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Yemen: a country on the brink

February 4th, 2010

Yemen, a Middle Eastern nation bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia, is perhaps one of the oldest civilizations still in existence today.  However, with its long existence comes a history of turmoil and strife that has led to present day ramifications.

The northern and southern regions formed the Republic of Yemen in 1990 following the fall of the Soviet Union. Prior to this, the two regions experienced years of antagonism, largely relating to South Yemen’s decision to adopt a Marxist style government in the years following British rule. This decision resulted in hundreds of thousands of South Yemenis fleeing to North Yemen, which was a republic. 

Although formally united, Yemen still faces a secessionist threat from the south. Furthermore, a group of Shiite rebels known as the Houthis, located in northern Yemen near the border with Saudi Arabia, constantly provoke violence with Yemeni government forces. 

Yemen, like most of the Middle Eastern nations, has a Sunni majority, and the Shiite Houthis feel marginalized by the Sunni majority. Since last November, the Houthis have been engaged in a military confrontation with Saudi forces. 

Some Saudi officials claim that Iran, the most populous Shiite country in the Muslim world, is secretly providing military and financial support to the Houthis, although Iran denies this claim.

Additionally, Yemen faces widespread corruption, poverty, high illiteracy rates and struggles in both the northern and southern regions. This combination of violence, lawlessness and economic backwardness has created an ideal environment for al-Qaida.  

The government must also deal with its arms market, considered the largest arms market in the Middle East, with an estimated 20 million guns.

Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East, first gained attention from the United States in 2000 with the bombing of an American destroyer that claimed the lives of 17 sailors. Although the U.S. government was able to create a partnership with Yemen in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, its focus as a potential threat resurged with its alleged connection to the Christmas Day bombing plot.  

In response to these threats, the United States remains committed to working with Yemen’s government to prevent additional attacks. The Pentagon is reportedly spending over $70 million over a two year period to assist Yemen’s military, coast guard and Interior Ministry with training and equipment. 

Administration officials – concerned that Yemen could turn into a new haven for jihadists similar to that of Afghanistan, Pakistan  and Somalia – hope to continue to cultivate their relationship with President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Although the threat of terrorism training bases and terrorist operations in Yemen is worthy of concern, the impoverished nation also faces a plethora of other perils to its population of over 20 million. 

One such peril is the demographics of its population. Comprised of about 10 million children, half the population is under the age of 15. Of those aged 15 and over, only approximately 50 percent are literate, with most of that figure being male.

To further Yemen’s problems, both its water and oil supplies are expected to run out in five years. Oil is this country’s main source of economic intake and limited water supplies have already resulted in riots. The government’s widespread corruption makes dealing with these dilemmas difficult and fuels the aforementioned desires for an upheaval, especially with the Houthi rebels in the north and the secessionist groups in the south, with which al-Qaida is expected to be working.

Although the White House hopes to remain close to the Yemeni government with Hillary Clinton’s recent visit, additional foreign aid seems contingent on Yemen raising their standards domestically to provide more for their citizens, such as ensuring women more rights and protections. 

Yemen has little, if any protection for young girls’ rights and in many cases results in child brides, with some girls marrying at as young as eight years old.  The situation these “brides” are then put in leads to serious psychological trauma and contributes to the estimated 20 percent of married women who have been sexually abused.

So, while the threat of al-Qaida is a plague to Yemen, it is not the only concern the nation faces.  Domestically and internationally, Yemen has a lot of ground to cover before being free of the financial and political limitations with which it currently contends.