Yemen has settled its territorial disputes with its neighbours, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea, thereby removing the main regional threats to its security. Yet it is enlarging its navy and air force, although it is one of the poorest countries in the world and cannot really afford the armaments being delivered. But the Yemeni rulers’ obsession with security is shown by their support for the “war against terrorism” and in the consequent tightening of internal security, which is little better for their attentions. Not only, for instance, have new groups emerged to target government positions, but individuals now often take the law into their own hands, rendering judicial and police authorities irrelevant.
That Yemen has improved its internal security is not in doubt. Its dispute with Eritrea over three Red Sea islands, which led to armed conflict not long ago, is now settled. So is its dispute with Saudi Arabia, which had led to the expulsion of large numbers of Yemeni workers from the kingdom, a development that has exacerbated the economic woes of an already poverty-stricken country. There is strong evidence that relations between the two will flourish, given the economic cooperation now under way and the plans being discussed by the Joint Coordination Council. New indications of this came on July 3, when the Yemeni ministry of oil and minerals signed a memorandum of understanding with an oil-pipe construction company to build a pipeline linking oil-producing regions in southern Saudi Arabia to a Yemeni port on the Arabian Sea coast. Riyadh has also agreed to finance development projects in eastern Yemen to the tune of several hundred million dollars.
Both Riyadh and Sana are stressing the economic aspects of their rapprochement, but are silent about their political motivations. Both are cooperating with the US to track alleged members of al-Qa’ida, and are also coordinating their pursuit of Islamic activists, irrespective of whether they are sympathetic to al-Qa’ida, or have contacts with it, or not. The reason is that, while economic cooperation is more likely to be popular (especially if it leads to the creation of new jobs), the cooperation with the “war against terrorism” has already caused widespread anger at both the Saudi and Yemeni governments. The Yemeni oil and minerals minister said on July 3 that the proposed pipeline would create employment for Yemeni workers and contribute to the country’s economic development. But there is good reason to believe that a large part of any income from the new links with the kingdom will be used to equip Yemen’s armed forces.
According to the Yemeni newsagency, on June 27 Sana received 16 MiG-29 warplanes from Russia; four days later it received an unspecified number of Polish-made ships. Both president Ali Saleh and the chiefs of the air force and navy insist that the reason for acquiring such sophisticated equipment is purely defensive. The president has said that Yemen has a 2,000-kilometre-long coast and has to be ready to defend itself against attackers. Naturally neither Saleh nor the army chiefs could explain that the equipment would make the generals better pleased with a president who is otherwise unpopular and vulnerable.
Such is the unpopularity of Saleh’s crackdown on ‘terrorists’ that a new group has emerged to target government, rather than US, positions. In April the Al-Qa’ida Sympathisers (AQS) conducted about half a dozen bombing raids in Sana and Aden against government offices, including that of prime minister Abdul-Qadir Bajammal. The bombings, which have so far caused no casualties, are aimed at forcing the government to release 171 detainees who are allegedly linked with al-Qa’ida. A statement by AQS warns that it will step up the attacks against ‘traitors’ that cooperate with the US. The government has reacted by moving against ‘terrorists’ and increasing the presence of military forces in key areas. But this reaction and the Yemenis’ anger at the US’s support for Israel are feeding popular resentment of the regime. The presence of US forces in the country and frequent visits by US officials are also adding to that resentment.
But Sana and the US government are unlikely to give up their crackdown; in fact they are intensifying it, if the installation of an electronic surveillance system is anything to go by. Equipped with computers and cameras, the system will monitor everyone passing through the official entry points and other ‘strategic locations’. It will be run from a central control-room in Sana, where “a joint US-Yemeni team will perform the role of big brother”, according to a magazine report. The introduction of such a system for political control in one of the world’s poorest countries has been criticised as unnecessary and wasteful.
Yemen is the least developed country in the Middle East, and among the 20 most underdeveloped in the world. Its economic performance is also getting worse. More than 60 percent of Yemenis live without electricity and water in their homes; poverty and unemployment are not only pervasive but actually increasing.
Faced with these difficulties, Yemenis are unlikely to be impressed by fancy control-systems, or by warplanes and warships whose costs absorb vital funds that could be spent to relieve their poverty and hardships. Ali Saleh’s crackdown will not intimidate them either; their relatively muted response so far may well prove to be the calm before the storm.