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Yemen on edge

Published:Thursday | January 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

In response to an alleged threat from al-Qaida, the British and American embassies in Yemen closed briefly this week. Yemen's government then complained that both governments were being alarmist, because it has the threat of al-Qaida under control.

Maybe so, but anxiety about Yemen is not confined to Western capitals. Throughout the Middle East, Yemen's rising instability is being watched anxiously. Some see it as a serious threat to regional stability. Others regard it as an opportunity.

At the best of times, Yemen would be a fragile state. Water-scarce, poor, with little industry and a dearth of natural resources, it is a country struggling to provide services to its rapidly-growing population. Its oil is running out, and the fall in prices from last year's peak has further weakened the economy.

In such circumstances, rebel and secessionist movements are common outcomes, as regional elites seek to gain greater control over a diminishing resource base. Indeed, civil conflict has been a repeated feature of Yemen's modern history.

Secessionist war

One battle stands out prominently at the moment, though. That is the secessionist war by Shi'a rebels in the north of the country, who are channelling resentment at what they see as neglect by a Sunni government. Yet what has brought the world's attention to an otherwise local affair is that both parties to the conflict have sought to internationalise it. In this, they have found willing - possibly even vulnerable - partners abroad.

The government has sought to situate the conflict in the global war on terror, arguing that the rebels want to create a theocracy. Moreover, given the further weakening of the government, there is some evidence that al-Qaida elements are moving into Yemen just as they once did in Afghanistan, able as they are to find relative security in a vacuum.

A recent incursion by the rebels into Saudi Arabia seems to provide support for this portrayal of the rebellion as a front line against global terrorism. It is worth remembering that, for all its hatred of the West, the real jewel in al-Qaida's long-sought crown is Saudi Arabia - the birthplace of Islam. Moreover, Saudi counter-terrorism measures are said to be pushing al-Qaida elements into Yemen, shifting the conflict's frontline.

But the rebels may also be trying to internationalise the conflict. By provoking a retaliatory response from Saudi Arabia, they can frame their conflict in a Sunni-Shi'a logi, and thereby draw Iran - the region's major Shi'a power - into the fray.

Certainly, while its access to Yemen is limited, Iran has its own interest in getting involved. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the principal polarity in the Middle East is arguably that between a Shi'a, anti-American Iran and a Sunni, pro-American (if reluctantly so) Saudi Arabia. Anything that weakens Saudi Arabia will thus serve Iran's interests. There are reports that suggest that Iran may indeed have a hand in supporting the rebels.

Al-Qaida's own relationship with Iran is not particularly easy. Its Sunni fundamentalism looks down upon Iran's Shi'ism. The group's interest in Yemen rather seems purely opportunistic: to the extent that the rebellion is weakening the government's hold over the country, safe areas in which al-Qaida can operate freely, multiply. The danger this poses to al-Qaida's enemies was vividly illustrated by the recent failed attempt by one of its apparent operatives to blow up an airplane over Detroit.

Yemen's government insists it remains in control. As if to make the point, it arrested three alleged al-Qaida suspects this week. Whether that does anything to reassure the country's Western backers remains to be seen.

John Rapley is president of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), an independent research think tank affiliated with the University of the West Indies, Mona. Feedback may be sent to