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Yemen tensions 'a threat to Gulf'

RISING tension in Yemen threatens to destabilise the entire Gulf, according to a Bahrain-based international think tank.

The country's political and economic situation should be of immediate concern to neighbouring countries, said International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) consulting senior fellow for Middle East and south Asia Michael Crawford.

He was speaking during the inaugural one-day IISS Global Perspective Series forum at the organisation's office in the Bahrain Financial Harbour yesterday.

"It may be a long way away, but I think Yemen has the capacity to destabilise the whole Arabian Peninsula," he said.

"It should be of immediate concern, especially to GCC governments and to those further afield, like the US, the UK and many others.

"Yemen, in some ways, seems very distant to us here in Bahrain.

"If you look out the window, the view of Bahrain bears little resemblance to that across the city of Sanaa or any others in Yemen."

However, Mr Crawford warned that since assuming power of what was the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had showed a propensity for ruthlessness and manipulation.

"He has made sure that there are no alternative leaders in the wings or contenders for power and has drawn leverage from his critics' acknowledgement that dissension around the leadership would benefit only those who favour an even weaker centre of power.

"All the time however, the state itself is coming under increasing pressure and is at risk of crumbling.

"Diminish-ing natural resources, especially oil and water, a deteriorating economy and high levels of malnutrition and unemployment would present daunting challenges for any government, let alone one with such limited capacity in a state with a weak centre and tough geography.

"But the attention of Saleh and his regime is, as ever, fixed resolutely on tactical fire-fighting, and in particular, against the resurgence of Al Qaeda."

Mr Crawford pointed to the amalgamation of Saudi and Yemeni terrorists to form an Al Qaeda network in the Arabian Peninsula, which became evident early last year.

"In February 2009, the Yemeni government released 176 Al Qaeda suspects on condition of good behaviour, suggesting continuing regime ambivalence towards the organisation and a readiness to reach tactical accommodations with it," he said.

"It is this Al Qaeda threat that Saleh's regime is currently using to obtain military and counter-terrorist assistance and also development aid from the US, Europe and Saudi Arabia.

"The problem from the international community's point of view, however, is the mistrust between it and the Saleh regime, which is seen to prioritise the threat from Al Huthi rebels in the north and the so-called Southern Movement."

Mr Crawford went on to predict that this mistrust between the Yemeni government and the international community would also affect the country's dire social and economic outlook.

Using statistics from widely available publications, the former Bahrain resident revealed that the population of Yemen, located around 800 miles from Manama, now stands at 23 million, but is expected to double in the next 25 years.

Almost half its citizens are under the age of 15, while seven million of them are living on the breadline.

Estimated unemployment and illiteracy rates of 40-50 per cent go alongside an inflation rate of around 27pc.

Perhaps most worrying figures, however, are that sales of oil, which currently count for 75pc of government revenue, will drop to zero pc by 2017, with Sanaa also expected to become the world's first capital city to run out of water.

"The threat of the state of Yemen collapsing is a very real one and there is a responsibility on the Gulf states to make sure it doesn't happen," said Mr Crawford. "In terms of how best to do this however, there is still no sign of any solutions."

thanratty@gdn.com.bh



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