Last year was a time of transition in Yemen. The revolution, or crisis, depending on who you speak to, led to the end of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s thirty-three year rule, and his replacement by former Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Various parties and groups stepped into the resulting power vacuum, and foreign powers have become more interested in the threats emanating from groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As Yemen splutters its way towards the first anniversary of the election of President Hadi, it faces a number of issues. Some of these threaten the very existence of the country as a unified entity, and others endanger the lives of millions of people in the Arab World’s poorest nation.
Poverty is the most pressing concern to the average Yemeni citizen as we enter 2013. Many Yemeni families struggle to put food on the table, and this—more than the incessant elite power struggles—is the day-to-day reality for most of the country’s inhabitants. Two-thirds of Yemen’s population live in rural areas; equally, 80 percent of Yemen’s poor live in rural areas. The poverty of the rural poor is one thing that unites all the regions of Yemen.
Poverty is not an apolitical issue. First, it was one of the main drivers behind the uprising of 2011, a movement where some protesters were seen lifting bread in the air to highlight the issue of rising food prices. Government inertia is responsible for the high price of food, with no real incentives for farmers to grow crops instead of the ubiquitous qat, a herbal stimulant, and few moves to break up the monopoly of a small number of firms that control food imports into the country.
The new year was heralded with Yemen’s confirmation as a major front in the conflict formerly known as the War on Terror. Although the latter part of 2012 saw a government counter-attack against Al-Qaeda-linked militants, they continue to operate in many of Yemen’s more remote areas. The US tactic centers on the use of drone strikes, the number of which increased greatly in 2012, when Yemen saw more drone strikes than Pakistan or Afghanistan. President Obama considers the Yemeni government a vital ally, so much so that the Yemeni acting ambassador in Washington was assigned one of the best seats in the house at Obama’s recent inauguration.
Questions still remain over the complicity of certain shadier sections of the Yemeni government in the activities of militant groups. Many Yemenis saw the Saleh regime’s hand at work behind the growing militant activity in Yemen in the 2000s. Suspicions were raised by dubious prison escapes and the huge US pay-outs Saleh’s government received as the terror threat increased.
Conspiracy theories aside, Saleh and his family will not willingly let go of the reins of power. Saleh had expected Hadi, his vice president from 1994, to be his puppet—easily controlled from behind the presidency. However, Hadi has proven to be quite independent; he has gradually been removing Saleh’s men from power. Each time a Saleh relative or ally is removed from power they kick up a storm, but each time Hadi’s decrees have won out, largely thanks to the support he has from the international community and the increasingly negative public opinion of Saleh.
Saleh’s role in the upcoming National Dialogue conference is not yet known. The ex-president is variously reported as either leading his General People’s Congress party’s delegation or as leaving Yemen for the duration of the conference so as not to interfere. The international community, along with many Yemenis, will be hoping that the oft-delayed National Dialogue will bring the various sides together and provide a pathway for a solution to the growing discontent in former South Yemen.
Last, but certainly not least, is the most acute challenge facing Yemen in 2013: the threat to its existence as a single unified state. Al-Herak Al-Janoubi, the Southern Movement commonly known as Herak, is calling for the secession of the South from the rest of the country, and their rallies are attracting huge crowds. Without polling statistics it is difficult to comment with confidence, but anecdotal evidence points towards a majority of Southerners being pro-secession. Prominent leaders of the secessionist movement, including the first vice president of unified Yemen, Ali Salem Al-Beidh, have rejected the National Dialogue, and see any talk other than negotiating secession as pointless.
While the Herak movement appears to have the masses on side, they lack international support; the international community views Yemen’s unity as vital to the stability of the region. This allows the Yemeni government, currently led by a Southern president and prime minister, an opportunity to salvage the state. This year will likely see conciliatory measures aimed at winning Southerners to the cause. However, as long as corrupt figures (and particularly those hated in the south) remain in positions of power, it may prove difficult to convince the restless South that unity is the way forward.