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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Yemen: Saleh’s multiple crises


In middle of multiple crises facing Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced that the 20th Arabian Gulf Cup Tournament will still be held in Yemen in November 22 – December 4, 2011 as scheduled. Yemen, he told TV Dubai Sport on 25 December 2009, “is ready, economically and security-wise to host this competition”. President Saleh bold assurances did not calm some of political and sport commentators who continue to warn against security threats in Yemen and call upon Gulf national football federations to move the tournament to another country.
But the Arabian Gulf Football Tournament is the least of ordinary Yemenis’ problems. For the past several months, Yemen has been embroiled simultaneously in several crises threatening its very existence as a state. To make matters worse, each of these crises has been brewing for several years, neglected by President Saleh and his advisors or ineffectively handled as short term nuisance.

In more than one way the Yemeni President is a victim of his own devices. Since coming to power in 1978 through military coupe, Saleh strived to situate himself as the ultimate holder of power in his country. In the absence of viable state institutions, the office of the President, through the presidential party the General People’s Congress, GPC, became the sole vehicle of power in the country. The president’s adversaries and other opposition groups were weakened by their infighting.
Direct handouts from state coffers were made to build a vast structure of patronage linking to the president most tribal chiefs, senior clerics and other notables. Widespread corruption became another tool for dispensing economic and political favours to senior members of the GPC and other members of the Yemeni elite groups in return for political support. The extent of corruption practices earned Yemen the 148 rank out of 180 countries on Transparency International index of corruption perception for 2008.
While Saleh’s strategy may have compensated for his lack of tribal or political credentials, it has led the country to glide rapidly towards the brink of abyss. Consequences of three decades of economic mismanagement and endemic corruption combined with recent fall of Yemen’s oil revenues have greatly reduced President Saleh capacity to maintain his grip on the country.
For the first time in his three decades long reign, Saleh is facing the combined force of simultaneous actions by several of his domestic adversaries, South, North, and in the central regions of the country. While not coordinated, these actions could put an end to Saleh's plan to build a dynasty and pass the insignia of rule to his own son.
Depletion of the state coffers is one obvious reason for Saleh’s recent troubles. Yemen’s oil revenues in 2009 fell to less than one third of the $ 5 billion it earned in 2008. This is a serious development in a country such as Yemen where 75% of the state budget is generated by the oil sector. The decline in revenues was caused by the fall of oil prices in world market, and by the decrease of production from onshore fields. The flow of international aid, including grants from GCC sources, was slower and only a fraction of the $ 5 billion pledged during Yemen’s donors meeting in London 2006. Of the over $ 5 billion pledge donations, less than 500 were actually passed to Yemen. Worse yet, the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit held in Kuwait in December 2009, did not pledge financial aid to Yemen, although it reiterated it supports Yemen’s efforts “to confront al-Houthi armed rebellion for the preservation of unity, security and stability”.

Saleh may have been relieved when the Saudis in November 5, 2009, launched military operations against the Houthi fighters in the border regions. Even if it drags on, Saudi involvement would reduce the pressure on the Yemeni army and its tribal auxiliaries. However, President Saleh’s tacit approval of Saudi military operations is encouraging some of his own allies to question his nationalist credentials. Among these are sheikhs of Hashed, the most powerful of Northern tribes, who fought against Saudi previous incursions into Yemen since the birth of Yemeni republic in September 1962.
Saleh’s miscalculation may cost him more allies. After several weeks, the Saudi military campaign does not appear to likely to achieve any of the major goals declared at its commander, the Saudi Deputy Minister of Defence Prince Khaled bin Sultan. Quite the opposite, the dragging campaign has exposed the Saudi military as ineffective and has put to question the kingdom’s deterrence capability. Besides its toll on human lives, Saudi military operation are becoming increasingly costly as more than tens of thousands of Saudis villagers endure living in temporary camps following Saudi government orders to evacuate some 1400 villages and hamlets within the its border.
Saleh faces in the South and in the central region, two different challenges with more ominous prospects that those posed by al-Houthis. In the central region, Saleh is confronting a former political ally, the tribal forces that support various strands of Islamic fundamentalism, lately grouped under the name of Al Qaida. While not of his own choice, fighting al Qaida in these areas requires an open and direct US military role. Whatever is his decision is not likely to appease the United States or his tribal allies. In either case there is nothing to guarantee the survival of his reign.

In the South, where the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen existed until it merged with the North in 1990, opposition groups, collectively known as al-Hirak al Janoubi or Southern Mobilization, are increasingly open in demanding cession and abrogation of the 1990 accord. Daily riots and mass meetings in different Southern towns are gaining momentum while security forces are engaged in fighting the al-Houthis and maintaining government control of major cities in the North.
Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of one of regions masters of political survivors? For the first in three decades of his autocratic rule, President Saleh learns that his options are limited and the choice is not totally in his hands.

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