Yemen: A state failed by imperialism

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Since the attempted bombing of a plane over Detroit, Yemen has hit the headlines, with many fearing that it may become the latest target in the US "war on terror". Drawing on the history of imperial intervention in the region, Tim Nelson highlights the hypocrisy of the "failed state" analysis

Up until recently there has been little coverage of Yemen in the mainstream media. Few people will be aware of the political situation in the country, which has been marked by social and economic upheaval. However, Yemen has come sharply into focus in the last month.

On Christmas Day 2009 Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian linked to Al Qaida, attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines flight 253 in the air over Detroit. Abdulmutallab is alleged to have spent time in Yemen in 2004-5 and attended Sana'a Institute for the Arabic Language. Yemen was suddenly declared a "failed state" placing it in the company of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, all of which have been invaded by the US or its allies. It is not surprising that many people now fear that Yemen is the latest target for the so-called "war on terror".

In reality, both the US and its closest ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, had been conducting a bombing campaign for months. These attacks are part of a strategy by Saudi Arabia and the US to maintain the embattled and unpopular Yemeni government, headed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Over the last few months the US has increased its involvement in Yemen. There were regular reports before Christmas of cruise missile attacks and bombing raids conducted by the US military. One US air strike in the north is suspected of killing 120 civilians. It is also alleged that US "advisers" are training the Yemeni military.

The US government's actions in Yemen provide fertile recruitment ground for Al Qaida. Many young Muslims, afflicted with extreme poverty and angry at the US - not just for its involvement in Yemen but for its support for corrupt regimes in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, its backing of Israel, and the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan - are drawn to Al Qaida by its promise of resistance. Further US intervention in Yemen would likely add to this rather than curtail it.

The official government in Yemen is becoming increasingly unstable. Al Qaida is far from the most serious threat to the government. A large Shia group, the Huthis, have been in armed rebellion for the last five years, and there is a growing movement in the south of the country demanding independence. Added to this, the Yemeni economy has been in an increasing state of crisis.

Imperial entanglement

The Huthis used to dominate what is now the northern region of Yemen. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after the First World War, the northern Yemen region became ruled by a Shia royal family. Backed by Saudi Arabia, they remained in power until the North unified with South Yemen in 1990. After unification, the Huthis became increasingly marginalised. Calling for more autonomy, the Huthis rebelled five years ago. Last summer the Yemeni government launched a major offensive against the rebels, who retreated into the border region between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia entered the conflict last November. Huthi rebels have claimed that over 50 Saudi bombing raids have occurred since then.

A further factor in the political instability of Yemen is the continued antagonism between the national government, in the northern capital city of Sana'a, and the growing secessionist movement in the south. Historically, the northern and southern regions of Yemen have been separate political entities and have only been one state since unification following the Cold War. From 1839 the south of Yemen, or South Arabia, was a British protectorate, centred on the key port of Aden. Placed on the southern tip of Arabia, and significant for access to trade with India, control of Aden was central to Britain's imperial strategy.

Following the Second World War the British Empire's power dwindled and in 1967 the British withdrew from the Aden Protectorate. The main anti-imperialist resistance group in the country, the National Liberation Front, came into power. Like many national liberation movements in this period, it was led largely by members of the urban middle class and the intelligentsia, for whom development of South Yemen's economy was a key motivation. Many saw the Soviet Union model of nationalisation and central planning as the best method to achieve this. In 1969 South Yemen was declared a "socialist republic", and became the only Arab country to openly align itself with the USSR.

Fearing the spread of Soviet influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and the US began to massively increase financial and military aid to the Sana'a government, to counterbalance the South. The division between North and South thus continued throughout the Cold War. However, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the governments of South and North Yemen entered into a treaty of unification. The US government, emerging out of the Cold War as the world's only superpower, aimed to increase its influence over regions of the world which had previously been satellites of the USSR.

