Since last Friday’s attack on the presidential palace in Sanaa, conflicting reports have emerged about the extent of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s injuries and his ability to resume office. Questions abound regarding the timeframe for any return and whether Saudi Arabia (where Saleh is recuperating from surgery) or the rapid pace of events on the ground in Yemen would make this impossible.
Long before the current turmoil erupted, uncertainty has been the only certainty of day-to-day events in Yemen: tribal truces are continuously up for grabs, on some days battalions can deploy freely, on others they come under attack, and crucial commodities teeter between adequate and nonexistent. More recently, Saleh agrees to transfer power one day and reneges the next. But just as the country confounds expectations in the short run, it routinely confirms them in the long run. This is because history, demography and geography have created near-permanent civil conflict that Saleh’s rule has worsened steadily and predictably.
Yemen has always been heavily populated compared to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, but there has never been a natural proximity between the arid country’s few natural resources and the many people who desperately need them. Under such competitive circumstances, Yemenis largely rely on their particular tribe, rather than a distant central government, for security and provisions. This tendency is compounded by the past empires and present neighbors that sought influence over the country by dividing these many tribes and pitting them against one another. Saleh built his regime on these fissures. Over the years he crafted an elaborate patronage system that used the country’s energy-export revenues to buy military power and tribal loyalty and stifle any sign of rebellion. However, the country’s resources have dried up while the population has ballooned. Saleh’s reliance on repressive, corrupt divide-and-conquer strategies to rule a large, highly-fragmented populace for three decades was bound to fail eventually.
Though he is likely on his way out, a post-Saleh Yemen will only look worse. The country has been chronically fragile for years and would likely slide toward total state failure—with all the violence, dislocation and regional instability that accompany such collapses. Any successor(s) must contend with even more drastic resource shortages than those facing Saleh. Dwindling energy exports simply will not create enough revenue to provide basic necessities like water, food and fuel for a rapidly growing population, especially as the ongoing upheaval stokes inflation and disrupts vital exports and imports. Foreign assistance can fill some of these gaps, but what trickles down to ordinary Yemenis often goes through nonofficial channels, primarily direct Saudi stipends to selected tribal sheikhs. Much of the rest is grafted directly into the Yemeni regime, and thus most citizens never see a dime from their government.
Assuming a stable successor emerges, whether from Saleh’s family, tribal and parliamentary opposition groups or even street protestors, the country’s back to square one. Increasingly lacking money to ensure key tribal loyalties, import basic necessities, and pay the civil service and military, a post-Saleh regime would have to perpetuate his corruption and reliance on aid merely to hope to survive. At best, the new government would be plagued by the same abysmal governance and rock-bottom legitimacy that triggered the current backlash.
It is hard to imagine anything like a smooth transition of power, given the competing factions interspersed throughout the country. Despite defections from government and military ranks, and the loss of U.S. trainers, Saleh’s family still commands the biggest, best-trained weapons for repression: the Republican Guard, air force, and Central Security Forces. Moreover, the lack of guaranteed immunity from prosecution in a post-Saleh world creates a dangerous situation where the most lethal group feels the most cornered.
Arrayed against these itchy trigger fingers is a growing constellation of tribal, political and mutinous military forces. Many hail from Saleh’s Hashid tribal confederation—Yemen’s largest—but they are united only by desire for regime change. These well-armed groups’ post-Saleh agendas, ranging from regime replacement to revolution, are too numerous and divergent—and their leaders too ambitious—to offer much hope for a stable transition of power, let alone a unity government. This reinforces loyalists’ incentives to mimic Saleh’s own methods: exploit differences among the opposition to defeat them.
The struggle for the regime’s future has shifted attention from Yemen’s preexisting chaos. Sectarian insurgents and secessionists rebelled against poor governance for years, and Saleh responded relentlessly until forced to deal with unrest in Sanaa. For years al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been exploiting this turmoil to insinuate itself into numerous tribes and thus develop a base of operations. Because all these groups want to weaken Yemen, not take it over, chaos at the heart of the regime serves their purposes by deepening security vacuums along the periphery. This is already being exploited: insurgents in the north have expanded into neighboring governorates, while AQAP-affiliated militants have overrun key cities and outposts in the south. A post-Saleh Yemen would likely be even less stable, thus increasing the potential for a byzantine civil war stretching from Sanaa to the hinterlands.
Yemeni history indeed paraphrases itself, and 2011 dangerously resembles 1962 and the outbreak of the North Yemen Civil War. Then as now, years of corrupt and repressive government alienated the regime’s base and impoverished the country. Once the ruler died, a succession crisis arose as sheikhs and generals cast their lots with the ruling family or the reformists. Civil war broke out within months, which outside powers fueled with money, weapons and troops. Regime change finally came eight years and 100,000 deaths later. The parallels should give the United States pause. Post-Saleh pandemonium would likely increase AQAP’s freedom of maneuver to plan and stage attacks against targets in the Middle East and America; it could threaten regional stability by drawing in Saudi Arabia, as it did in the 1930s, 1960s, 1994 and 2009, and raising the specter of a Riyadh-Tehran proxy war; and, at a time when oil prices hover at $100 per barrel, anarchy along the Bab el-Mandeb (or Mandab Strait) could threaten the security of vital energy shipping lanes. The post-Saleh world may be close at hand. The United States had best prepare itself.
Image from www.kremlin.ru