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Yemen Leadership Crisis

18 February 2010

Port of Nokha by Daniel F. Rivera

The international community has repeatedly ignored the various conflicts that are unfolding in Yemen for several years and the huge humanitarian crisis caused by the overwhelming and disproportionate response from the Yemeni and Saudi Arabia governments was not an exemption. Little attention was paid by Western countries to the issue albeit the call made by international agencies and institutions, it was only when the Phantom of the Opera showed up (Al-Qaida) that American and European politicians started to worry and international political meetings were held. This post has not the aim of explaining the crisis with the Houthy rebel insurgency in the north, the popular opposition to the government in the south, or the increasing presence of Al-Qaida members in its land but how hypocrite and irresponsible are those states, organizations, companies and individuals that are using Yemen as the perfect market place for weapon manufacturers, sellers and dealers.

Yemen is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It’s amazing people and rich and wild nature, its history and its architecture cannot be found elsewhere. Nevertheless, the beauty of its people and nature is in contrast with the growing spread of poverty and underdevelopment in cities and villages. Yemen is the poorest country that I have ever been to, lacking most of the basic needs such as water and electricity. Yemen’s situation could not be compared with its oil-rich neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, and the UAE ,and history books show us how corrupted monarchies there were (Imam Yahya), how deep the foreign intervention was (Ottoman, British, Egypt and US) and how devastated  the country  remained after years of civil war and conflict (1062-1970 and 1994).

One striking feature of Yemeni society is the amount of weapons that we can find everywhere. While I was doing some shopping in Sana‘a in 2002 there were certain places where old pistols and hand grenades could be bought without any problem. In the capital and other major cities citizens are discouraged to carry weapons, and for instance since 2007 the government has officially banned all kind of weapons in the capital. However, once you know how to move around, and you are able to drive south, the black market in small villages is huge and full of things that I thought I could never find in this country. Driving south with a German friend  who was working in development projects we stopped -after a checkpoint- in our way to Taizz nearby a dirty and old hut just a hundred meters away from the main road. I was a bit confused and I did not know what we were doing down there. My friend said, come with me but let me talk, I remember I was a bit exited: what or who was in that building? We knocked on the door and a Yemeni jawing qat opened it. We got inside after my friend revealed the code name of his contact and the mystery soon faded away as we found that the hut was full of Johnny Walker, Marijuana and of course, weapons. My friend said with hidden smile: -here whisky is cheaper than in the Chinese restaurants in Sana’a. He was right, almost half price.

The longer I lived in Yemen, the more I understood the deep relationship between the popular traditions and weapons. After centuries of foreign occupation and warfare, weaponry became a necessity providing its bearers with security, respect and honor. I do not like weapons and I hate violence but there are traditions that really belong to Yemen’s culture and heritage, and I profoundly respect some of them. For instance, the Janbiyyeh (Knife) is a fundamental item in Yemeni culture that many men will carry in their belts. These knifes can be found everywhere but among tribesmen it has a precise code and meaning which reveals the background and social position of that person. In other words, you know who you are speaking to. However, and as one of my best Yemeni friends put it, now carrying the Janbiye is like wearing a tie in any Western country, everyone, even children carry with them their Janbiyyes.

Climbing to Kawkaban by Daniel F. Rivera

It is fair to say that Yemeni society is changing rapidly and it is more often possible to see Yemenis of both  men and women of all ages wearing Western clothes and embracing Western patterns, values and culture. I think the photojournalist Catalina Martin-Chico has captured some of these changes in a photo essay published in the New York Times very recently. There is a code embedded in every piece of cloth used by Yemenis and it gives them a meaning and a place in this world and universe despite the rapid changes that are taking place in globalized world.

It is probably true that Yemenis are the best fighters in the Arabian Peninsula but there are considerations related to this issue that have usually passed unnoticed or have been ignored. Yemen has suffered from foreign occupation most of its past and recent history, The Ottomans, British, Egyptians as well as other countries have in one way or another attempted to influence the balance of power in this region for the sake of their benefit and interests. As a result, dictatorship, nepotism and corruption have always reached the highest levels of power and unfortunately Yemen has never developed a central and strong government that could offer security and prosperity to its population.

“In 1962, mainly because of the kingdom’s extreme isolationist policy and encouraged by Nasser in Egypt, a military coup overthrew the Imamate regime and the Yemen Arab Republic was established. The newly born state was by all definitions weak and remained unstable. It was surrounded by hostile neighbors who did not appreciate its republican character, and it was torn by the ensuing breakdown of a bloody civil war between royalists, supported by Saudi Arabia, and the republicans, aided by Egypt. Eventually, the republicans being victorious. The major outcome of the war, however, was that the previous separation between the state and the tribal institutions no longer existed. In fact, the state became virtually an embodiment of the tribes. During the civil war, some tribes aligned with the royalists against the republicans while others supported the republicans against the royalists . Again, the war was seen primarily as an opportunity for financial gains. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who had a strong political stake in this war, were more than willing to pay the tribes, in money and weapons, to secure their support. As a result, the war continued for years because the tribes readily switched sides for profit. By the end of the war, the tribes, having large sums of money and weapons, emerged as an economically independent social force, powerful enough to actively influence the political system”, (Manea: 1998, last update 2007).

