Middle East News and Opinions
Foreboding About the Future in Yemen Sarah Phillips
April 3, 2006
(Sarah Phillips is a doctoral candidate in political science at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies of the Australian National University in Canberra.)
For background on the upcoming Yemeni presidential election, see Gregory D. Johnsen, “Salih’s Road to Reelection,” Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2006.
For background on crisis in Yemen, see Sarah Phillips, “Cracks in the Yemeni System,” Middle East Report Online, July 28, 2005.
Within days of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih’s departure in January to Germany for medical care, the regime’s next most prominent personality, Sheikh Abdallah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, left for Saudi Arabia. At the Sanaa airport, al-Ahmar, speaker of the Yemeni parliament, head of Islah, the country’s most popular opposition party, and paramount sheikh of Yemen’s most influential tribal confederation, pointedly announced that he was “leaving [Yemen] to Ali Abdallah Salih and his sons,” according to a source close to his family. Al-Ahmar’s words signaled that the alliance between him and the president, the cornerstone of the political status quo for nearly three decades, is close to coming undone. “He is smart,” says one local analyst. “He sees the regime’s problems and knows when to start to move independently.”
Some Yemenis believe that the real reason behind the sheikh’s departure was to seek treatment for a life-threatening illness. Others believe that by so conspicuously detaching himself from the president, he is pursuing his own aspirations to leadership. Whatever the truth of the matter, al-Ahmar’s apparent break with the president has contributed to a palpable sense of foreboding about the future in Yemen.
TWO STEPS FORWARD, HOW MANY BACK?
In the early 1990s, Yemen was buzzing with optimism. The long-desired dream of unification between the former North and South had been achieved, oil revenues were increasing and the dramatic political reforms enacted by the new government had Yemen pegged as a vibrant transitional democracy.
A decade and a half later, living standards have plummeted, oil and water are fast running out and the armed rebellion that Salih had initially expected to put down in under a week has entered its eighteenth month with little sign of fully abating. Corruption has also reached dizzying heights. While it is difficult to quantify, statistics published by the World Bank indicate a dramatic upward trend in the last few years, while Yemen was ranked 112th (with the least corrupt country in first place) in Transparency International’s 2005 Corruption Perception Index. Anecdotal evidence also abounds. For example, the man appointed to head the state’s anti-corruption body, the Central Organization for Control and Auditing (COCA), was given the post while awaiting trial for fraud allegedly committed during his previous tenure in government. After then being fired again for major fraud while running COCA, he was appointed to head the Judicial Inspection Board to ensure the integrity of judges.
Exasperated by such developments, the foreign donors on whom the Yemeni government depends have begun to withdraw their assistance. In 2004, the government was chastised by the World Bank for its rising corruption and warned that they could not rely on the Bank’s continued support if genuine reforms were not implemented. The Bank issued a report stating that “Yemen is clearly slipping into a worst-case scenario” of economic performance. In 2005, the World Bank delivered on its threat and reduced an upcoming loan package by 34 percent (from $420 million over three years to $280 million), citing lack of transparency and good governance. This reduction is combined with a loss of income from the International Monetary Fund, which has been withholding $300 million in concessional finance since 2002, due to the government’s failure to comply with its prescribed structural adjustment package. The Yemeni state is almost completely dependent on sources of income over which it exercises no direct control. Together, oil and donor money constitute at least 85 percent of government revenue. As oil begins to dry up and frustrated donors reduce their aid commitments, the government’s options contract correspondingly.
The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that Yemen’s gross domestic product growth for 2006 will be around 2.5 percent — insufficient to keep pace with population growth (around 3.5 percent per year), let alone meet the World Bank target of 8 percent required for sustained development. The fact that this slump is occurring in the middle of a prolonged oil price spike further indicates the level of corruption and mismanagement that is the backdrop to the political challenges facing the Yemeni regime. Oil revenue probably makes up some 75 percent of the country’s budget and, failing the unlikely discovery of substantial new deposits, the World Bank estimates that Yemen’s reserves will be negligible by 2012. This date is ten years earlier than was previously thought and represents the natural limit of the current order. Before total depletion, however, oil exports will drop significantly; they are likely to be halved within just three years. While an appeal for foreign and domestic investment to spur other industries could help reduce Yemen’s dependence on oil money, investors have been scared away by the corruption that, time and time again, has lined the pockets of the military and tribal elite.
