Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh this week marked 20 years ruling a united Yemen, but has little to celebrate in a country buckling under the pressure of separatist, sectarian and al Qaeda violence.
Pro-unity billboards lining the streets of the capital Sanaa — “Strength in unity and unity in strength!” — serve as a soft warning to Yemenis not to challenge the state, whose government has strong Western backing and a history of quashing dissent.
But they also underline challenges the government faces including struggles with northern Shi’ite rebels, southern secessionists and al Qaeda, any of which could spiral to threaten the state’s survival. All that is exacerbated by a foundering economy.
“There are the challenges to Yemen that we spend all of our time talking about — the south, al Qaeda or the war in Saada — but there is also a failing economy, resources depletion, population growth, unemployment,” said Christopher Boucek, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“These are what will overwhelm the state. It won’t be terrorism or the traditional security challenges.”
The cash-strapped Yemeni government is almost powerless to meet the needs and demands of most of its people in a heavily armed society that is growing increasingly discontent and sometimes takes its struggles to the street.
One in three of Yemen’s 23 million people suffer chronic hunger, according to U.N. aid agencies, and sky-high unemployment — more than half of 15- to 24-year-olds are out of work — means few people can help themselves.
The ranks of the poor include nearly 270,000 people displaced by northern fighting, most of whom have not returned to their homes despite a February truce to end a war that raged since 2004. Refugees from war-torn Somalia add yet more strain.
“This regime is focused on its survival, there is no doubt about that,” a Western diplomat in Sanaa said.
Violence between government forces and separatists in the south is nearing its worst level since a 1994 civil war, and a crackdown on a resurgent al Qaeda, whose regional wing has its base in the country, has been only partly successful.
North and South Yemen united in 1990 under Saleh, who took power in the former North Yemen in 1978. Many in the south, home to most Yemeni oil facilities, feel northerners have commandeered their resources and are denying them their identity and political rights.
DANGERS OF DIVISION
Sanaa often resorts to military means to quash dissent, but the government has recently appeared ready to do whatever it takes, including talking to opponents in the south, if it means it will stay in power.
After all, a divided Yemen would not necessarily dissolve into two — South and North — but more likely into a number of entities, which could lead to more violence among southern factions and potentially a destabilising civil war.
“For Saleh, the unity of Yemen is non-negotiable and defending it is top priority. The president would divert all resources necessary to prevent secession,” said Nicole Stracke at the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai.
In an anniversary speech on Friday, Saleh appeared to want to appease his opponents, announcing an amnesty for nearly 300 imprisoned Houthis, southern separatists and journalists, and saying he wanted to open Yemen’s political process to all.
Though Yemen’s opposition largely welcomed the move, albeit with some scepticism, southern media played a different tune.
“The issue of the south must be recognised and dealt with for what it is in reality, not how the government wants to market it to the outside world,” a journalist wrote on a southern opposition website in response to Saleh’s speech.
Saleh’s powerful foreign allies have no interest in seeing Yemen break up, especially as al Qaeda wing tries to make its comeback from the Arabian Peninsula state, where powerful tribes hold much sway.
“The international community is clearly in favour of having a unified Yemen,” said Theodore Karasik, of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Splitting up again would be too shocking for the country and the region.”
Both the United States and Britain support Yemeni unity. Saudi Arabia, which in the 1994 war backed the south, now backs Saleh’s Sanaa-based government.
International alarm over instability in Yemen peaked in December when al Qaeda claimed an attempted bombing of a U.S.-bound plane.
“Countries splitting in half makes everyone nervous … it would just create an even more chaotic, decentralised environment in southern Arabia, and that’s just something that nobody sees any benefit in,” said Eurasia Group’s David Bender.
“In terms of there being any support for the south, I don’t know where that would come from. There would be overwhelming support to the north in order to prevent a southern secession.”
With next to no hope of drumming up international backing for its cause, Yemen’s southern separatist movement is also far too divided and poor to pose a serious threat to the government.
Yemenis have supported unity as a natural reflex, seeing it as vital for the country’s future. “We need unity,” said Mohammed, a textiles and coffee trader from Sanaa. “If we don’t have unity, we will not have security.”
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)