The main US aim was to implement a neoliberal economic programme. The constitution following unification guaranteed democratic rights for both regions of Yemen. However, it became clear in the first few years of unification that the programme of the national government heavily favoured the northern ruling group. Land concessions in the south were given to northern tribal leaders and water, a scarce resource in Yemen which was previously nationalised in the south, was transferred mostly into northern hands.

These continued antagonisms led to an uprising in the south by former government officials and military leaders in 1994, but this was viciously put down by the army of the north. Following this conflict the government began a five-year programme in 1995 that removed all controls on the exchange rate, cut the interest rate, and initialised trade policy reform, privatisation and the elimination of price controls. In return the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided aid.

It is in this context that the current, growing independence movement in the south should be viewed. The war of 1994 was clearly a campaign to end resistance to neoliberal reforms in the south demanded by the US-dominated World Bank and IMF. The democratic constitution promised at unification has not been adhered to. Parliamentary elections since 1990 have been marked by corruption and violence, and the elections scheduled for April 2009 were postponed for two years. The movement that has developed in southern Yemen is a reaction to perceived infringements of the democratic rights of southern Yemenis and the implementation of unpopular economic reforms.

The movement was initiated by a group of former army officers who had been forcibly retired. The Society of Retired Military Officers began a series of small protests in 2007. The size, scope and organisation of the movement have continued to grow over the last two years. Now called Al-Harakat Al-Janubiyya, the movement has become a broad coalition, including many different Yemeni political parties and factions.

The dominant force is clearly the Yemeni Socialist Party, which is the most closely associated with south Yemeni independence, and with the idea of welfarism. However, the coalition also includes Nasserists, Ba'athists and a number of different religious groups. Last summer a central leading body, The Council for the Leadership of the Peaceful Revolution of the South, was formed. It may be a result of the diversity of political ideas that its demands seem confused at times. Some of its leadership have appealed for support from the Iranian government, while on some of the protests US flags have appeared. Despite this, the movement has been gaining force. On 10 January a general strike swept through many regions in the south.

Below the poverty line

Adding to and underpinning the political crisis in Yemen is an acute and deepening economic crisis. Yemen is now one of the world's 25 poorest countries. Out of 24 million people, 45.2 percent live below the poverty line. There has been a steep decline in oil income, which makes up an estimated 70 percent of total state revenues. Oil production in Yemen has been in decline for years. From 500,000 barrels per day in 2000, crude oil production was down to 300,000 barrels per day in 2009.

An estimated 34 percent of Yemen's 6.5 million strong workforce is currently unemployed. A contributing factor to this was Yemen's stance during the first Gulf War. The Yemeni government refused to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. As a result, 800,000 Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia and a further 50,000 from the Gulf States. Not only did the Yemeni state have to deal with a population increase of 850,000 newly unemployed workers but the money they sent back to Yemen had accounted for almost 40 percent of Yemen's gross domestic product. This was accompanied by drastic cutbacks in USAID.

The Yemeni government's response to these economic problems has been to push through neoliberal policies. These policies enrich foreign investors, but are disastrous for the majority of the population. Proof of this can be seen in the state's agricultural policies.

For most of its history north Yemen has had a rural economy based on private ownership of land, and, as a result, of water as well. Water in South Yemen, from 1969 to 1990, was nationalised. After the 1994 civil war, this was reversed. Privatisation has led to serious droughts. Farmers have also shifted to growing cash crops such as bananas which, while profitable for individual landowners, cannot be grown in sufficient quantities to provide much needed food for Yemen's population.

All the problems Yemen is now experiencing have a common cause - imperialism - whether it is the legacy of British imperialism in the south, or the current interventionist policy of the US and Saudi Arabia. The Huthi rebellion is a result of the Saudi monarchy, backed by the US, shifting its support from one ruling group to another. The growing movement in the south is largely the result of the imposition of neoliberal reforms.

As with the rest of the Middle East, so long as the Yemeni people are given no control over their own country, their economy and, particularly, their oil, the situation in this country can only go from bad to worse.