While democratization remains popular, Yemenis no longer seriously discuss it as a short-term possibility. The prospect of state failure has increasingly taken democracy’s place as the subject of speculation at private gatherings across the country, where Yemenis often speak as if collapse were a foregone conclusion. People attached to the regime no longer necessarily shy away from such topics either, one estimating that “around 90 percent” of his colleagues give voice to grim expectations for the future: “Five years ago, it was probably only 30 percent.” In a country that until recently harbored real expectations of decentralized power, hopes for a reprieve from crisis are now being pinned on the linchpin of any autocratic system: the will of the executive.
It is hard to overstate the urgency of Yemen’s situation. In July 2005, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Failed States Index placed Yemen as the country eighth most at risk of disintegration. By this count, Yemen was deemed less stable than war-torn and impoverished Afghanistan, and only marginally more so than Iraq and Somalia, a judgment that was seized upon with an attitude of “I told you so” in Sanaa’s political circles. Anger on the streets is obvious and has been directed at the president himself (as opposed to the usual faceless “government”). In the July 2005 riots over the reduction of fuel subsidies, tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the capital, some shouting “la Sanhan ba‘d al-yawm” (no Sanhan — President Salih’s tribe — after today) and that Salih was the enemy of God. These chants were certainly the most open display of antipathy for the person of the president in Yemen for quite some time. Protesters also burned Salih’s photo on the street and, in an apparent first, many of the demonstrators attempted to reach his heavily guarded residence.
Resentment of unification in the former South has reached levels unseen since the 1994 civil war. Even the victors in that conflict, the northern elite, have been quoted nervously acknowledging the rising southern discontent. Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a popular and powerful Sunni cleric from the North who railed against the South in the leadup to the civil war, was quoted by the Yemeni weekly al-Wasat newspaper in June 2005 as telling President Salih that “if there were a referendum in the South today on the union, they would all vote against it.” Southerners believe that corruption, biased government hiring policies and unlawful confiscation of land by the northern-led regime are taking what is rightfully theirs. Many are becoming less reserved about stating their desire for separation from the northern-dominated regime, an aspiration encouraged by Saudi Arabia the last time around. “We like to be called Hadramis, not Yemenis. Yemen is shamal (to the north),” commented one businessman in the oil-rich eastern province of Hadramawt. With about 80 percent of Yemen’s remaining oil in the former South (the majority of which is in Hadramawt), secession is a prospect that would all but starve the people of the densely populated northwestern areas. As demonstrated in 1994, the northern-dominated regime would not shrink from a fight to maintain this valuable territory.
Then there is the messy armed uprising centered in and around the northern governorate of Saada. “This is the biggest challenge in North Yemen since [Salih] came to power” in 1978, comments a well-informed official. One of Salih’s clearest talents since taking office has been his ability to stay above the fray in local tribal conflicts, in the time-worn tradition of divide et impera. This time he is caught squarely between two groups that once provided his regime with its greatest support: the northern tribes and northern Zaydi religious leaders. The uprising is led by the al-Huthis, a sayyid family (one claiming descent from the Prophet Muhammad) invoking a Zaydi discourse of just rule and supported by armed followers — many of whom are religious students. The movement is arguably all the more dangerous because of its basis in religious doctrine and the Zaydi political tradition, which considers the overthrow of an unjust ruler to be religiously acceptable. However, also competing in the mix are the tribes of Saada that are fighting the government, the tribes that Salih is paying to fight on the government’s behalf and the (also largely tribal) military. The propensity of tribal fighters to sell their loyalties to the highest bidder, and the readiness of military leaders to facilitate this practice for a cut, are pulling the president deeper into a guerrilla-style conflict than he could have intended.
Accurate figures are still impossible to obtain, but the same well-informed official stated in January 2006 that there were “not less than 20,000" government troops deployed in the vicinity of Saada, and that the army was losing an average of ten to 15 soldiers per day. Fatalities on the other side are even less clear, but are unlikely to be less than those suffered by government forces. If this official’s estimate is correct, then an average of 600-900 people are being killed in the fighting each month. There are also indications that some of the support for the insurgents is coming from outside of Saada, from those who are ideologically opposed to the rebels’ religious motivations but who sympathize with their broader critique of the government. The government has tried to link the movement to support obtained from Iran, but with little success. “The big thing is that the government does not know how they are supported and who is arming [the al-Huthi rebels],” observed the official. “They are totally confused. It is probably coming from both [domestic and foreign sources]. How did they get these arms when they are under siege? There are Yemenis supporting them from within Yemen… There are supporters throughout the country…[from a] wider opposition: the South, the poor and the enemies of the system.” In late January, two key leaders of the rebellion escaped from one of Yemen’s highest security prisons. “This was no ordinary prison,” he noted. The security of such high-value prisoners would not have been left to underlings, and the escape could not have been carried out in complete secrecy. This incident does not necessarily point to broad support within the system for the insurgents, but it does underline the regime’s uncertainty about the nature of their enemy and the fact that questions about their right to rule are perceived to be coming from many corners.
