Skip to main content

Yemen’s collapse is a taste of things to come

Yemen’s crisis serves as a grave warning for the looming risks to states in coming years and decades, not just in the region, but around the world

Yemen is on the brink of civil war. The collapse of the US-backed government in the 2,500-year-old capital city, Sanaa, and the takeover by Shiite Houthi rebels from the north, has left the country in turmoil, amidst the threat of yet another regional conflagration along sectarian lines.

Britain, the United States and France have already closed down their embassies, but less clear is how they can respond to a crisis that looks ready to spiral out of control.

The war pundits have been out in force offering all manner of stale recommendations, largely rehashed from the last decade of failed counter-terrorism policies.

We are running out of options, but the reason for this is more nuanced than some might assume.

The core drivers of state failure in Yemen are neither Islamists, al-Qaeda jihadists, nor Houthis: they are structural, systemic, and ultimately, civilisational. 

Welcome to the post-oil future

Yemen’s story is one of protracted, inexorable collapse. Around 2001, Yemen’s oil production reached its peak, since then declining from 450,000 barrels per day (bbd), to 259,000 bpd in 2010, and as of last year hitting 100,000 bpd. Production is expected to plummet to zero in two years.

This has led to a drastic decline in Yemen’s oil exports, which has eaten into government revenues, 75 percent of which depend on oil exports. Oil revenues also account for 90 percent of the government’s foreign exchange reserves. The decline in post-peak Yemen revenues has reduced the government’s capacity to sustain even basic social investments.

Things are looking bad now: but when the oil runs out, with no planning or investment in generating another meaningful source of government revenue, the capacity to sustain a viable state-structure will completely collapse.

Water woes

It’s not just oil that’s disappearing in Yemen: it’s water. Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. In 2012, the average Yemeni had access to just 140 cubic metres of water a year for all uses, compared to the regional average of less than 1,000 cubic metres – which is still well below adequate levels. Now in 2015, Yemenis have as little as 86 cubic metres of renewable water sources left per person per year.

The water situation in Yemen today is catastrophic by any reasonable standard. In many cities people have only sporadic access to running water every other week or so. In coming years, Sanaa could become the first capital in the world to effectively run out of water.

Climate change has already played a role in aggravating regional water scarcity. From 1974 to 2004, the Arab world experienced rises in surface air temperature ranging from 0.2 to 2 degrees Celsius (C). Forecasting models generally project a hotter, drier, less predictable climate that could produce a 20-30 percent drop in water run-off in the region by 2050, mainly due to rising temperatures and lower precipitation.

According to the World Bank, while “climate change-induced alterations of rainfall” have worsened Yemen’s aridity, this has been compounded by the rapid growth in demand due to the “extension and intensification of agriculture; and fast growth in urban centres.”

Demographic disaster

At about 25 million people, Yemen has a relatively small population. But its rate of growth is exorbitantly high. More than half the population is under the age of 18 and by mid-century its size is expected to nearly double.

Last year, at a conference organised jointly by the National Population Council in Sanaa and the UN Population Fund, experts and officials warned that within the next decade, these demographic trends would demolish the government’s ability to meet the population’s basic needs in education, health and other essential public services.

But that warning is transpiring now. Over half the Yemeni population live below the poverty line, and unemployment is at 40 percent generally, and 60 percent for young people. Meanwhile, as these crises have fuelled ongoing conflicts throughout the country, the resulting humanitarian crisis has affected some 15 million people.

A major impact of the high rate of population growth has been in the expansion of qat cultivation. With few economic opportunities, increasing numbers of Yemenis have turned to growing and selling the mild narcotic, which has accelerated water use to around 3.9 billion cubic metres (bcm), against a renewable supply of just 2.5 bcm.

The 1.4 bcm shortfall is being met by pumping water from underground water reserves. As these run dry, social tensions, local conflicts and even mass displacements are exacerbated, feeding into the dynamics of the wider sectarian and political conflicts between the government, the Houthis, southern separatists and al-Qaeda affiliated militants.

This has also undermined food security. As around 40 percent of Yemen’s irrigated areas are devoted to qat, rain-fed agriculture has dropped by about 30 percent since 1970.

Like many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Yemen has thus become evermore dependent on food imports, and its economy increasingly vulnerable to global food price volatility. The country now imports over 85 percent of its food, including 90 percent of its wheat and all of its rice.