The state of affairs nowadays in Yemen is very much related to the relationship that the State and the tribes have development since the end of the Civil War in 1967. The ancient relation between the State and the centuries-old Tribes undertook radical changes since the last century. Yemen’s tribal system developed very differently in the north and south. After the Civil War the north saw the penetration of the most influential tribe and its leader in all branches of power. Influential tribal leaders were over represented in the administration, army, legislative and executive powers. The biggest loser in the new relation was the state because these tribes prevented the state apparatus from becoming strong and united. It was in their interest to keep their business away from the state and this led to growing influence and interference from foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia. The latter has a special interest in keeping its backdoor safe from the rapidly changing communist Yemeni south who was at the time adopting modernized measures such as abolishing what Saudi Arabia regarded as threatening tribalism.


Qat market, Sana'a

The south had to deal with the British occupation of Aden that actually created two separated entities in the south. The British kept under tight control this region (Hinterland) and created a buffer zone between Aden and the north. The port of Aden was a crucial economic and strategic point for the British and a great deal of funding was invested to create a dynamic society while the Hinterland’s villages were basically ignored. Aden received all the attention from the occupiers, the efforts surprisingly leading to the demise of British control over the area. The modernization of Aden gave way to the formation of an incipient middle class that soon after led the resistance and revolt against the British occupation. In the Hinterland, things evolved differently, and British rule was administered through local Emirs and Sultans that praised their alliance to Britain provided  the British did not interfere in their affairs. These Emirates and Sultanates own most of the land, which they administer following feudal patterns giving little rights to local farmers who work on it. The organization of society along tribal lines persisted in the Hinterland but politics were left in the landlord’s hands and tribal Sheikhs had little to say about political matters. It was two very different paths that the north and south respectively took.

With the coming of unification, these diverging paths became a true obstacle in the process of integration. The leaders of the two sides, the People’s General Congress led by Ali Abdallah al Saleh (current president) and the

Sana'a's Gardens

leader of the Socialist party Ali Salim al Baid (vice-president) agreed to stop the fighting and tackle the huge economic crisis that the south was going through. The agreement envisioned a period were both leaders had to share power in a attempt to unify the country against Saudi Arabia efforts to prevent the unification by its backing up religious and tribal groups in the north as well as to cope with the emerging insurgency from hard-liners communist in the south. The relationship between both entities soon deteriorated due to the huge economic crisis sparked by Yemen’s stance on the Gulf War 1991 that led to a new civil war between both factions.

This conflict facilitate a new process of tribalization in society due to the growing perception among northern and southern tribes that the political élite at the center was setting one tribe against the other. In this period, between 1991-1994 took place a series of formal tribal conferences aiming to solve the conflict among tribes and which emphasized the tribal character of the country. Thus the previous role of Yemeni tribes in the political landscape diminished and a growing feeling of mistrusted seems to have reach the core of the tribal structure. Tribes do not fully recognized the State’s sovereignty, specially in remote areas, because for tribalmen the state does not represent Yemeni’s identity as Elham’s essay highlights: “These are two separate issues. As far as they are concerned, the state is a mere synonym of the political elite who holds the power in Yemen to the detriment ”.

Now if we take a closer look to the political elite this mistrust seems to be based on solid foundations. The current president of Yemen Ali Abdallah al Saleh has been in government since 1979; the longest mandate of a President in the Arab world. Although Yemen is a democracy republic holding elections periodically, in 1991 the president won the presidential elections with 96,2 % and used this term to introduce very important changes in the political system. He initiated a process to amend the constitution to stretch the president mandate from 4 to 7 years. This included the extension of the mandate of the Consultive Council appointed by the president as well. These changes of the constitution were approved by referendum, and in the last presidential election in 2006 he won with 77 % of the votes.

