Up until recently, I knew nothing about Yemen. The discourse here in Norway (and in the West in general) focuses on areas that we are highly involved in. That (usually) means areas in which we have a vested interest (Oil. Oiloiloiloiloil).
We’ve have (for instance) attempted to solve several global conflicts and have been part of many peace-negotiations, but we’re not that great at it (If I may say so). We have made multiple attempts at solving the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.
We are clearly master-negotiators!
Yemen however, has never been on our radar. Our trade with Yemen is minimal. Of all the people I have (informally/sneakily/not to their knowledge) surveyed, there has not been a single individual who has any knowledge of Yemen. The same goes for me. I knew nothing about Yemen prior to the arrival of a super-smart, compassionate and clever young Yemenite in my Norwegian language class. This kid is wise beyond his years, super-nice, and he spends about 90% of his time helping others.
As my ignorance became increasingly more intolerable, I finally decided to attend a couple of talks on the subject of Yemen (So, now I consider myself an expert ;)). Prior to the talks (and because I am a super-curious (nosy?) person), I started investigating.
Here’s a bullet-point breakdown:
- The country is large and has a fairly large population as well. It is the second largest country in the Arabian peninsula and the population is estimated to be over 27.000.000
- Yemen has an incredibly rich history. You know, the Queen of Sheba? She was from Yemen! And, Yemen was part of what was known as Arabia Felix, that is, the fertile/happy/fortunate/blessed/flourishing Arabia. The history of the country is remarkable.
- It has been ruled by several dynasties, and was until 1967, a British protectorate.
- There have been several long-running conflicts between the North and the South; the conflicts are not straight-forward though. Alliances shift, and they are often based on tribal belonging rather than the “government vs. Houti” understanding I previously had. This is similar to areas of Afghanistan. To say that someone belongs to “The Northern Alliance” or the Taliban is not accurate. Alliances change based on what there is to gain. It is one of those “my enemy today might be my friend tomorrow”-situations.
- Yemen is currently very poor. The average yearly income is $2400, and it is (as of now) the poorest country in the Middle East. I’ll explain why a little later.
- Maybe the most important problem in Yemen, is that the country has been described as being a kleptocracy. That is, a country governed by corrupt leaders who exploit and steal resources for personal gain. Former President Saleh appears to have been just that.
- Yemen is most definitely a Muslim country. 99.1% are Muslims, and the remaining 0.9% are Jewish, Baha’i, Hindu and Christian. I have found conflicting information about which direction of Islam Yemenites belong to. Some state that they are Sunni, others claim that the majority are Shia. Some say that it is about a 50/50 split between Sunni and Shia. The most reliable sources claims that it is a Shia-leaning-towards-Sunni country.
- Yemen is conservative. There is a substantial number of niqab-wearers among Yemeni women, but it is in no way mandatory.
- The population is young. Approximately 60% of the population is between 0-24 years old, and an additional 32.3% are between 25-54 years of age. The 55-64 year olds only make up 3.94%, and those 65 and older only make up 2.75% of the population. So, the median age (the most common) is about 19 years. I now feel ancient. And a little depressed.
- What might also be interesting is the life-expectancy of Yemenites: it is at about 65 years, which is depressingly low. Keep in mind that there is little to almost no HIV/AIDS and other similar life-expectancy-lowering diseases. In comparison, the Norwegian life-expectancy is about 82 years, and in the U.S, the life-expectancy is at about 78 years (though, if Trump remains President, I expect to see a sharp decline).
- On a more light-hearted note, Yemen has spectacular nature and grand architecture! Just check out the pictures below.
Recently there has been a bit of reporting on the famine in Yemen, particularly so on social media, but we’re not getting much information about why people are starving.
So, what is the problem? Well, I am not sure I entirely understand, and my student told me that even most Yemenites are somewhat confused. As I wrote earlier, there are conflicts between several factions, and the last conflict started with the Arab Spring. To understand how Yemen has remained fairly unstable (but also out of the Western media) one has to know a little about former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was the president of northern Yemen from 1978-1990, and the president of a united Northern and Southern Yemen from 1990-2012. Saleh was a strongman in the truest sense of the word. And, according to the lecture I attended last Saturday, he was also a master manipulator and a genius at both building and switching alliances. Saleh was killed in December 2017. It is claimed that Saleh was a behind-the-scenes leader of the Houthi take-over of Yemen. The Houthi/Ansar Allah is a religious, but also political grouping who were initially fighting Saleh, whose allies include Iran and Syria. Saleh managed to maintain a fairly unstable peace, but peace nonetheless. Now that he is gone, it’s anyones guess what will happen next.
There is another faction, Al Hirak, who in the 90’s sought decentralization and independence for the south. They have formed an alliance with the Saudis and have a running conflict with the Houthis. Further, there is Al Islah, whom previously were the enemies of Saudi, but who now are Saudi-backed. To muddle up the picture, there’s also a particularly aggressive fraction of Al-Qaeda active in the region..
Confused? So am I…
Now, in order to keep things (fairly simple), there are two major outside powers involved in the conflict. One being Saudi Arabia and the other being Iran. A third, lesser actor is the United Arab Emirates. Al Isla is a Saudi-backed grouping, and the Houthis are backed by Iran (for now). The Emirates and Saudi are not getting along, and as such, they support different sides in Yemen. Iran appears (again, according to the lectures I attended) to have provided the Houthis with SCUD-missiles. Some of these have been launched in to Saudi, and as retaliation, the Saudis have ensured a blockade on import of food and necessary goods to Yemen. This blockade is responsible for the starvation and suffering of millions of people. Not one of the outside actors are innocent in this scenario. Iran is to fault in supplying weapons, and Saudi is at fault for the blockade. And before one makes a stab at the “why can’t they grow their own produce?” argument, there this: inside Yemen, there’s been a problem with depleting ground water. Why? Khat. Khat is a mild stimulant. The leaves of the plant are chewed in Yemen, Somalia and other places in the region. The WHO does not consider the plant to be very harmful, but use can lead light psychological dependence (keep in mind, coffee-use can lead to actual physical dependence, so.. There’s that. Alcohol is also highly addictive, both physically and psychologically).
So, what we do know is that 3 million have fled the country. Very few have ended up in Europe; many more have ended up in Somalia. When I asked about why they flee to Somalia, I was told that it might be a combination of conservativism and finances/funds (it is prohibitively expensive to travel to Europe/America). We also know that 19 million more are in need of aid. Diphtheria and Cholera runs rampant, and people are dying from starvation and easily preventable diseases. Fortunately, Aid-organizations are able to access the Yemeni population.
It is not all that expensive to lend a helping hand either. It will set you back the equivalent of about 6 Starbucks coffees, a pair of jeans or a meal at a mid-priced restaurant (a cheap restaurant if we’re talking Norwegian prices).
Donate here! I promise it will be worth it :)