Yemen: The Most Dangerous Place You Never Heard Of
History had been good to Yemen, all things considered. Strategically located on the ancient spice routes, known to the Romans as "Arabia Felix" the area around the Port of Aden was a heavy conduit of spice and trade for the empire. Aden remained wealthy and strategic right through the British Empire, which considered the Yemeni port one of its most important outposts. Stanley, Livingston, and a host of others launched the exploration of Africa from Aden, and a small but vibrant British community still resides there amongst the descendents of Romans, Ottomans, and Egyptians.
Like so many other Gulf nations today, Yemen was never any more than a port along the way; an expanse of land that had to be traversed or sailed around to get to anywhere that mattered. And like so many other Gulf nations today, all that changed with the western discovery of oil. For most, it was a bonanza of historic proportions but for Yemen...not so much.
It's not that Yemen doesn't have oil, it does. It's just that it has so little relative to its Arabian neighbours. While Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and the UAE all have reserves measured in the trillions of barrels, Yemen - right there in the middle of it all - only has less than 4 billion. And falling. Yemen will be the first oil economy in history to pump itself dry of oil, and it will do so sometime around 2017. It could only be more catastrophic if the government of Yemen relied on oil revenues for 75% of its income, and had absolutely no plan to deal with the impending juggernaut. Which it does, and does not.
Nobody knows what will happen when an oil-producing member of the global economy in the middle of the Middle East implodes into worthlessness, but in Yemen, we are going to find out.
It can always be worse and in Yemen, it always is. Yemen, the crusty shore of a merciless desert, is running out of fresh water. The first state in modern history to do so. Yemen is depleting its fresh water supplies at the rate of 400 times replacement. Ninety percent of the population will be without reliable drinking water in ten years; the countries heavily irrigated and terraced agricultural areas gone within a generation.
Apart from the usual civil vices of corruption, bad planning and inefficiency, Yemen's water nightmare is driven principally by an economically irrational love of procreation - Yemen has an astonishing, region leading birth rate and population explosion. While Muslim cultures typically enjoy birth rates far in excess of those in the west, Yemen is an industry leader with a rate of over 6 children per family, or 42 per 1000 people. In Saudi Arabia it's closer to 30, and in Europe, about 10.
Yemen's population doubled in only 20 years to 24 million, and is expected to double again in far less time than that, adding in excess of half a million thirsty, hungry people every single year. 60 million by 2030. For reasons that escape understanding, Yemen has met this challenge by modernizing its water pumping and distribution systems to expand agricultural irrigation...for qat.
Qat production currently enjoys the favour of over 30% of fresh water supplies annually, the government banning imports as qat remains Yemen's leading cash crop. In the west, qat is a narcotic, pulled from plants as berries and chewed in a disgusting, chewing tobacco kind of way. In the impoverished nations of the southern hemispheres however, qat is the "cigarette" of choice for common people, casually grown and chewed for generations untold. A cultural icon, cheap and easy to micro produce, popular with vibrant markets, packed with an energetic high, and all subsidized by the Yemeni government with unlimited fresh water and protectionist trade policies. Nice work if you can get it.
Nobody knows what will happen when an oil-producing member of the global economy in the middle of the Middle East implodes into worthlessness, and then runs out of water but in Yemen, we are going to find out.
Yemen is just another of those luckless patches of desolation, randomly distributed about the earth's surface by pure cosmic chance. Like all these mortal hells, there is endemic corruption, inequality, war, poverty, atrocity, and broken economics. We call these "Failed States" now. And so, it is the fate of every failed state that they should become the concern of the outside world, and a playground for titanic ideology. They must be destroyed in order to save them. Yemen is the poster child.
From its inception when the British left in 1967, Yemen has had a Marxist flavour to its politics. Yemen was a client state of the old Soviet Union, which equipped and trained its military. To neighbouring Saudi Arabia on the northern border - with its oil-sized interest of the United States - an incompliant Yemen has always been a thorn in the side of the west. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yemen became bedazzled with offers of money from America. The IMF and World Bank stepped in and opened Yemen's economy to global free markets and democracy in exchange for bags full of dollars. Military aid poured in.
Unemployment rocketed through 40% as corrupt government officials scooped up the West's money. Forty five per cent of the population fell below the poverty line. Illiteracy never passed 50%. Worse, the Republican State Government auctioned off the scant oil and natural gas resources of the desolate nation to the highest western bidders, and routinely "appropriated" over 30% of the proceeds for themselves. They happily invested what they were told in modernizing the water extraction systems, and committed to building schools and institutions that no one would attend. They spent a Sheiks ransom on guns and made out like bandits. Exactly like bandits.
Needless to say, there is war and violent unrest in the Yemeni paradise. Go figure. In the oil rich south of Yemen, secessionist forces have battled the central government since the two Yemen's were conjoined in 1990. They are testy about how the new northern politicians are pumping their traditional land dry...and not properly sharing the rape. These southern Yemeni's also have close ties to Somalia, a short pirate cruise to the west across some of the world's busiest sea-lanes. Saudi Arabia has even accused Iran of supporting the insurgent movement.
