Friday, March 23, 2012


From FPRI:

The Newsletter of FPRI’s Wachman Center

March 22, 2012

Available on the web and in pdf format at: 

              THE CRISIS IN YEMEN:  

              by Christopher Swift

Christopher Swift is a fellow at the University of Virginia 
Law School’s Center for National Security Law.  This essay 
is based on her talk to FPRI’s History Institute for Teachers 
on “Teaching the Middle East: Between Authoritarianism 
and Reform,” held October 15-16, 2011. Videofiles from the 
conference can be accessed here: 

Western policymakers greeted the Arab Spring with a 
uncertain mixture of idealism and pragmatism. As 
populist uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt gained strength, 
U.S. officials abandoned authoritarian leaders and 
endorsed calls for democratic reform.  When civil disorder 
in Libya collapsed into civil war, NATO intervened to 
support rebel forces. Regional unrest also implicated other 
equities, however. Framed by Saudi fears over Iranian 
infiltration, the West demurred as Bahrain’s leadership 
suppressed Shi’a protesters. Wary of al-Qaeda’s growing 
influence in Yemen, Washington publicly endorsed efforts 
to broker President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation while 
privately collaborating with the Yemeni security services.

This tension between promoting change and preserving 
stability raises critical questions about the relationship 
between power and principle in international affairs. How, 
for example, should the United States define its interests? 
When should security concerns trump our desire to 
support democratic change? Most significantly, what kind 
of policies are most likely to promote a more stable, secure, 
and peaceful Middle East? Each of these questions 
illuminates the moral and strategic dilemmas leaders face 
when formulating U.S. foreign policy. They also reveal the 
role that our own perspectives and presumptions play in 
the policy formulation process.  

Some of these presumptions offer insight. Since the start of 
the Arab Spring, observers have focused on broad trends 
informing regional unrest. Examples include bulging youth 
populations, high structural unemployment, and rising 
commodity prices. Also vital is the role of new media, 
particularly social media, in disseminating information 
and coordinating political dissent. Regional trends cannot 
tell us the whole story, however. Although Egyptians and 
Libyans were inspired by their Tunisian neighbors and 
used similar slogans and technologies, the challenges and 
conditions in each of these countries proved vastly 

This essay examines the challenges and conditions in 
contemporary Yemen. Part one addresses demographic 
factors, including the growth of the Yemeni population, 
the collapse of the Yemeni economy, and the looming 
prospect of ecological crisis.  Part two considers political 
trends, focusing on Yemen’s unification, political 
centralization, and the sources of contemporary 
opposition. Part three evaluates threats to Yemen’s 
political and territorial security, including the Houthi 
insurrection, the southern secessionist movement, and al-
Qaeda’s attempts to re-colonize the Arabian Peninsula. 
The essay concludes by emphasizing the need to ground 
our analysis and our policy in a rich understanding of local 


Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. 
Thirty-four percent of the population is unemployed.  [1] 
Forty-five percent live below the United Nations‘ poverty 
line.  [2] Fifty percent are illiterate.  [3] Seventy-three 
percent still live in rural tribal areas.  [4] With per capita 
gross domestic product (GDP) at only $2,500, Yemeni 
living standards have more in common with sub-Saharan 
Africa than with the rest of the Middle East.  [5] This 
endemic poverty is exacerbated by one of the highest birth 
rates in the world. Three quarters of Yemen’s population 
is below age thirty and forty-six percent is below age 
fifteen.  [6] This unwieldy age structure seems likely to 
grow rapidly. With net population growth at 3.4 percent 
annually, Yemen it set to double its current population of 
24 million by 2035.  [7]

Yemen’s endemic poverty and population boom are even 
more troubling when one considers the state of the Yemeni 
economy.  Already beset with high structural 
unemployment and low literacy, Yemen has recently 
endured annual inflation rates as high as nineteen 
percent.  [8] High inflation comes on the heels of a fifty 
percent drop in known oil and gas reserves during the last 
three years.  [9] With as much as seventy percent of 
government revenues derived from the energy sector,  [10] 
Yemen’s government is losing its capacity to implement 
fundamental economic reforms at a time when 
unemployment, poverty, and youth populations are all on 
the rise.  

