Kamal Al-Solaylee is an associate professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism and the author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes.
Yemen is in the news again. At least for now. As I follow coverage on television and check Twitter obsessively for the latest developments, I can't help feeling that if there is one country whose unravelling in the post-Arab Spring years deserves a brighter and more consistent spotlight, it is Yemen, my birthplace and the source of much of my agony and the worst of my fears.
Since early 2011, when it caught the Arab Spring fever first diagnosed in Tunisia and Egypt, Yemen has been disintegrating before our eyes. Yemen's political system revealed its true house-of-cards nature when, after a year of protests and unrest, the Persian Gulf countries brokered a peace deal that gave immunity to former president and strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, in effect allowing him to remain in the country to plot a comeback with the support of the Shia Houthi rebels he once bloodily fought.
Yemen's economy, an oil-producing one since the 1990s, ran out of steam and foreign investment, primarily because of endemic corruption among the political class. Add several ethnic and ideological tensions – with the government fighting the Houthis in the north and secessionist forces in the south – and you have the makings of a textbook failed state, or at least one hanging by a qat leaf to its status as a sovereign nation.
There's more: The political vacuum has given Yemen's resident terrorist group, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the time and space it needed to regroup from the onslaught of U.S. drone attacks. It's believed to have provided training to at least one of the brothers behind the Paris attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January.
And now, reports of an Islamic State branch operating out of Yemen seem very credible. What else could go wrong?
Any one of these political fissures carries enough powder to blow apart a stronger, more stable country. It's a testament to the resilience of Yemeni people and probably down to sheer luck that an all-out, multiparty war didn't erupt earlier. Unfortunately, the odds are looking good for this hellish scenario, now that Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies (with the United States and Egypt providing logistical and strategic support) have launched air strikes. The official purpose is to restore the legitimate government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Al Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthis (the de facto government since January at least) and placed under house arrest before escaping to Aden and starting an in-exile government. He fled the country Wednesday, and surfaced late Thursday in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
With or without a legitimate government, the geopolitical implications of the air strikes are enormous for the region and, I think, the world. Is this another proxy war for the Saudi-Iran quest for political and religious dominance over the Arab and Muslim world? Is the United States using internal conflicts in Yemen to pave the way for a more aggressive takedown of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? Or are the U.S. (and the Canadian) governments losing sight of AQAP in their focus on the more media-hungry Islamic State?
All are valid lines of inquiry, but what matters most to me is the fate of the Yemeni people, whose patience and endurance of hardship are reaching biblical levels. My family still lives in Sanaa and, from my distant and privileged vantage point of life in Canada, I've followed their struggle to survive over the past decade or so with horror and helplessness. When pundits parse out different scenarios for the future of Yemen, they're usually talking about a country or people that they may or may not have visited or met. I was born in Yemen and although I spent most of my adult years away from it, my connection to it runs through my veins. I spent almost two decades in Canada trying to distance myself from Yemen, from family and friends, but the more they suffer, the closer I feel to them.
What makes this drama more painful to watch is knowing that even if the current conflict is resolved peacefully and quickly, what comes after will be a bigger challenge. How does life return to normal when the country is facing such a severe water shortage? It's projected to run out of the basic life ingredient soon. More than half of the country's 25 million people live below the poverty line and/or are food insecure. Unemployment among young people is reported to be about 60 per cent. Health care, education and infrastructure are at best inadequate and in reality depleted.
Judging from the messages I get from people who need help to leave the country, a sense of despair hangs over young Yemenis, the very group that once thought political reform was not only possible but on its way. It turned out to be a sweet but brief and misleading moment in the country's history. There's nothing spring-like about the current escalation of violence – in fact, it feels very much like an end game for Yemen.