Yemen: Persistent Problems


July 18, 2014: While the continuing violence grabs most of the headlines what concerns most Yemenis is poverty and starvation. Most of the population is very poor and 40 percent are hungry and dependent on food handouts from the government or foreign aid organizations. This is all a side effect of the oil boom to the north (especially in Saudi Arabia). Over the last fifty years the population has quadrupled because of all the additional cash and jobs spilling over into Yemen from the wealthy Arab oil states. But Yemen has little oil, few other sources of income and too many people for the available food supply. Poverty and hunger are behind all the other problems Yemen has with lawlessness, Islamic terrorism and unstable government.

A major malignant side effect of the oil wealth has been the skyrocketing demand for the leaves of the Khat plant. This destroyed the economy and fueled growing violence in Yemen along with causing a devastating water shortage. Most of the water consumed is used for growing Khat, which only contributes a few percent of the GDP. Khat is a plant that has grown in Yemen for thousands of years. Khat leaves when chewed give you more of a buzz than caffeine or nicotine, but less than stronger drugs. It is addictive and until the 1950s was grown by farmers for their own personal use as a stimulant. Khat was used like that long before anyone figured out how to use coffee beans to produce a stimulating liquid. One thing that kept Khat local was the fact that the leaves quickly lose (a few days after being picked) their potency. In other words, Khat did not travel well while coffee beans and tea leaves did. That all changed after World War II when roads, trucks and air transport became widely available. Suddenly Khat had an international market for those who could afford to pay and had a taste for it.

Yemen was the one Khat growing area that was close to affluent Khat consumers; namely people in the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf. The other area where Khat grew easily was Ethiopia, which was deep in Africa surrounded by poverty and far from anyone able to pay for Khat. Yemen was the only Arabian state without a lot of oil but with the largest population. Khat was suddenly a way to make a lot of money.

Despite the fact that many nations (including most of those in the Middle East) outlawed Khat (because of its unfortunate side effects, especially the addiction) the stuff was very popular with those who grew up with it. This included many people in Yemen. With all that oil wealth came a demand in the Arab oil states for workers. The pay was good and Arabs were preferred. This led to millions of Yemenis going off to the Arab Gulf States to work. Some got rich and nearly all sent money home. So much money was being sent back that by the end of the 20th century such remittances comprised over a quarter of the Yemeni GDP. That began to shrink after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and threatened Saudi Arabia. Many Yemenis backed Iraq and Islamic terrorism and the Arab oil states took this as an unfriendly act and fired a lot of their Yemeni employees. It did not go unnoticed that the bin Laden family came from Yemen and made their fortune in Saudi Arabia. These days the remittances are less than four percent of GDP. But before the collapse in remittance income during the last two decades many Yemenis developed a taste for Khat, and so had many Saudis, even though Khat was illegal in Saudi Arabia. Thus the demand for Khat increased, but mainly for export.

Khat has created another problem; the importation of powerful and often forbidden insecticides, to facilitate the growing of more Khat. Since the Khat leaves are chewed, using too much, or too poisonous (to humans) insecticide makes the users sick. Many Khat growers are more concerned with producing more Khat than they are in keeping their customers healthy. The Yemeni government is struggling to keep illegal insecticides out of the country, if only to prevent Yemeni Khat users from getting sick. Just as Colombia and Afghanistan were thrown into chaos by major drug gangs (producing cocaine and heroin, respectively) Yemen is being brought low by Khat. It is all low key and generally off the mass media radar, but it is very real.

July 16, 2014: In central Yemen (Baida province) a drive by shooting at a police base left two policemen dead and one wounded. The two vehicles sped away before return fire could do much damage. The attackers were believed to be al Qaeda, which has long been active in the province.

July 14, 2014: North of the capital Shia tribal rebels battled pro-government tribesmen over the weekend. There were over a hundred casualties and at least 35 dead. The rebels were trying to seize a hill overlooking the main airport but were blocked by the Sunni tribesmen.

July 12, 2014: President Hadi fired two generals responsible for many of the recent military defeats. General Makdishi, who commanded forces in the city of Amran (50 kilometers north of the capital) was dismissed because Shia rebels had briefly taken control of Amran. Also fired was general Somali, who commanded forces in the southeastern province of Hadramout. Troops down there have been having a difficult time dealing with increased Islamic terrorist activity so the government is seeing if a new commander will make a difference. The situation in Hadramout is particularly serious because it appears al Qaeda is concentrating there and attempting to rebuild. After several army offensives against Islamic terrorists since 2012 the Islamic terrorists are much weaker and many of the southern tribes are no longer willing to host the Islamic terrorists, especially since so many of them are foreigners. The tribes in Hadramout are less bothered by that and very angry at the government. So this year many of the foreign Islamic terrorists coming to Yemen have headed for Hadramout to support the growing terrorist violence there.

July 11, 2014: For the first time since May irate tribesmen bombed the pipeline to the Red Sea, halting the flow of 100,000 barrels of oil a day. This is the source of much needed income for the government. Normally Yemen produces 270,000 barrels of oil a day and most of it is exported (accounting, with natural gas, 90 percent of export income). The 320 kilometer long pipeline extends from oil fields in Marib province to the Red Sea export terminal. Such attacks cost the government a billion dollars in lost revenue in 2013. Tribesmen loyal to deposed president Saleh are often blamed. President Hadi caused some bad feeling in Marib when he cut cash payments going to pro-Saleh tribal leaders and instead gave it to those he trusted more. The tribesmen who lost out responded in the traditional way, by attacking the assets of those they saw as responsible; namely the oil fields and pipelines. AQAP has been popular in Marib because the Islamic terrorists will hire local tribesmen and promise a larger share of gas and oil income for the local tribes once AQAP takes control of the country. 

Shia rebels agreed to withdraw from the city of Amran, to avoid the losses they would incur dealing with an army counterattack. The army was bringing forces to the city outskirts and preparing to fight their way in.

July 10, 2014: Because oil revenue was down more than a third so far this year the government announced a number of economy measures including a hiring freeze and cuts in non-payroll expenses (travel, fuel and supplies in general). The money is just not there. Foreign aid donors are pressuring the government cut oil and electricity subsidies which consume 30 percent of government income.

July 8, 2014: Shia rebels seized control of the city of Amran (population 120,000) north of the capital. The army garrison panicked and fled. Over a quarter of the population fled as well and local Sunni tribal militias came and fought the Shia gunmen in the city. In the next few days over a hundred died because of this violence. The government revealed that so far this month it believed 290 had died in the north (50 soldiers and 240 Shia tribesmen). In addition at least fifty civilians have died.

July 7, 2014: In the south (Abyan province) Islamic terrorists ambushed an army vehicle, killing two soldiers and then fleeing taking at least one casualty of their own with them.

July 6, 2014: In the north Shia and Sunni tribesmen clashed leaving at least 35 dead.

July 5, 2014: Air force aircraft bombed Shia rebels north of the capital.

July 4, 2014: In the north Shia rebels accuse the army of breaking the June 23rd truce by advancing. The Shia rebels fired on the soldiers.

In the southeastern province of Hadramout a drive by shooting left a senior air force officer dead.

On the Saudi border a suicide car bomb went off at the Yemeni checkpoint, killing the driver and a Yemeni soldier. Then two other cars driven by Islamic terrorists sped towards the Saudi checkpoint, killed four Saudi border guards and fled the area. The Saudis eventually caught up with these. In the end five of the six attackers died and one was captured. All were wanted by the Saudis for Islamic terrorism and trying to get back into Saudi Arabia to carry out attacks.

July 3, 2014: In central Yemen (Baida province) Islamic terrorists attacked a government compound. Two attackers were killed and three soldiers wounded. The surviving attackers fled.

In the last two days tribal feuds (over land or religion) left at least 29 dead during three separate incidents. 

July 2, 2014: The government revealed that during the first six months of the year 374 soldiers and police died fighting Islamic terrorists (and tribesmen allied with them) in the south and Shia rebels in the north. During the same period 17 intelligence officers were assassinated in the south, in a deliberate al Qaeda effort to cripple government information gathering efforts. Over 500 Islamic terrorists, tribal rebels and civilians also died.

June 29, 2014: Saudi Arabia is pressuring the Yemen government to do something about the illegal arms trade. Yemen has long been the largest source of illegal weapons in the region. Yemeni governments have long tolerated it as long as the dealers paid officials well and provided information on who was buying what. Nevertheless the arms trade has been the source of so many deaths in Yemen because the population is heavily armed. Nearly every household, and adult male, has a firearm. The Saudis are also heavily armed but the government their keeps better track of civilian firearms and is concerned with the growing efforts by Yemeni smugglers to bring unregistered weapons into Saudi Arabia. These are meant for criminals and Islamic terrorists. The Saudis had recently seized over 300 illegal pistols from smugglers and the smugglers are often heavily armed and willing to shoot it out with border police. Yemeni officials tend to say they will deal with the issue but never do.

June 28, 2014: In the southeastern province of Hadramout Islamic terrorist violence in the last three days has left 21 dead. Most of the casualties were civilians and Islamic terrorists.  

June 27, 2014: North of the capital there were clashes between soldiers and Shia rebels, in violation of the June 23rd ceasefire agreement.

June 25, 2014: In the capital a senior intelligence officers was assassinated in a drive by shooting. North of the capital 17 civilians died when fighting between soldiers and Shia rebels led to an artillery shell hitting a multistory building and causing the structure to collapse on the people inside.

June 23, 2014: In the north the government and Shia rebels agreed to a ceasefire.

June 22, 2014: North of the capital 17 policemen were wounded when their vehicles were ambushed by Shia rebels.





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