Since Mr. Saled reached this post, he has steadily concentrated great amounts of powers in his hands. He has placed in key position family members in order to enhance his control and rule of the state apparatus, and he has earned much of Western support due to its opposition to Communism, and Islamism but internally he is finding more and a bigger opposition in the north and south. The regime is loosing legitimacy at least in the eyes of the people and the opposition. In this regards an opposition member and former ministry of health stated in a recent New York times article that: “It is the size of the deterioration of the regime and its control over the country that we’re afraid of,”, and in a recent interview by aljazeera journalist’s Abdu Aish, one of the leader of the southern resistance Sheikh Tareq al-Fadali mentioned:

We would like to lay on international law but this venture is essential for our survival in this land, and we have spread civil disobedience in more than 20 villages already (…). We really accomplished this. (…) What we demand is the implementation of the international resolution 924, 931 in order to disengage ourself form the administration in Sana’a and proclaim the Democratic Popular Republic of Southern Yemen

What is a cleat sign of the regime’s fear to loose control over the country could be exemplified by the large and huge arm deals that the regime is fixing since the past decade. According to the Yemen Post, Russia is the biggest Yemeni client since 2001 and in 2009, the President signed an armament deal with Rusia of about 4 billion US dollars. China, the EU and US followed the list, and according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies issued in 2006, Yemen has double its expending on weapons between 2001 and 2005. The expending is even much higher than when Yemen was actually going through a bloody civil war.

The truth is that there is not an official record (there is an estimation of 60 millions) of how many weapons are circulating in the country. The rate of revenge killing and crime are increasing every year and obviously many question emerge when we find out about the links and connection between the Yemeni security forces and Army with the family of the current president. Is the government doing something about weapon’s trade or it is actually encouraging it in its pursue for ease money and deals? In October, 2009 the Yemen Post published another article about how government has uncovered various illegal deals with China. It seems that many of these deals were made using official government documentation. According to the article the government know who are responsible for this deals but cannot do anything due legislation constrains:

Since the parliament approved a law for (Organizing Weapons Carrying and Trade) in 1992, the government has failed to control the weapons dealers and even the parliament couldn’t make adjustment to the law. This makes it clear that the traffickers and weapons dealers have more influence on the weapons markets than the legislative authority.

Many of Saleh’s family member are positioned in the security forces and the army. Ahmed Saleh is the head of the Yemen Republican Guard and the president’s nephews hold similar position in the security forces: Amar is the deputy director for national security, and Yahye is the head of the central security forces and counterterrorism unit, Tarek is head of the Presidential Guard and the President’s half brother leads the Air Force. I wonder how much money could this family-government-corporation make out of Yemen’s weapon problem, especially, if we consider that the President himself is the head of the high defense council which is responsible for allocating founding for drawing weapons out of the market, and the Yemeni government is even receiving even extra funding from foreign donors to address this problem.

The Yemeni government is definitely loosing ground and the discontent and unrest among the population is growing everyday. The government has done little to improve the social and economic conditions in hundreds of villages in the north and the south, and keeps ignoring those tribes that cannot provide immediate political or economic gains to its agenda. This crisis shows the serious gap existing between the governments and its tribes and population and how the government is using this problem as a pretext to increase its control over the state apparatus and the population.


The main strands constituting the composite ideology of the YSP are pan Arab nationalism, Marxism, and social democratic trends. Since its inception the YSP has evolved through 7 distinct stages. Currently, the YSP along with other parties in the opposition coalition, including Islah Party (Islamist) are waging a peaceful struggle for free and fair elections, peaceful transfer of power, and reformation of the Yemeni political system .

Yemeni Socialist Party Logo

The strategy followed by the Yemeni government to boost its arsenal will not make any difference (probably many of this weapons will be sold in the black market) while billions of dollars could be expended in initiating sort and long-term development programs focused on water and agriculture infrastructure, education, and health care. Yemen needs a new president, someone capable of re-establishing and creating a new relationship between the state and its tribes, and of course a person that will be able to deal with corruption and the huge weapons market that keeps flourishing in the country.


And here we find the paradox looming over many Arab countries. If the country needs a renew leadership, and we argue that this should happen according the rule of Law and parliamentarian elections, the Yemeni people should act and vote for change in the coming elections. The problem is whether they will be able to if we consider that the second largest block in the country is al-Islah (the Reform) a religious based organization that although is pro-democratic and respects secularism is also a conservative and Islamic party. It would be very naïve to believe that a Western power such as the US would let such an Islamist government to take office and more international intervention could be expected.

One Comment leave one →
  1. papa permalink
    18 February 2010 7:25 pm

    Dani: estupendo articulo. Muy detallado y muy analitico de la situacion es yemen.No se si la extension es apropiada para un blog aunque me imagino que el interesado no le importaria leer a fondo.
    Una cosa: al principio entras frio al tema con un poco de torpeza en tu sintaxis y alguno que otro gazapo en el spelling. despues como que calientas motores y dejas correr tu imaginacion y conocimiento y zas! Usa siempre el programa de correccion automatica de words, pienso que es muy bueno aunque reconozco que solo uso es. Y por favor no traduzcas. Piensa siempre en la lengua que escribes. esto te ayudara a no usar sintaxis espanola americanizandola malamente. Ten confianza en ti mismo y repasa el spelling siempre antes de pasar al otro parrafo.
    Un beso.
    PD como lo llevas?

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