Yemen risks descending into civil war as chronic poverty, tribal rivalries and political marginalisation exacerbate tensions in the remote east, a British expert said, warning of a humanitarian crisis that could destabilize the region and fuel extremism.
Al-Mahra, a largely desert governorate sharing land borders with Saudia Arabia and Oman and a sea border with Somalia, is an “under-reported flash point” that could become fertile recruiting ground for al Qaeda, said Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University.
Fears of violence in the east have grown since Shi’ite Houthi rebels seized control of the capital Sanaa in September. Houthi forces have since advanced into central Yemen and taken on Sunni tribesmen and al Qaeda militants, who regard the Houthis as heretics. Fighting has flared in several provinces.
“Destabilising this eastern region would create a humanitarian disaster,” Kendall told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview on the sidelines of a three-day Global Security Seminar in London.
With the capture of Sanaa against scant resistance from the weak administration of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who appears not to have full control of the country’s fractious military, the northern-based Houthis have established themselves as power brokers in Yemen.
Meanwhile, central government plans to transform Yemen into a six-region federation are deeply unpopular in Al-Mahra, which would be lumped together with Hadramawt, the neighbouring governorate and Al-Mahra’s long-time foe due to lingering animosity since 1968 when Al-Mahra was overrun by socialist forces entering from Hadramawt, said Kendall.
One of the few Western researchers to gain regular access to eastern Yemen, Kendall helped conduct in April and May a poll of Al-Mahra electorate in which 99 percent of 34,000 respondents said they opposed the idea of a merger with Hadramawt.
“If something is going to be instituted which is that strongly against the wishes of a well-armed people with not much to lose, I think you’re going to have a civil war,” she said.
Civil war would cut off food and water supplies to local people already struggling to get basic services, ruin the communities and schools, and make them lose hope, she said.
“When you have no hope, you turn to Allah or to God or to groups who promise you something that you don’t have in this life. I think it could be a rife recruiting ground for al Qaeda,” she said.
Kendall estimates Al-Mahra’s population at about 350,000, much higher than official figures of around 120,000.
The area is chronically underdeveloped, the site of a growing drug trade and politically marginalised.
Nearly two-thirds of local people Kendall canvassed in a survey about a year after Yemen’s 2011 revolution said the region does not benefit from being part of Yemen.
Corruption is rampant and resentment runs high against President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose administration has been forced into a power-sharing agreement with the Houthis, Kendall said.
“Their economy is largely illegal – it’s smuggling drugs, guns, weapons and people. Some pills are being sold in local stores for hopeless young teenagers with no aspirations,” she said.
Al-Mahra also has a power vacuum. The last governor died in August and no successor has been appointed.
Neighbouring Oman, worried about these developments, has started to build a border fence.
“The impact (of the fence) is going to be enormous on the people living in the border region”, mainly because of the loss of cattle grazing rights, which would affect the livelihoods of the tribes in Al-Mahra, Kendall said.
“A secondary impact is on smuggling. That might seem like a good thing, but when that is your only source of income, what are they going to do instead, with al Qaeda pushing east and offering a, to some, attractive ideology?”
There is little sympathy in Al-Mahra for al Qaeda. The Mahris have taken to patrolling their capital al-Ghayda and its border with Hadramawt to prevent incursions by the jihadist group, Kendall said.
“Unless something is done about the chronic underdevelopment, lack of opportunity and zero economy apart from smuggling, then (these patrols) are going to be a losing battle,” she said.
“There are certainly rumours of vehicles of jihadists driving into Al-Mahra, and attempting to talk over young people,” she added.
(Editing by Timothy Pearce and Timothy Large)