Where does Yemen sit in the Middle East domino theory?
With the winds of change blowing across the Middle East, people are busy combing the region for their next favorite to fall. After the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt nearly two weeks ago, most of the world’s attention has shifted to Libya and Bahrain where tens of thousands are calling for change and violent government-led crackdowns have left hundreds dead.
Yemen, the poorest, youngest and most remote Middle Eastern country has received some, but not much, of the ongoing Al-Jazeera led media blitzkrieg. There has, quite rightly, been a degree of skepticism about comparing the impoverished Yemen to the likes of Egypt and Tunisia. For starters, the mobilized and well-connected middle-class that is present in both Egypt and Tunisia is not to be found here in Yemen. Whereas five million Egyptian youth are on Facebook only 180,000 Yemeni youth are – less than one percent of the population.
Secondly, neither the Yemeni people nor its opposition parties are united in their demands. The small but violent protests which are taking place across the country are diverse, fragmented and at times conflicting in their demands. Mubarak’s resignation has only stirred the embers of an already searing hot conflict raging in southern Yemen where tens of thousands have been gathering on a near weekly basis since 2007 calling for independence from the north and an end to ‘the occupation.’ Yemen’s ‘opposition coalition’ a motley crew of Islamists, Nasserites and aged Socialists, are a divided and disorganised bunch to say the least. After the fall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, a series of highly orchestrated opposition rallies soon gave way to a more popular, grass-roots movement as Yemenis, particularly young people, grew tired with the political elite’s infighting and squabbling.
Thirdly, like it or not, Saleh is a cleverer, shrewder and more tactful leader than Mubarak or Ben Ali ever were. The oft used metaphor, first coined by Saleh himself, ‘dancing on the heads of snakes,’ aptly captures the complexity of ruling a country like Yemen, a rugged and wild land, large parts of which are ruled by powerful tribal sheiks. Through a clever system of carrot and stick Saleh has forged a patchwork of tribal allegiances to his rule. Whether bribed or not, the thousands of impoverished pro-Saleh thugs who have been camped out in Tahreer square in central Sana’a for the past three weeks pay testament to the fact that he still has at least a nominal degree of support.
But the fact that Yemen is more ‘complicated’ than Egypt or Tunisia, does not make it any less vulnerable; Yemen contains many of the elements which made Egypt and Tunisia ripe for unrest: endemic corruption, widespread unemployment (40%), raising living costs, a sinking economy, and an ageing President who rules over a young, frustrated and marginalized people.
If current trends continue Yemen will run out of oil reserves, its main source of revenue, in 2017 and Sana’a will become the world’s first capital to run out of water in 2025. Despite recently offering to raise the salaries of civil servants and soldiers, analysts predict that within about six months the government, which is nearing bankruptcy, will be unable to pay salaries anymore. The combination of widespread unemployment and a swelling and incredibly young population (half of all Yemenis are under 15) is an explosive mix to say the least.
In a sense Yemen was already a domino waiting to be knocked over long before this batch of unrest began percolating across the Middle East. A presidential aide told me a few days ago that ‘change is coming to Yemen whether you like it or not.’ Given the odds, its hard to see how even the most skilful of snake charmers will be able to cling on to power for much longer.
Here’s a video of two protesters outside Sana’a University where students have been holding a sit-in since Sunday calling for president Saleh to leave.