Yemen: the nightmare scenario

I’ve been talking rather a lot about Yemen since this blog started – partly because the situation there is worrying and partly because it’s getting so little attention from outside. Put simply, the fear is that Yemen could turn into another Somalia or Afghanistan.

An article in the Yemen Times headed “The nighmare of state failure in Yemen” starts by highlighting all the upheavals the country has experienced during the last 50 years, and survived. Yemenis, as a people, are extraordinarily resilient – which is why I have always been reluctant, at least until now, to buy into prophecies of doom.

But, as the author of the article (Khaled Fattah of St Andrews University) points out, survival in the past is no guarantee of survival in the future and it may also lull Yemenis into a false sense of assurance.

Since 1990, Fattah writes, the regime has survived through the “purchasing of political allies and in the development of a vast network of patronage connecting the political, tribal and military elites from highland Yemen with the commercial elite from lower Yemen.”

At the same time, though, this has encouraged others – the excluded – “to create an alternative system to the central authority and to replace formal and legitimate channels of state-society communication with their own system … the expansion of ‘dark spaces’ that are far beyond the reach of the state’s eyes and hands, the growth of hidden economies, and the tendency to ignore the juridical processes of the state.”

Fattah continues:

Warnings about the possibilities of Yemen’s political disintegration and its collapse into an atomised society managed by autonomous tribal leaders, warlords, ambitious advocates of sectarianism and militant religious extremists should be taken very seriously. 

Although united Yemen has been holding together as a fragile Middle Eastern state, the wide array of anti-central authority actors who are engaged in varying degrees of violence and subversion are operating within a new poisonous environment that can push Yemen towards joining the list of failed states. 

As for the solution, he concludes:”Preventing the Somalisation or Afghanisation of Yemen depends on the trade-offs between ensuring security and order and fulfilling the representation and welfare functions of the Yemeni state.”

This is the point where I find it difficult to see a way forward for Yemen. There are no signs of such a trade-off at present. The state is focused almost entirely on “ensuring security and order” (while actually failing to ensure it). Meanwhile, “representation and welfare” are functions that the state seems unwilling or unable to perform.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 July 2009