Why is Yemen?so violent?

Poverty doesn’t cause terrorism, but poor countries face special problems in dealing with it

The killing of two hostages by al-Qaeda during an ­attempted US rescue mission in Shabwa province, Yemen, last weekend should provoke not ­only grief for the two people killed, but a reconsideration of how the world treats countries like Yemen.

The US raid appears to have gone wrong when dogs in the al-Qaeda camp in the Arabian Peninsula began yapping, alerting the terrorists. Hostages Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher, and Luke Somers, an American journalist, were ­injured and died.

Within Yemen, this al-Qaeda camp in Shabwa – a tiny group of Sunni extremists – has sometimes tried to hold territory, but has had several defeats in the past three years. Most ­recently, some of their bases have been taken over by the Houthis, a militant movement of the rival Zaydi Shiite branch of Islam that has captured the capital, Sanaa, and several other important cities.

Since this group has rather bizarrely blamed the US for the rise of the Houthis and the rollback of al-Qaeda, it is even possible that their plan to execute ­Somers, whom they kidnapped from Sanaa, was intended as revenge on the US for the reversals they have suffered.

The group might well exist for reasons of political and religious discontent, even if Yemen were a middle-income country. It is not a large organisation, and a few hundred or even a few thousand malcontents can always be found.

But it would be far less likely to be able to operate with impunity in a country that was not an economic basket case.

Poverty does not cause terrorism, but poor countries face special problems in dealing with it because they are especially open to the kinds of outside ­manipulation that produce the discontents that lead to terrorism.

Like the 24?million Yemenis in general, the people of Shabwa are desperately poor. Since 2012, a little over half of Yemenis have been living below the poverty line. About half of the children are malnourished and a third are estimated to go to bed hungry each night. The country faces a severe water shortage, worse even than the rest of the Middle East. ­Insecurity has made it difficult to pump the little oil or gas the country has, so hydrocarbon ­income is down this year and will fall further with the substantial ­decline in oil prices this year.

About $4?billion (R46?billion) in aid from Saudi Arabia was expected to help keep the country afloat. But the Saudis have announced that they will cut off aid now that fiercely anti-Saudi Houthis have taken over the country.

Yemen’s troubles are only beginning, and one worries that much of the population will end up displaced, as has ­already happened in Syria. That vast further social disruption would not ­exactly tamp down the problems of ­extremism and terrorism.

Sanaa could be the first world capital to simply run out of water. Its undependable and small oil and gas industry accounts for 87% of the value of its ­exports, with the rest accounted for by fish and agricultural produce.

If Yemen previously had a growing economy, missionary work among the Zaydis might not have seemed plausible. Some of the tribal unrest to which the Houthis and al-Qaeda have played would never have arisen.

Rural ­Yemenis would not have been forced off their farms by water shortages. In the Gulf, countries such as the United Arab ­Emirates and Qatar have already turned to desalination plants for most of their drinking water, but despite vague plans to build such plants in Yemen, none has yet ­materialised.

The US and Europe are mainly interested in Yemen ­because they fear that the Houthis are cat’s-paws of Iran (there is not likely much of a connection; it is a completely different style of Shiism) or because the Houthis might threaten the security of the Bab al-Mandab, the opening to the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, through which about 10% of world trade flows.

If someone wants a policy recommendation out of this ­crisis in the Arabian Sea, mine would be this: start an international crash programme of construction of solar-powered ­desalination plants for Yemen and work with tribes, Houthis and ­nationalists alike to get them built as soon as possible. – The Nation, distributed by Agence Global

Cole is director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan

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