Mai Nguyen-Phuong-Mai
Last updated: 23 March, 2016

Yemen is a forgotten Syria

Yemen is open for all. A tragedy which makes no headline.

As you are reading this article, Yemen is in a state of despair. Five years after the Arab Spring, the country has gone from an impressive revolution to a leaderless state. When the new President, who had been elected in 2012, failed to create consensus among the country’s many fractions, the Houthi militants in North Yemen transformed from a separatist group into a fierce force of rebellion, advancing towards the south, forcing President Hadi out of office, and consolidating power while the President had to live in exile. As the Sunni Saudi Arabia has never been comfortable with the Shia Houthis right next to their border, a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen to defend the chased-off President. More than 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict within one year, half of them civilians. Everyday, 8 children die as the world looks on. Yet, Yemen rarely makes the front news. A Yemeni girl brutally pointed out: “We have little oil, we are the poorest country in the Middle East, and the bully is Saudi – an ally of the West. So, here we are dying, and nobody bats an eye”.   


Back in 2012, although the dictator was overthrown, fear still lingered. Like a patient after a painful operation, Yemen laid bare before eyes. Every inch of its body was vibrating in a rhythm both hopeful and nervous. Victory was in the air but reality worried even the most optimistic soul. And up until this moment, it hasn’t gotten any better.

It is poverty, to start with. Long gone was the time when ancient Yemen was so wealthy from the spice trade that the Romans called the land Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia). Yemen is now the most impoverished country among the Arabs: Half of the population is trapped below the poverty line. The ongoing violence and blockage have resulted in a humanitarian crisis with 80% of the population in need of assistance, more than half the population are food insecure, and millions of children have been deprived of education. 

The fact that Yemen has an average of 6.2 births per family is not helping either. Some even consider family planning methods such as contraception as the devil’s work, secretly meant to wipe out future generations. Being an extremely conservative country, just a tad below Saudi Arabia, 14% of Yemeni girls are married before the age of 15, and 52% before the age of 18. Nearly 65% of Yemeni women are illiterate. Conservative interpretations of Yemen’s revised constitution, which calls women “sisters of men”, set the tone for gender discrimination. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ranked Yemen’s disparities among the world’s worst positions in education, health, and economic and political life.


The current war aside, the situation has worsened by a staggering rate of unemployment with 60-70% of Yemen’s youth wandering around without a paid job. With 70% of the population under 25, the country is a ticking time bomb. Another gloomy day is also waiting just down the road when the oil reserves that Yemen is so heavily dependent on will be depleted in 2017, and Yemen will be the world’s first country to run out of water in the next decade.

The list continues with a protracted Syrian conflict that has brought about 100.000 Syrian refugees to Yemen, adding to the swelling population of 2 million refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. In a country teeming with poverty and conflict, they seem to be “jumping out of the frying pan into the fire”. Since the Arab coalition launched air strikes in March 2015, Syrian refugees have been back to square one, being catapulted into the same type of conflict they were fleeing.

However, what really makes Yemen vulnerable is how the country has always been a battlefield for proxy war between regional powers. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has been casting a shadow over Yemen for decades. A report of NOREF summarizes the troublesome relationship between Yemen and its northern neighbor:

“Keep Yemen weak”, King ‘Abd al-’Aziz allegedly advised his sons on his deathbed in 1953. Saudi Arabia’s founding father had fought against Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din for control of Yemen’s Northern provinces, which eventually became part of Saudi Arabia after a war in 1934. The imam was forced to sign the Ta’if Treaty, which meant that the Yemeni provinces Asir, Jizan and Najran became part of Saudi Arabia. However, the treaty contained an unusual clause: it had to be renewed every 20 years… Until the border dispute was solved permanently in 2000, Riyadh preferred a weak regime in Sanaa in order to secure the upper hand in the renegotiations of the Taif Treaty.

Saudi Arabia opposed the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, and when the country united, Saudi funded insurgent groups. Many tribes remained on Saudi payroll. Long before the revolution, Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative brand of Wahhabism already flourished in the birthplace and heartlands of Shia’s Zaydi. Religion aside, Saudi is always concerned about its unruly neighbors who at any given time can claim the historical right to regain land that is said to have been “sold” to the powerful Saudi royals in rather shady circumstances. Those lands turned out to hide in their bellies vast reserves of oil. Saudi can single handedly influence the Yemeni economy just by a simple move on the policies of labor import which will expel thousands of Yemeni guest workers and deal a big blow to the ailing economy. In his book After the Arab Spring, John Bradley pointed out that it is in Saudi’s interest to have Yemen kept in a state of semi-poverty, “not too strong, not too weak”, a barely functioning state with relatively strong central government. This way, Yemen stays pro-West, remains a safe oil transfer route, easy to manipulate, and poses no threat to the Kingdom next door.

It’s a cunning political game, and also a dangerous one to play. The current Saudi-led attack on Yemen proves that this country is not an easy prey. Historically, Yemen was ruled by successive Imams from the Zaydi (Shia) sect for over 1,000 years, up until 1962 when Nasser-inspired military officers led a coup in an attempt to overthrow the Zaydis and establish a republic. The Imam was eventually toppled, despite the support of Saudi, who ironically backed the Shia Imam since it didn’t want Yemen to be a republic. In a twist of history, the very Shia militias who Saudi pumped arms and money into now form the backbone of the Houthi Shia rebels Saudi Arabia is desperate to quash. If this sounds familiar, it is because it reminds us of how the U.S. used to support the mujahidin in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet Union, and soon after found out that the very same rebels later became Al Qaeda. Making strange bedfellows based on the wisdom of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” can backfire quite painfully it seems. 

Yemen has a special make-up where the Shia and Sunni populations are divided loosely half-half. This sectarian line naturally draws Saudi and Iran to compete in their never-ending battle for influence. Although never engaging in a face-off directly, they seek to exploit the turmoil in countries with Shia-Sunni split such as Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen to further their geological reach. It is conventional knowledge that while Saudi bombs the Shia Houthis, Iran arms them. For the last two years, Iran has even been working with the Sunni Hirak movement in southern Yemen and militarily supporting it in its calls for independence of a Southern state. If Yemen is divided again and the independent South becomes Iran’s ally, Iran will be in complete control of Bab al-Mandab and the Straight of Hormuz, which serve as main chokepoints for global oil shipping, access to the Red Sea and the Suez Channel, which are chokeholds on the global economy– all in all, quite the compensation in case Syria falls.


Saudi Arabia certainly wants to blame Iran as the aggressor for supporting the Shia Houthis. However, despite the sectarian tone, the conflict is unmistakably a national power struggle. The Houthis have long been voicing their grievances as they suffer the socio-economic marginalization and political oppression by the Sunni government, exacerbated by the strong influx of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi propaganda. Saudi Arabia may want to make the world think that it is saving a country from rebel attack, but in fact, it is capitalizing on Yemen’s internal conflict to maintain its grip of influence. This is first and foremost a Yemeni civil war, in which Saudi and other Gulf states have chosen to dramatically intervene.

Last but not least, being the ancestor land of Bin Laden, Yemen not only gives him a wife but has also become a training camp for Al-Qaeda. Since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1989, Islamist radicals have awarded Yemen a special status due to its miserable poverty, extreme tribal makeup, lack of central authority, uncontrollable arm markets, and the location of a crucial route for oil transfer. The government is fully aware of this danger, but officials admit that the security apparatus has been infiltrated, not so much for ideological reasons but because their low salaries make members of the security apparatus vulnerable to bribery.

In the current war, Al-Qaeda has been benefiting from the chaos and gaining control of three provincial capitals, robbing banks, capturing army camps, tanks, airfields, a presidential palace, oil facilities and flying their black banners on governmental buildings. They also released 300 inmates from the prison, including top Al-Qaeda commanders. 


On the night of election day back in 2012, I cruised voting points in Sanaa with a senior Yemeni politician. It was clear that he was known and powerful. Through his connections, I had a rare chance to talk in privacy with Yemen’s former Prime Minister Abdul Karim Ali Al-Iryani, the UN envoy of negotiation, Jamal Bin Omar, and the Minister of Finance, Jalal Omar Yaqoub. I knew that he was very close to Saleh and that he himself was badly injured during Saleh’s failed assassination in 2011 as he was standing near the former President. He showed me the massive burns on his shoulder and belly. But instead of his wound, I was instantly captured by a short gun tucked neatly under his shirt.

As we came back to his house to have a drink with some friends while waiting for news of the election, he emerged from the bar, one hand holding a glass of wine and the other a Russian Kalashnikov. As I reached for the wine, he handed me the rifle instead and half jokingly asked if I knew how to use one: “Just in case! The election has been quite peaceful but I have received death threats so many times that I’d better be prepared”.

Photo: The rifle I was offered for self-safety stands next to me during my visit on the day of the election.

Obviously, I was not the only one who had to deal with the cultural shock brought by the massive amount of weapons carried by civilians. Some 30 kilometers southeast of Sanaa, Jihana is renowned as Yemen’s biggest arm market. In the village, weapons are displayed in much the same way as apples on a fruit stall. It does not take much time to arm oneself to the teeth with sniper rifles, Libyan black rifles, pistols, AK47s, M16s, glocks, bazookas, tank artillery, anti-aircraft guns, and nearly anything except the actual tanks and aircrafts. My friends generously promised to buy me a Chinese Kalashnikov for just a few hundred dollars. I politely refused the favor. With the current conflict, arm markets have become ever more popular and the gun culture has dangerously fueled the civil war.

In Yemen, it is estimated that there are 60 million firearms for a population of 25 million. Children and women apart, each adult Yemeni man stocks at home and tucks around his belt up to 10 pieces of weaponry, and that is excluding the ornamental dagger (jambiyas) that is an essential part of the traditional Yemeni outfit. Political science professor Ahmed al-Kibsi has said: “Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun”.

For the Yemeni, guns have joined daggers as markers of social status and prestige. They are not merely instruments of hunting, defense and attack, but symbols of status, power, manhood, responsibility, wealth and honor, and, to a certain extent, similar to the wearing of swords in Europe. Many fathers would rush to the weapon market and proudly bring home a gun for his newborn son. A boy will remain a boy until he gets his first weapon. It is then quite understandable that children here sneer at the plastic made-in-China gun toys. In a mountain area near Sanaa, at the sight of my approach, two boys jumped and fired their AK47 into the sky. I was speechless, but immediately assured by my friends that the boys were just excited to see the return of the first tourists, very much the same as when men punctuated weddings and all sorts of celebrations with joyous outbursts of automatic gunfire in the air. As we passed by, the boys broadly smiled at me and excitedly waved their hands with two fingers forming a V – victory and peace. Unfortunately, the ongoing civil war has pushed many boys like them to the frontlines. A UNICEF representative in Yemen said that one-third of fighters in the armed groups are children.


The Kalashnikov culture started when the rival colonial forces of the Ottoman and British empires brought a large quantity of weapons to Yemen. When the British left and southern Yemen embraced communism, the Cold War resulted in a proxy war in Yemen with large numbers of weapons entering both the north (the US and Saudi Arabia) and south (the Soviet Union). When the country was unified in 1994, most of the stockpiles of Soviet small arms disappeared into the hand of civilians. Yemen remains a battle field for another proxy war between the US and Iran, with the former investing heavily in Yemeni military to wipe out Al-Qaeda, and the latter allegedly funding Sunni separatists in the south, this time not because they share religious ideologies but a shared interest in the vision of an independent Southern state.

Understandably, Yemen is often perceived as a culture of unrest and fear. However, the Yemeni deem themselves fortunate to be able to arm and protect themselves from a corrupted government and the very brutal ongoing conflict. Under any dictatorship, a civilian is at risk of being taken away by the government’s security forces but this is not the case in Yemen. Each household is loaded with weapons and even a child can pull the trigger. A report conducted in 2013 by the Yemen Polling Center shows that although Yemenis perceive the state’s security establishment as notoriously ineffective, doused with criminal activities if not virtually absent, 48% of respondents throughout the country feel “always safe,” while 28% feel “mostly safe”. In the Northern governorate of Saada, the center of the Houthis, close to 80% of respondents evaluated their personal security situation as either “good” or “very good” while 100% of respondents indicated that there was not a single police station in the Saada governorate.

The reason for this phenomenon, according to the report, is that Yemenis’ perception of the security situation obviously does not correspond with the Western perception of a failed state:

People throughout Yemen perceive tribal social structures as a largely efficient provider of personal security. The unwritten rules of tribal society (qabyala) envelope mechanisms of informal litigation and strengthen the role of tribal elders (shaykhs) and local committees for conflict resolution and prevention. People feel safe whenever the traditional social fabrics of Yemeni society remain intact, despite serious conflicts that may arise between their community and the central government. . . For protection, while 41% would rely on themselves, 22% mentioned police and the same percentage resorted to tribal shaykhs.

The stark contrast between the stereotypically violent portrayals of Yemeni tribal people can also be seen through a matter that is commonly associated with violence: kidnapping. Adam Baron described in an article how civil a kidnapping’s negotiation process actually was between the representatives of the kidnapper and the victim’s family. The mediator organized daily meetings in a decorated sitting room that looks exactly like any regular social gathering to chew qat – the leafy narcotic typically functions as a social lubricant in Yemen. The men discussed politics as well as the kidnap’s solutions in an atmosphere of mutual respect, of course with rifles always held at their sides as status symbols. Meanwhile, the hostage had been held for nearly two months. There were no fears regarding his treatment – he was being treated as an honored guest, anything less would bring shame to the kidnapper’s tribe.

Baron concluded that for centuries – if not millennia – tribal custom, more than religious or governmental law, has been the foundation of order in much of Yemen. In the absence of a strong state, most rural Yemenis place greater trust in tribal forms of arbitration than in the governmental version. Looking at the bright side, we can only hope that this code of honor and tribal law have somehow helped the civilians to bear the brunt of the complete anarchy of the current civil war.


Many journalists in Yemen in 2012 would kill to have the luck that fell into my hands just one day after the election. In a casual private gathering, I had the honor to meet Jamal Bin Omar – the UN envoy who orchestrated the negotiation process in Yemen. Omar’s mission started when the whole country was on the verge of being capitulated altogether after three decades of economic and social mismanagement. The government had three insurgencies to deal with plus a mass protest on the streets. The only solution was an initiative brokered by the Gulf to grant Saleh a safe exit in exchange for giving up power, but three times in a row, Saleh agreed and then refused to sign at last minute. Two thousand people had died in the conflict. That was the situation when Omar stepped in. He admitted that the whole negotiation process was exhausted; his secretary said it felt hopeless. The mosque near to where he stayed even called on his name the whole night in a desperate prayer for the success of his effort to bring the madness to an end. I wondered if Omar could sleep at all. I did ask and he just smiled.

Then somehow, madness was brought to an end in a way that surprised even the most optimistic person. In our talk, Omar was particularly impressed about the genuine desire for peace from the Yemeni people. Back in 2012, it was the first and the only transition of power so far in which the dictator was patiently persuaded to peacefully withdraw from office with a mutual agreement. Extremely lethal weaponry was laid down and Yemeni protesters wrapped a pink ribbon around their heads and over their shoulders. Pink represents “love”: it was a signal of peaceful intent. “There must be something very special in the make-up of the people here,” Omar’s secretary Cathy explained to me. “They may scare the hell out of you with the loads of weapon they carry around, but they genuinely just want peace!”


Unfortunately, that optimism failed to match the reality. The end of Saleh’s dictatorship was like a happy fairytale ending as he was given a full amnesty. All crimes he committed were dropped. Plus, a museum was dedicated to document his 33 years in power, located in a wing of a mosque named in his honor where he was respectably addressed as “His Excellency the leader”. However, this strategy failed miserably. Saleh refused to leave politics, and in the current conflict, he sides with the Houthis.

All in all, after the revolution, Yemen is now even more uncertain and vulnerable than it has ever been. Together with poverty and refugees, three military forces (the Shia Houthis, the government, and Al-Qaeda) tear the country apart. Besides, regional powers keep pressing their teeth deep into its shrinking oil fields. Yemen in transition is open for all, a prey chased by its multiple predators and its own multiple diseases – a tragedy which makes no headline.