Between 2000 and 2008, the year of the global banking collapse, global food prices rose by 75 percent, and wheat in particular by 200 percent. Since then, food prices have fluctuated, but remained high.

But rampant poverty means most Yemenis simply cannot afford these prices. In 2005, the World Bank estimated that Yemeni families spend an average of between 55 and 70 percent of their incomes just on trying to obtain food, water and energy. And while 40 percent of Yemeni households have got into food-related debt as a result, most Yemenis are still hungry, with the rate of chronic malnutrition as high as 58 percent, second only to Afghanistan.

Slow collapse

For more than the last decade, then, Yemen has faced a convergence of energy, water and food crises intensified by climate change, accelerating the country’s economic crisis in the form of ballooning debt, widening inequalities and the crumbling of basic public services.

Epidemic levels of government corruption, contributing to endemic levels of government mismanagement and incompetence, have meant that what little revenues the government has acquired have mostly disappeared into Swiss bank accounts. Meanwhile, much-needed investments in new social programs, development of non-oil resources, and infrastructure improvements have languished.

With revenues plummeting in the wake of the collapse of its oil industry, the government has been forced to slash subsidies while cranking up fuel and diesel prices. This has, in turn, cranked up prices of water, meat, fruits, vegetables and spices, leading to food riots.

There can be no doubt, then, that the rise of violent and separatist movements across Yemen, including the emergence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been largely enabled by the protracted collapse of the Yemeni state. That process of collapse has been driven primarily by trends that are at play across the world: the peak of conventional oil production, intensifying extreme weather events due to climate change, the impacts on water and food scarcity, and deepening economic crisis.

As the government has failed to deliver even the most basic goods and services, it has lost legitimacy - and the vacuum left behind has been exploited by militants.

The ‘war’ on starved, thirsty and unemployed Yemenis

The US “war on terror” in Yemen is thus an ideal case study in failure: the failure of the “war on terror” as a strategy; the failure of the Yemeni state; the failure of neoliberal economic prescriptions; and, ultimately, the naval-gazing failure to understand how and why we are failing.

For the last few decades, successive US administrations have subsidised these failures by propping up corrupt, authoritarian regimes. Instead of recognising the fundamental drivers of state collapse, the approach has been to deal with the surface symptoms by propping up the police and military powers of a doomed and illegitimate state-structure.

The previous government of Abdullah Saleh was effectively toppled under popular protests in 2011, which forced Saleh to hand over the reigns of power to his vice-president, Mansour Hadi. But Saleh, now blacklisted by Washington for sponsoring “terrorism” and “destabilising” Yemen by conspiring with the Houthis, was a staunch US ally, who even voluntarily took the blame for US drone strikes in the country, which have killed large numbers of civilians.

Saleh saw his main task as consolidating state coffers at the expense of the rest of Yemen, and deploying overwhelming indiscriminate military force to put down popular rebellions.

Throughout his rule, Saleh was supported by tens of millions of dollars in US aid annually – which reached a height of $176 million for military training and counter-terrorism assistance in 2010.

Yet as documented by groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW), US military aid was used to ruthlessly crush secessionist and opposition movements. Massive aerial bombardment and artillery shelling regularly inflicted consistently “high civilian casualties,” according to HRW. Government forces routinely opened fire on unarmed protestors years before 2011, usually “without warning” and from short-range.

Why do our friends love al-Qaeda?

Our blossoming love affair with Saleh was justified by the need to fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which of course recently claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris.

But Saleh’s regime had harboured al-Qaeda terrorists for decades, and largely with US knowledge. Since 1996 at latest, the National Security Agency (NSA) had been intercepting all of Osama bin Laden’s communications with his al-Qaeda operations hub in Yemen, based in Sanaa, which functioned as a logistics base to coordinate terrorist attacks around the world, including the US embassy bombings in East Africa and the bombing of the USS Cole.  

But much of this terrorist activity also occurred under the patronage of the Saleh regime, as candidly described by a US Congressional Research Service report in 2010. The report explains how in 1994, “President Saleh dispatched several brigades of ‘Arab Afghans’ to fight against southern late secessionists,” with US backing. In the same period, al-Qaeda-linked militants “began striking targets inside the country.”

Despite this, the Congressional report points out that “Yemen continues to harbor a number of al-Qaeda operatives and has refused to extradite several known militants on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists” – including people who had been convicted of targeting Yemeni oil installations.