The instability of Yemen's government threatens to become a quagmire of international geopolitical scope if all holy hell breaks out in those sea-lanes. However, this being Yemen, there is an even more explosive situation smouldering in the north on the Saudi Arabian border.
It can always be worse and in Yemen, it always is.
Before British technocrats lined it off and coloured it in, Arabia was a vast endless expanse; open regions of sand, coastline, and rock. It has existed for millennia as a tribal society of family hierarchies that recognized an ancient culture, and lived prosperously along its trade routes. This, more than any other place is the heartland of the Muslim faith. Islam is not a religion here; it is a way of life.
About half the current Yemeni population is Sunni, and is closely allied to the puritanical Wahhabi movement of Saudi Arabia. The other half is Shi'ite, is in the north, and is not the government. A ferocious military conflict has broken out between the Saudi backed Yemeni Sunni government, and a radical movement, the Zaidi sect of Shi'ism, led by the legendary Houthy family. Unlike the muddle headed Taliban of Afghanistan, these are exactly the kind of people who can get along with al Qaeda. In fact, so much so that al Qaeda has centralized African and Arabian operations there, in comfort and security. All dozen of them or so.
In the south of Saudi Arabia are large groups of Shi'ite Saudi's, all sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Houthies. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni state, so the Houthies attacked from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. The Saudi's counter attacked and established a buffer zone. Al Qaeda of Arabia tried to kill a Saudi prince, the Saudi's bombed the snot out of the Houthies, and al Qaeda equipped an unstable kid from Africa with explosive underwear to strike at Saudi's sponsor, America. America sent in the drones.
And so it goes.
Yemen is indeed a failed state. A failed state only in so much as Yemen, along with most of the Middle East, should never have been a state in the first place. Yemen is a land bereft of any sustainable economic value, save for the momentary breath of fate which delivered a short, sharp, shock of oil. On a planet of modern economics, Yemen's value is nothing more substantial than the strategic interest of others. Simply put, Yemen cannot sustain its human population, and that failure is growing in magnitude exponentially. Yemen is not a nest of Islamic terrorists; Yemen is a land of desperate and angry people who are victims of free markets and democracy. They are square pegs in a global world, increasingly hungry, tired, and poor.
And they are people.
Nothing can save Yemen. The only thing it has to sell to the world, its only "comparative advantage", is oil, and oil is leaving the building. With no further resources to deplete and sell too cheap to others, there is no longer any hope of manufacturing, exporting, and enjoying the capitalist fruits of value added enterprise. Yemen's comparative advantage is now poverty and hopelessness - the only thing it does better than any other nation in its trading region. By the inviolate law of human nature for survival, Yemen shall export desperate people to the world instead. We shall call them terrorists.
Unnoticed by anybody important, the earth is not sown equally with economic favour. Not all nations were created bountiful and deep. It should follow that institutions, culture, politics, and economics that work in harmony in one place do not necessarily transport well across the earth. If not because of the resistance of the people themselves, but also because the geography will simply not support it. Places where both the earth itself and the people upon it are not suited for free markets, globalization, and democracy are easy to spot if you simply take the time to look. They look like Yemen. And Africa, and Central Asia. And the entire Middle East when the oil runs out.
Forcing tribal societies into nations and then raping their natural resources from them as their best option for participation in a global marketplace is unnatural and unjust. It is a thoroughly modern economic set of one size fits all dogmas, this free market capitalism. So new, but now tested in places like Yemen. To care for its people Yemen must manufacture goods that can compete in price and quality against the rest of the world. It will have to import the materials to do so. Yemen will require bustling metropolises of well-educated people, surrounded by rings of countryside that can create economic opportunities for the future. Yemen needs law, justice, and security. Yemen will have to buy all its food and water with the proceeds. Then it can pass the global free market test. Which, of course, it can't.
Because of a woodenheaded slavery to the dogmas of free markets, Yemen shall remain the most screwed up nation you never heard of. It shall remain that way until its growing populations are moved to human desperation and arrive, unannounced, in a most dramatic way. It will be the young (as it always is) with the most to lose who will propel events forward, the young of Yemen who refuse to lie down and die in the sand. And in Yemen, over half the population is under twenty-five years old - a nation of children with nothing to lose, open to anything or anybody that can give them a future. Call them impressionable.
It can always be worse and in Yemen, it always is.
Historian, Economist, Accountant, Writer, and blood sucking CEO.
Born at the wrong end of the Baby Boom Generation - too late to enjoy the ride, too early to have missed it, and stuck in the middle with the mess.
Aetius writes and blogs from his frozen perch atop the earth in Canada, spending the useful capital of a life not finished making sandwiches and fomenting revolution.
It's a living.
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.