Yemen’s Spaces of Disorder

Yemen’s Spaces of Disorder

The “formal” departure of Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen’s political arena in February, after more than three decades as president, did not bring an end to the country’s dangerous unrest. To the contrary, the weak central government in Sanaa has been weakened further; the military remains divided; entrepreneurs of violence have expanded their geographical influence; sectarianism has taken a violent turn; the shortage of public goods and law and order has become severe; and the country is atop this year’s Forbes list of the “World’s Worst Economies.” In Washington, Riyadh and Brussels, fears are high that the current political and security decay could make the threat of transnational terrorism emanating from Yemen grow even more pronounced.

For many years before the Arab Spring arrived in Yemen in early 2011, analysts had repeatedly warned of the potential for the country to become another Afghanistan or Somalia. The scenario of a collapsed state on the doorstep of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and along the northern shore of the strategic Gulf of Aden, through which more than 22,000 merchant vessels pass each year, sent a wave of alarm through Western capitals. Europe in particular is heavily dependent on the cargoes that transit this vital maritime trade route, with nearly $1 trillion of trade to and from Europe traveling through the Gulf of Aden each year. At the narrowest point of the gulf, Yemen is just 100 miles away from Somalia -- about the same distance between Miami and Cuba. If Yemen falls apart, it would mean collapsed states on both sides of the intersection of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and the resulting chaos would likely exacerbate and extend the turbulence already generated by Somalia’s collapse.

And yet, the instability currently gripping Yemen already extends beyond its borders. Security and media reports have long placed Yemen in the arc of suspected breeding sites of terrorism that stretches from the Sahel and Horn of Africa into the Middle East and Southeast Asia. According to these reports, Yemen’s “ungoverned” and undergoverned spaces provide sanctuary for terrorist networks with transnational reach. It is often highlighted that Yemen’s conservative tribal culture, state weakness, plentiful access to weapons, large recruiting pool of frustrated unemployed young men and geographical proximity to Western interests make the country the ideal base for al-Qaida to wage a “holy war” against the “crusaders” and their allies in the region.

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