By Sobia Hanif
With a population of 24 million, Yemen is situated at the Southwestern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. The North which was formerly known as ‘Yemen Arab Republic’ and the South known as ‘People’s Democratic Republic Of Yemen’ were united in 1990 and since then have been ruled by one man; President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has been in power for the past 33 years as he ruled the Southern part for 12 years before its unification with the North. In 1978, Unites States Central Intelligence Agency had predicted him to not stay in power for more than six months but contrary to expectations he proved to be a wily politician who prolonged his stay in power by exploiting tribes and offering money in exchange for tribal loyalties. While Yemen remains a democracy in theory, it is largely influenced by decisions of the powerful tribes, the largest of which is the ‘Baqil’ tribe followed by ‘Hashed’, which is politically the most active, and of which President Saleh is also a member.
Yemen is primarily an oil producing country but unlike its others neighbours it is by no means rich or self-sufficient. It has a GDP of a little more than $1000 a year. At its peak in 2001, Yemen was producing 450,000 barrels of oil per day. Today the figure has dropped to 300,000 barrels. It is estimated that Yemen’s oil reserves will dry out completely by 2017. This becomes evermore alarming when considering that oil constitutes 90 percent of the country’s total exports. The country’s second major source of income is agriculture, but Yemen is also facing major water shortages. According to experts, Yemen will run out of water within the next two decades or so. 45 percent of its total population lives below the poverty line with one third of its people, mostly youth, unemployed. According to a report by UN World Food Programme, ‘the Price of bread is 50% more than what it was at the beginning of the year’. Many Yeminis are spending 30 to 35% of their daily income on bread, leaving little for other necessities. Prior to the Gulf war, many Yeminis were working in Saudi Arabia and were able to support their families back home. However, The Saudi government expelled more than a million Yemini workers in order to punish the government for supporting Saddam Hussian over his invasion of Kuwait. With the current deterioration of law and order situation in Yemen, Saudi Arabia faces potential influx of around 9 million refugees, which in turn could have a major impact on the economic and security picture of the country.
Yemen has gained the world’s attention only as a country with increased Al-Qaeda activity. It is known as the site of the USS Cole bombing and the origin of the failed 2009 Chrismas day bombing plot. While President Saleh has proclaimed to be the only man to keep Yemen united and the biggest hurdle to Al-Qaeda operations in the country, many locals believe that Al-Qaeda is not an imminent threat as it is in fact a ploy by the government to stay in power by exploiting and instigating fear in the people.
The Arab Spring, which began with protests against Zine Al Abidine’s authoritative regime in Tunisia, soon spread to other parts of the Arab World including Yemen. Since February, Yeminis have been protesting peacefully for President Saleh’s ouster from power. Amidst mounting pressure on President Saleh, he offered to form a unity government and a committee to overhaul the constitution but dissidents refused to accept anything short of his step down from power. Thousands of protesters turned out on the streets shouting anti-government slogans and demanding change.
In early February more than 20,000 protesters staged demonstrations in Sana’a asking the president to step down immediately and rejected his offer to step down in 2013. They have been demanding a transitional government comprising of technocrats that would not only put an end to immediate unrest in the country but also ensure transparency in upcoming elections.
Demonstrations have now spread to all the major cities including Taiz, which has become the centre stage for public uproar against the present regime. The government has employed weaponary of all sorts to quell the uprising including anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades. A number of attacks have also been launched on government installations and buildings by dissenting tribes. President Saleh was seriously injured in one of the bomb attacks and was receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia until recently. His return to Yemen and his announcement to handover power met with strong skepticism as he has made similar pledges in the past but never been true to his words. President Saleh has agreed to step down in accordance with the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Initiative whereby he would be granted immunity from prosecution in return for handing over power.
In an effort to protest against international silence on the turmoil in Yemen, the global Yemen diaspora organized ‘The Support Yemen Campaign’ on September 24 and succeeded in highlighting the deteriorating situation in the country to a certain extent.
In recognition of political activism in Yemen, Tawakel Karman was honoured with a noble prize to be shared with the Liberian President and a Liberian activist. She is the first Arab woman and the fourth Arab to have won the prize after Sadat, Arafat and ElBaradei. She is a Taiz based journalist, advocating for greater freedom and rights for the Yemini people and demands a step down from President Saleh.
The Yemen revolution, despite sharing all the features of the Arab Spring has not received substantial world attention. However, this does not imply that that the struggle is not as genuine or urgent as the others in the region. It only points out a bitter reality; the great powers are color-blind. They only see aspects that they choose to see, guided by their own interests. Democracy and the gaga about human rights is a mere fable. Yemen is different from Libya in that it has a dwindling oil production capacity and unlike Syria in that it is predominantly Sunni, with The Saudi’s at the governments backing. While Yemen deserves greater help and assistance from the international community, the help ought to be in form of humanitarian assistance and not political interference.