Yemen may be facing a "nearly catastrophic" scenario "to the point where it resembles the worst characteristics of Somalia and Afghanistan", Sir Alan Duncan, the British government's special envoy to Yemen, warned yesterday:
"If things get markedly worse we could see a dysfunctional government in Sanaa or, more accurately, an utterly dysfunctional non-government, a proxy conflict between Iranian and Saudi interests, increased attacks by al-Qaeda escalating into a more direct confrontation between al-Qaeda and the Houthis, tribal conflict that turns into a broader civil war, the reawakening of southern secessionism leading to a re-division of the country, economic collapse, humanitarian disaster, and Yemen becoming an easy route for human trafficking."
On top of that, Yemen could become "a ready haven for the unrestrained training of terrorist radicals".
Sir Alan, a former government minister who has had connections with Yemen since the 1980s – initially as an oil trader – was delivering the British-Yemeni Society's annual lecture in London and speaking in a personal capacity.
"For 30 years I have always been an optimist about Yemen," he continued, but "for the first time ever I admit that I have swung away from my habitual optimism to the point where I fear that the only rational view one can take now is of pessimism ... I hope that my pessimistic scenario does not materialise."
Looking at the current political situation, he said:
"There can be no future for Yemen unless and until real power, real authority and military strength rests in the proper government of the country and only in the proper government. The government – and hence the country – cannot survive if there are ever larger pockets of power and force outside the sphere of governing which are strong enough to undermine and threaten it.
"The tragedy of the last few months in the country is that although some of the spoilers might have fled the country, instead of benefiting from the removal of such people they have been replaced by a dramatic new force, namely the Houthis, who nobody ever thought would exercise such strength and dominance so quickly and so widely.
"This has dramatically changed the entire political landscape in Yemen and has introduced a worrying degree of uncertainty."
One consequence of this is that government in Yemen has now largely ground to a halt. "Every ministry has been over-run by the Houthis but none of them is fully functioning ... So in practice the Houthis have displaced the government without properly replacing it."
Meanwhile, Yemen's financial situation is dire: "It's going to struggle to pay salaries, even over the next few weeks. It has an unfinanced and probably unfinanceable deficit and it may prove unable to pay for its required energy imports, thus threatening power generation, transport and cooking.
"For an economy that shrunk by about 11% in 2014, there is no chance of it turning around and heading in a positive direction while it has no effective government ... If the security situation deteriorates further, even with the best will in the world it will become increasingly difficult to deliver the aid we would like."
On a slightly more positive note, Sir Alan suggested the Houthis' unexpected military success (which probably surprised the Houthis as much as anyone) may prove too much for them to handle, forcing them "into reverse gear":
"Any support they might have had before is likely to diminish if not evaporate. That is already happening. Many of the people who supported the Houthis when they arrived in Sanaa in September are now turning away from them ...
"I think they might have bitten off more than they can chew. That is why it's wise to try and not jump to conclusions and actions. They have probably over-extended themselves ... They are not going to be able to deliver economically and I think there is going to be an instinctive reaction."
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 5 February 2015