You Aren’t Hearing About Yemen’s Biggest Problems


June 7, 2012
Watch Al Qaeda in Yemen, FRONTLINE’s investigation deep inside Yemen’s radical heartland.

Every day headlines highlight Yemen’s growing Al Qaeda threat, the terror plots to attack the U.S. homeland hatched from within its borders and America’s escalating campaign of air strikes in the country.

But some of Yemen’s biggest challenges — many of which helped spark last year’s democracy protests — are largely absent from Western media. More conventional domestic and economic issues may define Yemen’s stability, and in doing so define regional and global security.

From severe droughts to a secessionist movement, here are four of Yemen’s biggest problems you might not be hearing about.

A Dire Water Shortage

Yemen is the seventh most “water-stressed” country in the world, and scientists warn that within 10 years, Sana’a is in danger of becoming the first capital in history to run out of the already scarce resource.

In areas like Sana’a and the southern city of Taiz, tap water is only available every few days. Experts say that’s because 90 percent of the nation’s water supply is used for agriculture — and not very efficiently.

“The state needs to regulate groundwater withdrawals to maintain a sustainable rate of pumping, and it needs to introduce water conservation measures in agriculture and in urban areas,” Yemen expert Charles Schmitz told FRONTLINE. “Yemen has the capabilities to do this, but the people who know how to organize such an endeavor are not politically empowered as of yet.”

Yemen’s water shortage is exacerbated by the widespread use of qat — the nation’s most popular drug.  Seventy percent of Yemeni males use the narcotic, which is critical to Yemen’s economy, but also requires five times the amount of water than other crops like grapes to grow. Almost 40 percent of the country’s agricultural water use goes towards growing qat.

These problems — coupled with a weak government, rapid population growth (Yemen’s population of 23 million is expected to double in the next 20 years) and climate change patterns that are expected to bring increased drought and floods — mean that water will only become more scarce, and more of a long-term threat to the country’s stability.

An Impending Famine

Ten million Yemenis — or 44 percent of the population — are undernourished and 5 million are in need of emergency aid, according to a joint warning issued by seven aid organizations last month.

“Unless urgent humanitarian action is taken, Yemen will be plunged into a hunger crisis of catastrophic proportions,” said Jerry Farrell, Save the Children’s Yemen director.

Yemen is the poorest Arab nation in the world and close to half of its population lives with income under the poverty line.

Last month, a block of 20 countries and intergovernmental organizations dubbed the “Friends of Yemen” met in Riyadh and pledged $4 billion in assistance. Saudi Arabia alone pledged $3.25 billion, but critics doubt where that money — if it ever arrives — will go.

“Details about how the pledges will be manifested are still scarce,” Abdulwahab Alkebsi, the regional director for Middle East and Africa programs at the Center for International Private Enterprise, told FRONTLINE. He says that pledging countries know that the Yemeni government doesn’t have the absorptive capacity to spend aid on developmental and infrastructural projects right now.

“Many Yemeni analysts are concerned that the international aid to Yemen will end up as supplementary aid to the state to cover for budget deficits,” Alkebsi adds.  “Endemic corruption in the public sector is a huge problem and until it’s addressed, no amount of aid will help.”

Deep Divisions — and Proxy War

In 1990, the “Republic of Yemen” was formed after the tribal-dominated north and Marxist-led south were joined as one country. Twenty-two years and one bloody civil war later, the nation is still struggling to unify.

For years, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh relied on a vast patronage network to mediate amongst competing social and tribal groups, but he failed to integrate and resolve the issues of two disaffected factions that oppose the government: Hirak activists in the south and Houthi rebels in the north.

The Hirak movement has been calling for the south to secede from the country for half a decade.

“[After the civil war in 1994,] the Saleh regime treated the south as if it were war booty to be partitioned among regime supporters,” explains Schmitz. “Southerners felt that they were discriminated against and had no future in the regime.  So by 2006, southerners began to organize protests against their poor conditions, and by 2008, these movements had spread to and became a general movement of civil disobedience in the south.”

There is a great deal of discontent in the south, Schmitz adds, but there are also deep divisions among groups there over whether to completely break away or whether to join some sort of confederation or federation with the north.

But in the north, an armed resistance simmers. Beginning in 2004, the Houthis, who belong to a Shia minority sect, led an armed rebellion against Yemeni and Saudi Arabian forces until a truce was brokered in 2010.

“The Houthis defend the right to practice Zaidism [a type of Shiism] but they also represent disaffected groups in the north that felt that the regime in Sana’a was against them,” says Schmitz. “So the Houthi movement gained lots of support from people opposing the regime.”

Today, the Houthis have carved out a state within a state in the northern province of Sada’a, but in recent years they have come under attack by Al Qaeda and other Sunni extremist militants who view them as heretics. Dozens have been killed in the sectarian clashes; in May, 12 Houthis were killed after a suicide bomber attacked a Friday prayer gathering.

Some experts argue the conflict is a proxy war between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran. For years, Houthi rebels have claimed that Sunni extremists militants attacking them are funded by Saudi Arabia. And current President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, when he was vice president in 2009, accused Iran of funding the Houthi rebels. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have interfered in Yemen for years, but some warn that “a battle between the Arab world’s leading Sunni power and Shiite Iran, even at one remove, could significantly elevate sectarian tensions across the region.”

Schmitz maintains the Houthis do not want to form a separate state and do not want to control Yemen, but they do want to assure their place in any future Yemeni state. Earlier this month, Houthi rebels agreed to join a dialogue on the nation’s political transition.

“Ironically, the Hirak movement in the south and the Houthis in the north are not joining forces to combat terror, despite the fact that both see the extremist salafi-based [Al Qaeda] as their existential enemy,” says Alkebsi.

Hundreds of Thousands of Refugees

The U.N. estimates that 366,000 Yemenis have been displaced due to the Houthi rebellion and other tribal clashes in the north of the country, including 52,000 who fled their homes in the first part of this year.

And more than 160,000 Yemenis have been displaced by the fighting between government forces and Al Qaeda and affiliated militants who took over parts of southern Yemen last year.  The southern port city of Aden alone has absorbed more than 100,000 people who have fled the fighting, including aerial bombardments from drones and Yemeni army fighter jets.

“This puts a severe burden on the government in Aden, which isn’t particularly strong anyway,” notes Yemen expert Gregory D. Johnsen. “Because many of the displaced are being housed in schools, many children aren’t going to school. These problems aren’t grabbing headlines but they are still putting a significant strain on the central government that seems incapable of providing services to its people and of imposing its will on the territories that it seems to hold.”

And the country is also grappling with 300,000 refugees from Somalia and the Horn of Africa, some of whom the government claims have become involved in criminal gangs and armed groups.

“These refugees not only put a drain on the economy, where unemployment is already at 40 percent, but they also pose security concerns,” Johnsen adds. “The U.S. and others are worried that militants are using these refugees as cover to get back and forth between Somalia and Yemen.”

Related: You Aren’t Hearing About Pakistan’s Biggest Problems

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