The regime’s response to the Saada rebellion has demonstrated just how forcefully it is prepared to counter direct threats to its dominance. But, in doing so, the regime is also demonstrating its ultimate weakness, given the enormous toll on the military and the erosion of the regime’s traditional support base of northern tribal and religious leaders. Moreover, the Huthi rebellion has probably revealed to the opposition, and perhaps to those with radical inclinations, that the regime’s coercive power is not as insurmountable as once imagined. If a movement that began as 1,000-3,000 angry citizens can tie down a government that, according to the estimates of officials, spends up to 40 percent of its budget on security, what could a more concerted effort achieve? This prospect has been debated in a number of qat chews (social gatherings where plant leaves are chewed for their mild stimulant effect) attended by Sanaa’s politically active and aware.
AN UNCERTAIN ALLY
While there is no relationship between the Shiite al-Huthi movement and militant Salafi Sunnis in Yemen, the inability of the government to end the conflict in Saada may be emboldening the latter, whose daring moves of late suggest growing confidence. In early February, 23 suspected terrorists broke out of a high-security prison in Sanaa. (Three and possibly more have been recaptured.) The most famous escapee was Jamal al-Badawi, the alleged architect of the USS Cole bombing in 2000, in which 17 US naval personnel were killed. The official story has it that the detainees used broomsticks and sharpened spoons to tunnel a considerable distance to a nearby mosque. It is inconceivable that such an elaborate escape could have been executed without the acquiescence of well-placed members of the Political Security Organization (PSO), the domestic intelligence agency that answers directly to Salih. The United States shares this view. Newsweek quoted a US official who described the content of a classified embassy cable: “One thing is certain: PSO insiders must have been involved.”
As a key partner in US anti-terrorism efforts, the Yemeni government has been treading very carefully since the USS Cole attack, seeking to appease both the US and the network of militants and their sympathizers, who include members of the military and security apparatus. Since 2003, there has been a fragile truce between the government and members of the umbrella group Qa‘idat al-Jihad fi al-Yemen (Base of Jihad in Yemen), which includes the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army and the al-Qaeda Sympathizers. Under this agreement, a number of militants were released from jail and, according to the September 25, 2003 Yemen Times, assurances were made that the government would “terminate its military cooperation with the US.” US pressure has also been intense and, accordingly, the government has swung between promises and counter-promises. The prison break is a symptom of this delicate and awkward balance. Anything that escalates the standoff with the Salafis is potentially very dangerous. The February “escape” points to three possibilities: the breakout was staged to prevent the detainees from implicating others; it is to pave the way for further militant operations; or it is simply a show of strength by the radicals. None of these possibilities bodes well for Yemen’s already diminished stability — and the US has taken notice.
In January 2005, the House of Representatives passed a resolution including Yemen on a list of Arab countries whose “political and economic liberalization efforts” could “serve as a model” for the region. In November, however, Salih was told in Washington that his promises of reform were no longer sufficient. In a rather uncharacteristic message to a partner in the “war on terror,” top US officials criticized the regime’s failure to deliver on promised reforms and recommended the president quickly do more, lest he lose Washington’s support in Yemen’s 2006 presidential election. One US diplomat says privately: “Our policy in Yemen has really shifted in the last six months.” Another was reported in US News & World Report to have said: “We’re not going to give [the Yemeni government] a pass anymore.”
Two well-placed Yemeni observers report that Salih was shocked by the directness of the message he received in Washington, though his closest advisers counsel him that he need not be alarmed, since the US does not understand the dynamics of Yemeni politics. In the event, there have been no reform initiatives from the president since November other than a reshuffling of the cabinet and a promise to release 627 al-Huthi supporters from prison.
Stepped-up US pressure on Yemen to turn over al-Zindani for allegedly supplying arms and funds to al-Qaeda is another indicator of waning patience. Al-Zindani has been on the Treasury Department list as a “specially designated global terrorist” since February 2004, and his location in Yemen is well-known. The drive to have him extradited began in earnest following the February prison break, however, and was coupled with a letter to Salih from President George W. Bush, who used the missive to air his doubts about Yemen’s “commitment to the war on terrorism.”
