On Monday, there was a nightmarish suicide bombing in Yemen. Dozens died and hundreds were injured. I contacted a Yemeni friend from long ago to send him my condolences for his country. Indeed, Yemen needs condolences for many years of strife. He reminded me that nothing at this scale has happened before in Yemen. You would expect something like this in Iraq in 2004, but not in Yemen.
This event marked an upturn in potential threats to Yemenis. It also increased potential threats to those outside of Yemen. When violence of this scale starts, something bigger is often at play. I have previously written on the potential for Yemen to be a failed state. Now, the country seems to be hurtling even faster toward that possibility.
Yemen is a country of great beauty. It is a country of a vast and simply amazing history. It still has a culture that is tribal. Yemen’s people are known for hospitality and warmth. Conflict and poor leadership ravage this country.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula. Close to half of its people live on less that two dollars per day, close to or below the international poverty line. Most of the country is under severe water stress. It is one of the most water stressed countries in the world.
About 70 percent of its people live in villages and many only receive water through irregular truck deliveries every few days or so. The poor can end up paying more for water than richer people who have access to piped municipal water.
Yemen’s population in 1990 was 12 million. It is now double that.
Ninety percent of water consumption in Yemen is for agricultural use. And sixty percent of that goes to produce qat. Qat is not food; it is a plant native to the Horn of Africa that when chewed produces euphoric effects. In other words, most of Yemen’s arable land is being used to produce a recreational drug.
Because of this fact, Yemen now imports about 75 to 80 percent of its food.
The economy of Yemen has been in an increasingly vicious downward spiral since the start of the recent conflicts within the country. There is massive unemployment amidst the instability and violence of Yemen
There are huge inequalities in the country.
In these and other dreadful circumstances in Yemen, including an especially poor education system in the villages, recruiting by extremists groups has never been easier. Such groups can buy their anonymity and protection in the remote hills and mountains of Yemen.
If this is beginning to sound like Afghanistan in the late 1990s, then you are starting to get it.
However, Yemen is in a much more fragile and leveraged strategic geographic position than Afghanistan. One side of its shores faces Somalia. The other side faces Djibouti and Eritrea. The corner that connects the two shores is the Bab al-Mandab: The Gate of Tears.
Trade between Asia and the European Union is hugely reliant on this narrow strait. About three to four million barrels of oil a day and about three to four billion cubic meters of liquefied natural gas goes via this sharp corner.
If Yemen becomes a failed state, just like Somalia, the entire region could be put at huge risk. One of the most important sea-lanes of communications would become a seriously riskier place to be in. A large proportion of global trade could be affected. Oil and other markets could find themselves more at the whims and vicious capriciousness of pirates and terrorists alike.
Yemen could also affect North Africa, a place already in some turmoil, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia, the EU and even beyond. This, by the way, is not just a matter of trade disruptions and increased costs in shipping. If al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula establishes an even stronger foothold in a failing Yemen, a combination of extremist camps in Somalia and Yemen could be geographic centerpieces and bases for terror for decades to come.
Now, why should we worry about Yemen?
Dr. Paul Sullivan is a Professor of Economics at the National Defense University, an adjunct professor of Security Studies and Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University and a United Nations Global Experts. Copyright © 2012 Global Experts, a project of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations