Potential Hot Spots: Yemen's Fragile Peace and Unity

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April 19, 2006: Yemen always appears to be living on the edge of civil war. This is not an idle threat. For most of the last fifty years, Yemen was in a state of civil war. The country has settled most of the disagreements, but one big dispute remains. This involves radial Shia tribes in northern Yemen. Two years ago, a radical cleric who led rebellious Shia tribesmen, Hussein Badr Eddin al Hawthi, was killed in a clash with police. That quieted things down for a bit, but on April 15th, a group of al Hawthi loyalists tried to take over a major Shia mosque in the north. Four of the rebels were killed by police guarding the mosque, and another three were wounded.

Decades of fighting civil wars has led Yemeni leaders to find less destructive ways to keep the peace. The discovery of oil was delayed, by all the civil strife, until the 1980s. After the two Yemens were re united in 1990, oil production began in earnest. But output has been modest, currently producing sales of about $8 billion a year. But that has been enough to buy peace with many of the factions. For those who won't accept a modest bribe, there is lots of armed force. The government has been buying lots of weapons of late. This year, nearly $900 million is being spent on arms. The government is buying quantity, not quality, getting most of its stuff from Russia, China and North Korea.

The country is awash with weapons, and you can go anywhere in the country and see armed men. Actually, even off the coast, passing ships have been alarmed at the site of speedboats full of armed Yemenis. Recently, an American yacht sent off an SOS when it spotted a boat load of Yemenis with weapons. This proved to be a false alarm, but the weapons were real.

What is most worrisome about the situation is the potential for Yemen's stormy past returning. The tribal and religious tensions are still there. More weapons are there. More oil wealth is there. The government pushes the idea of continued peace, economic development and everyone just getting along. It's uncertain how long this will last.

 

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