The voices calling for Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to leave office are growing ever louder. So are Western fears that an overhaul of Yemeni politics could provide an opportunity for extremist groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which are already present in the country, to recruit, train and plan attacks overseas.
But a popular government in a post-Saleh Yemen, one which understands and addresses issues that are the sources of discontent for the people, may remove the extremist threat, according to an expert.
“If you can deny AQAP the root causes of social, economic and political discontent, which it draws on, then it could become quite irrelevant,” says Kristian Ulrichsen (pictured below), an expert on Arab politics and the Gulf countries at the London School of Economics.
That would be if a “genuinely popular government with legitimacy” could replace Saleh’s regime.
“If Saleh was to be seen to be hanging on to power only because he was an American puppet, that could provide exactly the kind of justification for carrying out attacks by AQAP, which could say ‘we’re defending our territory against Americans,” he says.
One of the “dynamite” revelations of the whistle blowing website WikiLeaks was the account of a meeting between Saleh and US military commanders, in which the Yemeni president commented on the drone attacks and said: “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
AQAP and other extremist groups have made “alliances of convenience” with tribes who also are against the government. When drone attacks go wrong and kill members of the tribes, it gives rise to a “blood feud” against the Yemeni government, according to Mr. Ulrichsen.
“This plays into a narrative in which AQAP can say ‘we were under attack by the US using Saleh as a proxy’.”
GDP per capita in 2010 barely reached 1,800 euros ($2,600) and a 2003 report put unemployment at 35 per cent, according to the CIA World Factbook.
WHAT YEMENIS WANT
The protests in Yemen, like other countries in the Middle East, for instance Tunisia and Egypt, represent the demands of the people, which are social, economic and political, and not religious. They are not inspired by AQAP, Ulrichsen says.
“Yemenis want democracy, freedom and jobs,” according to Haley Sweetland Edwards, a freelance journalist who was deported from Yemen last week, adding that “people’s demands are similar to those in other parts of the Middle East.”
Neither the people on the street, the politicians nor the opposition figures believe what the president says, including the pledge to step down, she said in a telephone interview from Tbilisi, Georgia.
READ MORE: Staying power of Yemen’s Saleh.
The same is reflected by Ulrichsen. “I don’t trust anything that Saleh says. It’s an attempt to buy time. Saleh’s record is such that people won’t believe he will really step down by the end of the year, as he has promised the same in the past but broken it,” he said.
COUNTRY OF PROBLEMS
Yemen is the country with the “most problems” in the Middle East according to Ulrichsen, but he points out that it has the advantage of having “political parties being organised”, something countries like Egypt lacked. “They have political parties in a way that Kuwait or Bahrain don’t.”
The country is expecting even more problems in the future. It’s projected that it will run out of oil in 2017 and will become an importer. That means dwindling levels of revenue will vanish. The country is also running out of water.
Yemen is spread over half a million square kilometres, with a 1,460 km border with Saudi Arabia, and a 290 km boundary with Oman. It also borders the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. The country’s population is 24 million, according to an estimate by the CIA World Factbook, with a literacy rate of 50 per cent.
According to 2006 estimates Yemen spent 6.6 per cent of its GDP on military expenditure, while only 5.2 per cent goes to education (2008 estimate).
“Transition from Saleh will happen in days or weeks rather than months or years,” says Ulrichsen, noting that people closest to Saleh are “jumping ship one by one.” The question is whether Saleh “will fight to stay in power, like Ghaddafi, or if he can.”
By Ali Sheikholeslami
Photo by Armindokht Shooshtari