Each of these challenges is compounded by a looming 
ecological crisis. Long renown for its arid climate and 
mountainour terrain, Yemen’s renewable water resources 
amount to only 220 cubic meters per capita per year.  This 
figure is far below the Middle East average of 1,000 cubic 
meters per capita, and represents less than three percent 
of the global average of roughly 8,000 cubic meters. [11] 
As a result, only 2.9 percent of Yemeni territory is 
currently suitable for agriculture.  [12] Urban life is 
under similarly severe strain, with water tables in Sana’a, 
the capital city, falling an average of six to eight meters 
every year.  [13]

Despite these scarcities, Yemenis continue to allocate a 
substantial share of their limited land and water to the 
cultivation of qat, a narcotic plant chewed by users 
throughout East Africa and parts of the Middle East. 
According to some observers, this resource-intensive crop 
consumes as much as 37 percent of Yemen’s irrigation 
water.  [14] Others estimate that qat production accounts 
for as much as 10 percent of Yemen’s annual GDP.  [15] 
On one level, this phenomenon suggests deep desire among 
ordinary Yemenis to insulate themselves from the harsh 
realities of daily life. Yet it also contributes to these 
realities, reducing economic productivity whilst displacing 
crops that could be profitably exported.

These realities inform political instability in three ways. 
First, demographic pressures are producing a population 
that is younger, poorer, larger, and less able to address its 
basic economic needs.  Second, persistent economic 
malaise is frustrating efforts to maintain public services, 
improve existing infrastructure, and invest in long-term 
economic growth. Finally, resource constraints exacerbate 
each of these structural challenges whilst simultaneously 
undermining the complex system of tribal and political 
patronage established during President Saleh’s 33-year 
reign. With a growing number of parties competing for a 
shrinking pool of assets, the incentives for dissension and 
armed insurrection show few signs of subsiding.


Yemen is no stranger to political unrest. Although the 1990 
merger between the Republic of Yemen (ROY) and the 
People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) was 
initially amicable, efforts to integrate the North and South 
swiftly turned contentious.  Incompatible economic 
systems, separate standing armies, and disputes over oil 
concessions each contributed to a growing schism between 
President Saleh’s Arab Nationalist General People’s 
Congress Party (GPC) and the South’s Yemeni Socialist 
Party (YSP).  Just four years after unification, YSP 
officials broke with President Saleh’s regime and re-
asserted the South’s independence.

The 1994 Yemeni civil war produced a series of 
unconventional political and ideological alignments. Wary 
of President Saleh’s support for Saddam Hussein during 
the 1991 Persian Gulf War, conservative Saudi Arabia 
reversed its historic support for the North and intervened 
on behalf of the secular socialist South. President Saleh’s 
regime responded by characterizing the civil war as a 
struggle between Islam and atheistic socialism—a measure 
aimed at animating Yemeni Islamists and recruiting 
recently-returned veterans from the Soviet-Afghan war. 
The result was a confluence of Arab nationalist, Islamist, 
and socialist actors, each with different ideologies, 
different objectives, and different perspectives on the 
conflict in which they were engaged.

The North’s decisive military victory did little to 
consolidate these political factions.  Regional and 
ideological tensions with the South ossified, with the YSP 
and other small leftist parties forming a permanent yet 
largely powerless minority in the Yemeni Parliament. 
Saleh’s efforts to build a centralized Arab Nationalist state 
also drew the ire of Islamists and tribal leaders, who 
together comprised the Yemeni Congregation for Reform 
(al-Islah). By 2005, YSP’s and al-Islah’s parliamentary 
factions had joined forces under the umbrella of the 
banner of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) in an effort to 
curb the GPC’s dominance and implement long-delayed 

Fragmentation within the JMP has frustrated many of 
these efforts. The coalition’s leftists were divided among 
the YSP, which was dominant in the South, a Nasserite 
party, and two competing Ba’athist groups. Al-Islah had 
its own internal coordination problems, often divided 
between tribal leaders with an interest in preserving 
decentralized authority structures and urbanized Islamists 
seeking reform from the top down. Even the Islamists 
operated in coalition, with their numbers divided between 
Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, with its modernist 
inclinations, and Salafis led by prominent Sunni religious 
scholar Abdul Majeed al-Zindani.

This ideological diversity explains the resilience of the 2011 
Yemeni uprising. Inspired by protests across the Arab 
world and supported by thousands of student activists, the 
JMP’s constituents formed the National Council for the 
Forces of the Peaceful Revolution (National Council) and 
demanded President Saleh’s ouster. They even 
incorporated defecting Yemeni Army units.  Chief among 
them was the First Armored Division, which intervened to 
protect Yemeni protesters from government forces in 
Sana’a.  [16] Resilience is not the same as effectiveness, 
however.  Beset with incompatible ideologies and factional 
divisions, the National Council proved far more effective at 
catalyzing public anger than channeling it into concrete 
political action.  

