International tensions have a way of thrusting small, faltering states into the global spotlight. When suicide bombers attacked, and very nearly sank, the American warship U.S.S. Cole in 2000 in Yemen’s south-coast port of Adan (Aden), this remote country on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula drew the world’s attention for the least desirable of reasons. Once seen as a promising if fragile experiment in Muslim-Arab democracy and as a destination for adventure tourism, Yemen suddenly found itself at the center of concern about the threat of Islamic militancy and terrorism.
Yemen occupies a small, peripheral sector of the Arabian Peninsula, but its population very nearly matches (and by some estimates exceeds) that of its vast neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The country as it is seen on the map today, its boundaries with Saudi Arabia still contentious, is the product of a 1989 merger between two neighbors, the populous, tribal Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) in the northwest, bordering the Red Sea, and the communist-inspired People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), facing the Gulf of Adan, in the south and east. This agreement, which took effect in 1990 to create the Republic of Yemen with its capital at Sana’a in the northern interior, soon collapsed in a political crisis that precipitated the civil war of 1994. South Yemen announced its secession, North Yemen’s forces advanced into the South and captured Adan, culpable politicians were killed or exiled, and the state was restored.
The physical geography of Yemen displays rugged, deeply incised mountains in the North, where ephemeral streams flow westward to the Red Sea coast and disappear eastward into interior deserts, and lower relief in the South, where coastal topography is also rugged but interior desert plains are more extensive. Much of the craggy, arid countryside lies remote from Yemen’s meager road system and effectively beyond the reach of its government, creating refuges for rebels and bandits who ambush officials, kidnap tourists for ransom, and, more recently, set up terrorist bases. As in Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, relief, remoteness, and cultural traditions combine to protect jihadists.
Yemen’s relative location creates additional challenges. Its territory (about the size of France) includes the sizeable island of Socotra in the Gulf of Adan and more than 100 islands in the Red Sea, some of which have also been claimed by Eritrea, resulting in armed clashes. Only the Bab-al-Mandeb (Gate of Grief), one of the world’s narrowest maritime choke points, separates the southern tip of Yemen from the landmass of Africa. And across this hourglass-shaped waterway lie the malfunctioning state of Eritrea, the impoverished ministate of Djibouti, and the failed state of Somalia. In the seas that, by virtue of UNCLOS maritime boundary rules, consist largely of Yemeni territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone waters, piracy has become a way of life for thousands of African buccaneers. Few of the world’s neighborhoods present more daunting challenges.
In the more than two decades since its enforced restitution, Yemen has been torn by centrifugal forces powerful enough to marginalize the modern legal and political system that outsiders sought to sustain and locals tend to dismiss as impractical and irrelevant. The country has taken on, in Western perspective, the features of a failed state. In the south, a renewed independence movement is reviving notions of a new South Yemen with the currently moribund port of Adan as its capital. Although the South contains only about one-fifth of the country’s population of 25 million, it also has the bulk of what remains of Yemen’s oil reserves. Southerners complain that the North has effectively colonized their domain, installing its friends in powerful places, sidelining locals, and stifling initiatives of all kinds. And in the bulge that marks northwest Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia, the Houthi clan has been waging its own war against the Sana’a government. The Houthis, Shia Muslims in a country that is nearly 60 percent Sunni, have received support (including smuggled weapons) from Iran; Yemen’s government alleges that Houthi rebels were trained in Eritrea by Lebanese members of Iran-supported Hizbullah. The Houthi, in turn, claim that Saudi Arabia has helped the Sana’a regime by allowing Yemen’s forces to cross the border and attack them from the north. Once again, as so often in Yemen’s history, outsiders are fueling local conflict. As a result of this latest war, more than 250,000 people, most of them Houthis, were internal refugees in mid-2010, and this northern frontier was a hotbed of anti-Sana’a sentiment.
But the key issue in the far north appears to have strong economic as well as religious and political dimensions. The Houthi domain is economically depressed even by this country’s standards, and the locals demand a better share of government assistance in the form of roads, wells, schools, and utilities. Whatever stokes the Houthi rebellion, it contributes to the further destabilization of an already weak state. The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen is running out of its leading export commodity, oil; it is facing a crisis of water supply, suffers from severe electricity shortages, has a badly damaged infrastructure, and is buffeted by high unemployment and endemic corruption. Regional frictions and strong local loyalties, coupled with external pressures and involvements, erode the authority of government. In the modern world of terrorist cells and jihadist movements, Yemen’s weakness spells opportunity. As terrorists and their religious and logistical supporters become established and international concern rises over their presence in Yemen, Western efforts to shore up the country’s army and police carry growing risk. The newfound power of the government to intervene, through raids on terrorist bases and arrests of militants, is perceived by many citizens as proof of foreign interference and carries a cost in terms of loyalty and allegiance. Al Qaeda, already well established in Yemen, is the beneficiary of such perceptions. An American-born Yemeni Muslim preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, has become a prominent figure in Yemen’s militant circles. The scion of a prominent family from a powerful southern tribe, he is accused of training jihadists in the arts of terrorism, including the attempt by a Nigerian passenger to blow up a civilian airliner approaching Detroit in December 2009. When the United States authorized his elimination, Anwar al-Awlaki’s stature soared even as loyal followers tightened his protection.
Obscured by all the attention this country’s political geography now attracts is a Yemen that might have been: a prosperous kingdom more than two thousand years ago whose economy was based on irrigated frankincense and spices; an era of Rasulid rulers who brought Yemen a golden age during the fourteenth century when architecture, science, literature and agriculture flourished; the promise of the 1993 election, the first free, multiparty election ever conducted on the Arabian Peninsula, the first in which women participated, and the first to result in the appointment of a woman at ministerial level in an Arab government. But always, Yemen’s corner of the world turned violent, set progress back, and, from Egyptians to Ottomans to European colonizers to Marxist ideologues – and now, Muslim militants – imposed outside interests on local customs and traditions. Yemen’s cultural landscape bears the marks of both triumph and disaster.