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Yemen faces collapse

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COMMENTS

9 June 2011 12:33

Philip Eliason is a former diplomat who has worked in Yemen. He is a member of the Advisory Board to the Macquarie University Centre for Middle East and North African Studies.

Just days ago, I heard explosive rocket fire as I spoke by mobile phone to a well-traveled and educated manager of a Yemeni social welfare NGO who had fled with his family from Sana'a University accommodation. His apartment's windows had been blown out and walls shot up during the months of youth revolution.

He was now in my old southern suburb, near the Jandool supermarket, as gunmen cleared the streets and where my other friends told me they needed to wait quietly while the President's militias attacked the many family homes of the rival family, the al-Ahmars.

Anti-government protests at Sana'a University, 25 February 2011. (Courtesy of Flickr user AJTalkEng.)

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been attacked and evacuated to Saudi Arabia. Now, we will see two things happen.

First, Ali Abdullah Saleh's family will hold on to their military assets in Sana'a and try to maintain loyalty among their military units distributed across Yemen. But it looks bad. In the last 48 hours, the Government (ie. the Saleh family) has lost Taez, the former capital of Yemen and its second city. other regions are now out of bounds.

Things may change, but this is the sign that Yemen as an integrated territory is being dissected, which means lots of deals will be needed to glue it together again. Northern areas of the country are splitting and the angry, restive southerners are hoping for restitution of property and the rights they say were stolen increasingly after the 1994 civil war. Yemen faces collapse.

Second, the declining power of the Saleh family creates a power vacuum which is being filled by several rivals, including tribal groups, Yemen's formally constituted political opposition and the constitutionally approved interim leadership. The Saleh family and its tribal beneficiaries will back the current interim leader, Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi, as this gives them political continuity and constitutional cover. Tribal challengers allied to the al-Ahmar-led tribal confederation will keep up attacks on the Government. The opposition parties will split along geographic and tribal allegiances.

What must be done? Hunger, thirst, lack of shelter will affect thousands on the move from localised conflicts related to the Sana'a power struggle. In a conflict zone, humanitarian assistance will be hard, but must be tried. Saudi Arabia, which now sees great risk from Yemen, needs to show what it is doing, as must other Gulf Co-Operation Council states. Western states can use aid and trade to give Yemen a chance at economic growth, but they can't optimise it if there is no coherence among the GCC donors.

Yemen has a good base from which to start: it has a hungry, poor but entrepreneurial people. It has its own ports, land and maritime resources and is a place keen for cautious and graduated investment.

But when it comes to delivering aid, Yemen suffers from classic absorptive capacity constraint. Often there is too much money for aid to be taken seriously; it is manna from heaven to be eaten while local practices continue. Yemen requires consistent, predictable and empowering aid interventions which really add to the the quality of life and the future of Yemenis. Fast-cycle, high dollar project aid cannot work in Yemen; it needs small projects, light but observant direction and, most of all, commitment and consistency. That is difficult to deliver from a worried, rich West which needs a new aid concept every 3-5 years and can't deploy workers.

Yemen's problems do not match our budget cycle and administrative precepts but until the West changes its approach, Yemen, its isolated mountains and proud people, will remain an untreatable issue.

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