Former FBI special agent Ali Soufan said: “If Yemen is truly an ally, it should act as an ally. Until it does, US aid to Yemen should be reevaluated. It will be impossible to defeat al-Qaeda if our ‘allies’ are freeing the convicted murderers of US citizens and terrorist masterminds while receiving direct US financial aid.’”

The rabbit hole goes much deeper than this, though. Almost immediately after AQAP formally declared its existence through a partnership between al-Qaeda operatives based in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Saleh “struck a deal with Ayman Zawahiri,” al-Qaeda’s incumbent emir, according to Yemen analyst Jane Novak.

“In the latest round of negotiations, Saleh reportedly asked the militants to engage in violence against the southern mobility movement,” wrote Novak, whose blog was banned by the Yemeni government in 2007. “The deal has reportedly included the supply of arms and ammunition to al-Qaeda paramilitary forces by the Yemen military.”

A copy of an internal AQAP communiqué obtained by a Yemeni news publication revealed that al-Qaeda legitimised fighting for the state by referencing the 1994 war.

“Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula explained to its followers that President Saleh wants jihadists to fight on behalf of the state, especially those who did already in 1994, against the enemies of unity – southern oppositionists,” reported Novak. “AQAP in return will gain prison releases and unimpeded travel to external theatres of jihad, the letter explained.”

Protecting our oil

US support for Yemen’s authoritarian, terror-toting state structure continues. Since the arrival of Saleh’s successor, Mansour Hadi – deposed in the wake of the recent Houthi coup – Obama had authorised nearly $1 billion in aid to the Yemeni government. The support was supposed to be a model success for political transition, offering a blueprint for how to take on the “Islamic State” (IS).

Yet Hadi, like his predecessor, was no reformer. He came to power in a phony “democratic” election in which he was the only candidate, a US-backed process brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) consisting of some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Now, in the wake of the GCC powers threatening a joint invasion to remove the Shiite Houthis, the Houthis have agreed to form a “people’s transitional council” with rival parties to resolve the political crisis.

For the US, the real issue in Yemen is its strategic position in relation to the world’s oil supply. Yemen controls the Bab el-Mandeb strait, through which 8 percent of global trade travels including 4 percent of global oil products. The Houthi coup threatens the Yemeni government’s ability to control the strait, and could even force it to close if violence worsens.

The closure of the strait would increase transit times and costs with severe implications for global oil prices that could potentially trigger an economic crash.

The biggest problem with the strategy in Yemen, then, is its obsession with sustaining business-as-usual, no matter how defunct. Our global chronic dependence on fossil fuels is driving climate change, which in turn is accelerating regional water and food scarcity. But it also means that we must maintain a pliant authoritarian regime in Yemen to ensure that an anti-US government cannot come to power, undermine our access to this strategic region and destabilise the global economy.

Yet it is precisely the execution of this very strategy that has intensified instability in Yemen; fuelled the grievances that feed dissent, rebellion and even terrorism, and culminated in the Houthi coup that we are now desperate to find a way to quell and accommodate.

Until all actors in the crisis are willing to recognise and address its deeper causes, the new “transition council” in Yemen will solve nothing. In coming years, Yemen’s state will crumble, and US-led efforts to shore it up by empowering its most repressive structures will merely accelerate the collapse.

Yemen’s crisis, in that respect, serves as a grave warning for the looming risks to states in coming years and decades, not just in the region, but around the world.

Yet there is an alternative. If we want a stable government in Yemen, we would do well to re-think the efficacy of focusing so much of our aid on corrupt and repressive regimes in the name of countering terrorism, a process that has contributed to the wholesale destruction of Yemeni society.

We need a new model, one that is based on building grassroots community resilience, facilitating frameworks for mutual inter-tribal political and economic cooperation, and empowering communities to implement best practices in clean energy infrastructure, local water management and sustainable food production.

That we would rather shoot, bomb and kill our way to victory instead, in cahoots with regimes that sponsor terrorism under our noses and with our support, reveals how neck-deep in self-induced delusion we really are about the unsustainable nature of our chosen course.

Nafeez Ahmed PhD, is an investigative journalist, international security scholar and bestselling author who tracks what he calls the 'crisis of civilization.' He is a winner of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian reporting on the intersection of global ecological, energy and economic crises with regional geopolitics and conflicts. He has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Armed Yemeni tribesmen from the Awlaki tribe, the largest clan in Yemen's southern Shabwa province (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.