President Saleh’s recent departure underscores this 
distinction between social mobilization and political 
transformation.  Though forced to resign in November 
2011 under the terms of an agreement brokered by the 
Gulf Coordination Council (GCC), the former President 
transferred power to his Vice President, Abd al-Rab 
Mansur al-Hadi. In February 2012, Vice President Hadi 
ascended to the presidency following an election in which 
he was the only candidate. With the GPC still holding an 
overwhelming majority in the Yemeni Parliament, and 
with Saleh’s extended family members occupying key posts 
in government ministries and the national security 
apparatus, there are few signs of significant structural 

It is still not clear whether the GCC plan will produce a 
more stable equilibrium. Despite acknowledging the 
transition process, the YSP and other opposition groups 
have relatively little to gain from the status quo. The same 
is arguably true for Yemen’s tribal leaders, who remain 
wary of efforts to centralize power and dilute their 
traditional authority.  Engaging these potential spoilers 
will be vital to both President Hadi’s success and Yemen’s 
security. With the next round of elections nearly two years 
away, the failure to find a working consensus may create 
openings for militants that stand to profit from a 
chronically unstable state.


This militancy manifests in three distinct and ultimately 
incompatible movements. Chief among them is the 
recurring Houthi rebellion. Centered around the northern 
province of Sa’ada, this struggle pits Yemen’s Sunni-
majority regime against members of the Zaidi Shi’a 
minority. Though currently subject to a cease-fire, the 
dynamics driving this conflict—including religious 
differences, political disenfranchisement, and the Houthis’ 
fear of cultural assimilation—remain largely unresolved.  
With four wars and four truces since 2004, the prospect of 
renewed conflict in Yemen’s north could destabilize the 
Saudi-Yemeni border at a time when the central 
government is preoccupied with other challenges.

The rebels are acutely aware of this dynamic. Capitalizing 
on popular protests in Sana’a, Houthi leaders used the 
2011 Yemeni uprising to forge new ties with opposition 
groups and expand their zone of influence.  Neither 
development is likely to be viewed favorably, be it in 
Sana’a or Riyadh. The prospect of renewed rebellion is not 
the only concern, however. In reasserting themselves, the 
Houthis have increasingly clashed with ultra-conservative 
Salafi militants operating in the same border region.  Some 
observers link these Salafis to Sunni tribal factions aligned 
with al-Islah.  [17] Others, however, see evidence of a 
proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  [18] With 
regional tensions between Tehran and Riyadh on the rise, 
what was once a relatively straightforward regional 
insurrection could devolve into more opaque and 
fundamentally irreconcilable patterns of sectarian 

Developments in southern Yemen are equally inauspicious. 
Starting in 2007, the so-called Southern Movement 
organized mass demonstrations and other forms of civil 
disobedience to protest Sana’a’s policies towards the six 
southern provinces comprising the former PDRY. Among 
their grievances was the central government’s alleged 
misappropriation of the South’s oil wealth. Equally 
important, however, were allegations of official 
discrimination against southerners with respect to 
government employment, pensions, and other public 
benefits. With energy reserves falling and government 
revenues dwindling, resource constraints rekindled many 
of the resentments left unresolved following the 1994 
Yemeni civil war. 

The situation turned violent in 2008, with government 
forces killing and wounding scores of activists in a big to 
quash the protests. In 2009, armed factions associated with 
the Southern Movement began to respond in kind, with 
sporadic gun battles erupting in Aden and other southern 
cities. As YSP cadres called for independence, southern 
tribal leaders like Tariq al-Fadhli broke their longstanding 
alliances with Saleh’s regime and backed the secessionist 
movement.  By January 2010, local polling indicated that 
some seventy percent of Yemenis living in the former 
PDRY favored independence.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula also joined the fray. 
Calling for the establishment of an Islamic emirate in 
southern Yemen, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi invited 
the YSP and other leftists to abandon secular revolution 
and follow the path of jihad.  [19] Wuhayshi’s proposal 
was largely rhetorical.  Far from joining the Southern 
Movement, AQAP used civil disorder in southern cities to 
expand its recruiting and operational reach. In June 2010, 
for example, AQAP cadres attacked the regional 
headquarters of Yemen’s Political Security Organization 
(PSO) in Aden, killing ten officers in an operation to free 
imprisoned militants.  [20] Two months later, AQAP 
mounted an assassination campaign against 54 designated 
officials from the PSO, the Yemeni armed forces, and 
other security services.  [21]

