemen, they are not popular with the majority of Yemenis. The US and Saudi Arabia continue to track Al-Qaeda in Yemen. If Al-Qaeda were to grow as a result of the current chaos, it would, in fact, be simpler to deal with in Yemen than in Afghanistan and Pakistan. US carrier groups can operate safely off the coast of Yemen, and the Navy is in a position to deliver strong logistic support for any ongoing patrols there, making operations against Al-Qaeda in Yemen far easier than operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On the positive side, the Yemenis may not want or need a whole new style of government. They might be willing to accept the same basic structure of government if they could have a little judicial reform, an executive branch separate from the legislative branch, and new governors. That makes a transition in Yemen less difficult than in Libya. Yemen has a real government. It just needs real governors.
For the moment Ali Saleh still holds the microphone.