Yemen’s Power Vacuum and Transition Prospects

Yemen’s current head of state, Vice President Abedrabo Mansur Hadi, has rejected offers to negotiate an transitional government until President Saleh returns from Saudi Arabia where he is receiving medical treatment for wounds suffered in an attack on his compound. There are still mass demonstrations, largely peaceful, occurring in the captial Sana’a as well as some scattered, deadly fighting in the south. A Joint Meeting of opposition parties has actually agreed to recognize Hadi for the time being (while still trying to play for a transition), there are whispers of at least some informal ceasefire, and army troops loyal to Saleh have withdrawn from the streets (here).

But there are good reasons to believeSaleh won’t be returning to Yemen any time soon: he has shrapnel in his chest, burns over 40 percent of his body and a collapsed lung. Daniel Pipes at the National Review lists some other reasons he may not return and also believes there is a power vacuum developing:

If Saleh is history (as he likely is, since too many forces have arrayed against him for him to return to power, and the Saudis may not let him leave), his successor will have difficulty ruling even the meager portion of the country that he controlled.

Because many factions with diverse aims are competing for power — Saleh’s allies, Houthi rebels in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, al-Qaeda-style forces, a youth movement, the military, certain tribes, and the Ahmar family — they will not coalesce into a neat two-way conflict. Anarchy, in other words, looks more probable than civil war; Somalia and Afghanistan could be models.

With Saleh’s potentially permanent departure, it’s not clear how the conflict proceeds. Initial concerns of an all-out civil war may, as Pipes suggests, diminish given the fractured nature of the tribal and factional struggle now. To boot, Yemen’s economy and infrastructure is more terrible than many have been letting on:

The problem begins with an increasingly cataclysmic water shortage.Gerhard Lichtenth?ler, a specialist on this topic, wrote in 2010 about how in many of the country’s mountainous areas, available drinking water, usually drawn from a spring or a cistern, is down to less than one quart per person per day. Its aquifers are being mined at such a rate that groundwater levels have been falling by 10 to 20 feet annually, threatening agriculture and leaving major cities without adequate safe drinking water. Sanaa could be the first capital city in the world to run dry.

And not just Sana’a: As a London Times headline put it, Yemen “could become first nation to run out of water.” Nothing this extreme has happened in modern times, although similar patterns of drought have developed in Syria and Iraq.

Scarce food resources, columnist David Goldman points out, threaten to leave large numbers of Middle Easterners hungry.  One-third of Yemenis faced chronic hunger before the unrest. That fraction is growing quickly.

The prospect of economic collapse looms larger by the day. Oil supplies are reduced to the point that “trucks and buses at petrol stations queue for hours, while water supply shortages and power blackouts are a daily norm,” according to the Arab Times. Productive activity is proportionately in decline.

My guess is that for the moment the Saudis are in the front seat in terms of external influence, and I speculate that any decisive action by the U.S. will be kept secret for now. Yemen is too unpredictable and potentially dangerous from the perspective of the Obama administration, but also extremely important to maintain dominion over because of its geography as well as the concentration of al Qaeda there. The outlook would be better if there were some viable and immediate alternative post-Saleh that the people (particularly the youth movement) could get behind, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

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