ABSENCE OF LAW, ABSENCE OF WILL
Challenges to the economy, to national unity and to the legitimacy of the regime are linked to the toleration (some say the encouragement) of corruption by Yemen’s leadership and the absence of the rule of law. Both problems could be reduced in scale — and quite quickly — if the political will to do so existed. Corruption is not as entrenched as one might think, and Yemenis often recall the sense of shame that was attached to petty corruption until fairly recently. It gathered pace in the oil era that began in the mid-1980s, as the state gained the upper hand over the informal economy.
So, too, has the ineffectual legal system been a serious obstacle to development only since state power has become relatively centralized. Despite constitutional requirements to the contrary, the executive controls the state’s legal institutions. President Salih holds the chairmanship of the Supreme Judicial Council, seat of sole authority to appoint judges and prosecutors and to adjudicate challenges to election results. The centralization of government has created significant ambiguity over who — the state or the local tribe — exercises rightful control over territory and natural resources, as well as over who has the “right” to use violence. In the gaps grow patron-client relationships between the regime and military and tribal leaders, allowing the regime to preside over a divided society while also widening the divisions. The presence of traditional norms need not inhibit political development, but when they are manipulated as a means of distributing favors to a select few, they pose a major obstacle. In Yemen, that manipulation is simultaneously undermining both the traditional system and the state system that might replace it.
In such an unstable environment, local predictions are that the presidential and local elections scheduled for September 2006 will be a flashpoint, as frustrations at the country’s diminishing options boil over. Two opposition programs for reform reflect the deepening sense of crisis.
The Joint Meeting Party (JMP), a six-party coalition including Islah, the largest and best-organized opposition party, has yet to announce a candidate for president or to state unequivocally that they will do so. In an act that continues to taint their credibility, Islah nominated Salih as its own candidate in the 1999 presidential race. Nevertheless, the JMP’s “Document on National and Political Reform” lays bare many of the problems confronting the Yemeni state: “There are no more fantasies in the minds of Yemenis about the catastrophe that is waiting for them… Total reform is the only choice.” Among other things, the document calls for the peaceful rotation of power, respect for the law and the constitution, the prevention of corruption, greater limitations on the role of the military and security apparatus, civil service reforms, greater popular empowerment and a functioning parliamentary system.
Leaving aside the question of whether the JMP knows how to achieve these reforms, the document’s power, and probably the reason behind the regime’s accusations of treason and conspiracy, lies in its articulation of a split between the opposition, particularly Islah, and the ruling party. This is a significant step, considering Islah’s historical place within the regime’s patronage network, and one that could mark the willingness of the popular Islamist party to oppose the government more coherently. This potential can only be enhanced by al-Ahmar’s recent departure to Saudi Arabia. Al-Ahmar has long functioned as Islah’s protective umbrella, shielding them from the regime, in part, by preventing them from pushing too far with political demands. His airport announcement that he was leaving Yemen to Salih and his sons had an air of strategic abdication to it, giving Islah the green light to play a more daring political game.
The other, still to be announced program is that of Sumayya Ali Raja. Raja was the first person to declare presidential candidacy from within Yemen and also the first female to enter the contest. Her platform, according to her political adviser Abd al-Ghani al-Iryani, focuses on those reforms that could conceivably be enacted quickly. Moving democratic ideals to the back burner, the program calls for immediate presidential intervention to reverse the rapidly deteriorating conditions that Yemen faces. For instance, the program suggests that the greatest drain on Yemen’s resources is the misuse of heavily subsidized diesel, mainly through smuggling but also through power generation. The program states that only one third of the 2.9 billion liters of diesel imported annually (costing around 25 percent of the national budget) are used for their intended purpose. Removing the subsidy, Raja’s platform suggests, would redistribute a vast amount of the national budget away from Yemen’s well-connected smugglers. Some of the savings could then be used to compensate smaller farmers who use subsidized diesel to power water pumps, and some to grant small salary increases to cover the difference in consumer costs for others. The program also calls for greater presidential involvement in preventing the theft of land, judicial independence along the lines of the Egyptian system and “equal opportunity and sufficient pay” within the civil service, a measure that would require only implementation of current laws but which, if achieved, would effectively fight the endemic corruption of civil servants forced to accept unacceptably low wages.
The JMP’s program hinges on a shift first in Yemen’s political institutions, while Raja’s program hinges on a shift first in political will. If observers are right that Salih has the election sewn up, the real question is whether the regime will listen to outside suggestions or whether they are so content in their historical dominance that they are blind to what has become plain to so many Yemeni citizens.