Monday, February 1, 2016

Map on Monday: YEMEN

The Physical Ecology, Communal Loyalties, and Geopolitics of Yemen

by David Pence and A. Joseph Lynch

Physical Ecology: Natural Resources and Physical Geography 

Yemen is a small middle-eastern country at the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, 1500 miles long and 500 miles north to south. Its location at the mouth of the Red Sea's egress into the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea via the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait makes it an important nation geostrategically in the region. Yemen has a hot and humid coastal plain with a young, rugged, and mountainous interior. To the north and east is the "Empty Quarter" of Yemen (Rub' al Khali) where the desert leaves no place for human civilization to prosper -- no water or vegetation, just Bedouin nomads herding camels across the desolate wasteland. Off its coasts, Yemen also controls five islands, some in the Red Sea and others in the Arabian.

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East with few natural resources. It has limited oil and natural gas reserves. Roughly 60% of Yemen's inhabitants live off of agricultural production (25% of the overall Yemeni economy stems from agriculture). Coffee has been produced in Yemen for hundreds of years (in fact, "mocha" coffee is named after Yemen's historic Red Sea trade port town of Mocha just north of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait). Most agricultural production occurs in the Shia-dominant western Yemen. Despite not having any internal waterways or lakes, Yemen's proximity to the ocean gives it access to fish and seafood. Further inland may be found marble and minor deposits of coal, gold, lead, nickel, and copper. Water scarcity is a rising problem for Yemen. The problem stems largely from a lack of natural water reserves above ground, illegal use of aquifers, and the 40% decrease in annual rainfall over the past decade. There is even a looming possibility that Yemen's capital, Sanaa, will run out of water by 2025. 

Communal Loyalties: Ethnicity, Language, and Religion

Yemen is home to roughly 24 million people, 63% of whom are under the age of 25. Yemen is dominantly an Arab nation (and Arabic is Yemen's primary language), though Monsoon trade brings some populations of South Asians and African-Arabs. Yemen is a Muslim country, but one that is divided between Shiites and Sunnis. About 40% of Yemen is comprised of Shiite Mulsims, and most of these live in the northwestern side of the country surrounding the capital of Sanaa (see map at bottom). A major tribe of the Shiites are the Houthi who recently (January 2015) displaced the American-backed Sunni president. They know they cannot run the whole country and have not organized a coup.

Geopolitics: Political Geography and Foreign Policy

Yemen has land borders with two nations on the Arabian Peninsula. Its northern border is with Saudi Arabia (29 million in 2013). Oman (3.6 million) is to its east. Yemen is also located in proximity to the Horn of Africa. Across the Red Sea from Yemen is the split Christian-Muslim country of Eritrea. Djibouti - which is 94% Sunni Muslim - sits astride the western side of the Bab-el-Mandeb. To Yemen's south, across the Gulf of Aden, Somalia (home to the Sunni Muslim terror group, Al-Shabab).

The eastern part of Yemen was called Southern Yemen (see map at right) in the decades it was ruled as a socialist state during the Cold War. That is where Al Qaeda is strongest. Northern Yemen was the western non-Marxist entity. These were united in 1990 but never achieved an integrated national communal identity. Muhammad is said to have told his followers to flee to Yemen as a last refuge because of its mountainous geography.

The reconstitution of Al Qaeda in Yemen by jihadists fleeing Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan is the theme of the best book on the country's last century. Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al Qaeda, and America's war in Arabia, believes Yemen (like Syria and Iraq) is set for a dramatic redrawing of its borders. The same author describes how the recent bombing campaign of Saudi Arabia against the Houthis of Yemen is helping Al Qaeda. The Sunni government of Yemen, in a similar way to the the Saudi monarchical families to their north, usually comes to some arrangement with Sunni Salafist purists like al Qaeda -- don't overthrow us and we will nod approval as you fight Shiites and Americans.

For more information on Yemen, visit its page on the CIA World Facebook. A Oct 2016 update on the bloody war waged by Saudi Arabia against the Shia Houthis.  The US has become implicated in a humanitarian  disaster which is becoming recognized for what it is-- a religious cleansing against Shia by the Wahhabists of Saudi Arabia. This has been a credential building exercise by the present King’s son  Prince Muhammad bin Salman  who is not the crown prince but is moving up in the line  of succession.  He is using this slaughter to prove his militancy to the Salafist clerics who will have some role in approving the next king.

This post originally appeared on Anthropology of Accord on January 26, 2015.

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