During the last two years, AQAP has gradually widened 
the scope of its operations while deepening its ties to 
indigenous tribal groups. This represents a departure from 
the usual al-Qaeda model, which seeks to colonize and 
radicalize foreign (and often non-Arab) Muslim 
populations. In Yemen, however, many of these militants 
are speaking their native language and fighting on native 
soil. Some are even sheltering among their own 
tribesmen—a fact that dramatically improves their 
capacity to appreciate and mobilize indigenous 
resentments. The result has been a paradigm shift in al-
Qaeda’s typical model. Rather than colonizing foreign 
lands, AQAP is re-integrating itself into the various 
elements of Yemeni society from which its members were 

This integration is producing a more sophisticated and 
sustainable insurgency.  Active across large swaths of 
Yemen’s Abyan and Shabwa Governates, AQAP has 
grounded the precepts of global jihad in the practical 
realities of local insurrection.  In some regions, this means 
holding and even governing certain communities. The May 
2011 capture of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, is a case in 
point.  By emerging from the tribal regions and asserting 
control over urban space, AQAP demonstrated a capacity 
to displace existing institutions. It also revealed a capacity 
for sustained urban warfare, with militants holding the 
city until mid-September despite a counteroffensive from 
the Yemeni Army and local tribal militias.  [22] Hostilies 
in Zinjiban peaked again in Feburary 2012, with AQAP’s 
local front group, Ansar al-Shari’ah, threatening a torrent 
of violence if Yemeni forces did not withdraw.  [23] 

AQAP’s tactics also embrace territorial exclusion. One 
notable example is the January 2012 capture of Radda in 
Bayda Governate.  Located near a major road linking 
Sana’a with eight of Yemen’s twenty governates, the move 
suggested an effort to isolate Yemen’s transitional 
government from the southern and western regions where 
its writ is already weak.  [24] There is some evidence 
that the raid was intended more as a signal, however. After 
freeing prisoners, flying their flag above the local citadel, 
and tagging buildings with jihadi graffiti, AQAP entered 
into talks with government-appointed negotiators and 
withdrew its forces just one week later.


The incident in Radda encapsulates many of the factors 
undermining Yemen’s domestic security. Distracted by the 
uprising in Sana’a and their own power transition, 
Yemen’s central government was unable to deter the 
militants or prevent the town’s temporary loss. AQAP, by 
comparison, was unable to consolidate its gain. Rather 
than entering into a prolonged urban battle, as in Zinjibar, 
the insurgents chose to negotiate, withdraw, and preserve 
their forces for future action. The resulting ambiguity is 
destabilizing in its own right. Although Radda did not 
experience a change in control, it confirmed the growing 
absence of it.  

This absence of control is a product of several converging 
factors. Years of unresolved internal conflicts have 
gradually eroded the central government’s authority, 
legitimacy and, capacity to act. The same is true for 
months of anti-government protests informed by lingering 
resentments and inspired by the Arab Spring. Equally 
important, however, are decades of demographic pressure. 
Even without persistent political turmoil and overlapping 
insurgencies, Yemen’s exploding population, dwindling 
resources, and persistent economic malaise would each be 
fundamentally destabilizing in their own right.  

A reflexive emphasis on terrorism diminishes these 
dynamics.  By focusing exclusively on AQAP’s tactics and 
rhetoric, we risk ignoring the indigenous dynamics that 
shape its operations and potentially constrain its options. A 
superficial emphasis on the Arab Spring raises similar 
concerns. While mass uprisings in cities such as Sana’a 
and Aden demand our attention, the historical and tribal 
resentments driving popular resistance in Yemen may 
have few meaningful equivalents in more centralized 
countries like Egypt or more secular societies like Tunisia. 
This is why an emphasis on local conditions is so crucial.  
Without a firm grounding in the circumstances shaping 
everyday life, we lose sight of the nuances that distinguish 
one set of threats and priorities from the next.

An emphasis on local nuance is particularly vital in 
Yemen, where a centralized Arab nationalist state exists in 
an increasingly tenuous equilibrium with a decentralized 
tribal society. To the extent that state governance is absent 
or ineffective, traditional structures will invariably fill the 
void. And the more these traditional structures perceive 
greater payoffs from defection, be it to political movements 
like the National Council or militant movements like 
AQAP, the less influence President Hadi’s regime will 
ultimately wield.  

This involuntary erosion of state power is consistent with 
al-Qaeda’s longstanding desire for a stable base of 
operations within the Sunni Arab heartland. So long as 
Yemen’s internal divisions persist, they create the kind of 
ungoverned space where transnational terrorist syndicates 
and their indigenous allies flourish. Dysfunctional 
institutions will also hasten ecological and economic 
collapse. Absent some measure of stability, the 
international community is unlikely to make the kind of 
sustained investments that could mitigate Yemen’s 
looming demographic crises.  

These dynamics transcend the false dichotomy between 
promoting change and preserving stability.  Yemen is 
already in the midst of dramatic change—change that has 
more to do with local conditions than regional trends.  It is 
also suffering from chronic instability—instability that 
persistently undermines efforts to preserve the status quo. 
Against this backdrop, the central challenge in Yemen is 
finding a functional equilibrium before factionalism and 
parochialism inspire a race to the bottom. With an 
estimated 9.9 million small arms circulating within a 
population of only 24 million,  the failure to appreciate 
Yemenis’ local grievances could inadvertently precipitate a 
regional crisis.  


[1] Mahmoud Assamiee, “Yemen asks for USD 44 billion from 
Friends of Yemen,” Yemen Times (Sana’a), Apr. 6, 2010.

[2] “Yemen: Country Profile,” Al-Jazeera (Doha), Mar. 3, 2010, 
available at 

[3] “FM meets foreign journalists,” Saba (Sana’a), Apr. 10, 

[4] “World Bank launches report on poverty in rural areas of 
Yemen,” Saba (Sana’a), Jan. 16, 2010, available at 

[5] “Yemen: Country Profile,” Al-Jazeera.

[6] Elizabeth Leahy Madsen, The Effects of a Very Young Age 
Structure in Yemen: Country Case Study (Washington: Population 
Action International, Dec. 2011), 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] World Economic Outlook. Tensions from the Two-Speed 
Recovery: Unemployment, Commodities, and Capital Flows 
(Washington: International Monetary Fund, April 2011), 193.

[9] Ali Saeed, “Yemen introduces 20 investment opportunities in 
oil and minerals,” Yemen Times (Sana’a), Oct. 21, 2010.

[10] John Collins Rudolf, “In Yemen, Water Grows Scarcer,” New 
York Times, Oct. 25, 2010.

[11] Andrew England, “Arid cities face future without water,” 
Financial Times, Sept. 7. 2010.

[12] Country Profile: Yemen (Washington: Library of Congress, 
Aug. 2008), 5.

[13] Qahtan Al-Asbahi, Water Resources Information in Yemen 
(Sana’a: National Water Resources Authority, 2007).

[14] Gerhard Lichtenthaler, “Water Conflict and Cooperation 
in Yemen,” Middle East Report no. 254 (Spring 2010).

[15] Doing Business in Yemen 2012 (Washington: World Bank, Nov. 
21, 2011).

[16] Tom Finn, “Yemen army split casts shadow over elections,” 
Reuters, Feb. 20, 2012, available at 

[17] Kareem Fahim, “Yemeni Uprising Opens a Door to Besieged 
Rebels in the North,” New York Times, Dec. 16, 2011.

[18] Hakim Almasmari, “Saudi-Iranian War fought in Sa’ada,” 
Yemen Post (Sana’a), Apr. 10, 2010.

[19] “The Southern Issue: Secession or Unity. Is there another 
Option?” Sada al-Malahim (Sabwa), May 13, 2010.

[20]  “Yemen Gunmen in Deadly Raid on Aden Security Services 
HQ,” BBC News, Jun. 19, 2010.

[21] Ghamda al-Yusifi, “Report on al-Qaida Threat to Assassinate 
54 Yemeni Security Officials,” (Dubai), September 20, 

[22] “Yemen army recaptures provincial capital of Abyan,” CNN, 
Sept. 10, 2011.

[23] Mohammed Mukhashaf, “Al-Qaeda-linked group gives Yemen 
Government ultimatum,” Daily Star (Lebanon), Fe. 29, 2012.

[24] Ahmed al-Haj, “Al-Qaeda in Yemen Captures Town South of 
Capital,” Associated Press, Jan. 16, 2012.

[25] “Yemen: Small arms sales heading underground,” IRIN, Feb. 
14, 2010.

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