What's Going on in Yemen?


In Spring of 2010, Haley Sweetland Edwards took us on a tour of Yemen for the Spinning the Globe section of mental_floss magazine. Here's her explanation of the current situation, followed by an excerpt from last year's Yemen feature.

© YAHYA ARHAB/epa/Corbis

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world. It’s economy has flat-lined. It’s facing one of the world’s worst water crises. And for the last seven years, it has been wracked by three separate on-again, off-again civil wars: a Shia rebellion in the north, a separatist insurgency in the south, and a war against al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organization’s scarily powerful Yemen-based branch.

So what exactly is going on in Yemen right now?

Here’s the CliffsNotes version.

After the Egyptian rebellion, a handful of idealistic young men and women took to the streets, calling for the immediate end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule. They wanted a new government, a real democracy, anti-corruption measures and, in a place where unemployment levels hover around 40 percent, they wanted a chance at getting a job. This youth movement was, and has continued to be, entirely peaceful. That’s no small fact in a country where there are more than enough guns for every man, woman and child.

© YAHYA ARHAB/epa/Corbis

The violence you’re hearing about on the news this week is the result of three separate, if loosely related, battles. The first is one-sided, and involves Yemeni troops and security forces brutally crushing protesters’ tents and open firing into peaceful demonstrations in cities like the capital, the port city of Aden, and Taiz.

The second is a revenge battle between forces loyal to Saleh and those loyal to the al-Ahmar family, which heads the most powerful tribal confederacy in Yemen. Last week, al-Ahmar tribesmen attacked Saleh’s presidential palace, killing seven and seriously wounding Saleh, who was whisked off to Saudi Arabia last weekend for medical treatment.

The third battle is an uptick in U.S. drone attacks on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen’s mountainous countryside. This is a shadowy, poorly reported war that is hopelessly complicated by the fact that al-Qaeda operatives are taking advantage of the chaos in Yemen right now by mingling with other rebels and anti-government militants.

What happens next in Yemen is anyone’s guess. Saleh is expected to return to Sana’a next week, according the Yemeni Embassy in D.C. If and when he does, the future of Yemen will depend to a large degree on whether or not he’s willing to step down, make peace with the al-Ahmar family, and allow for a transition of power. If he’s not, we may very well watch this beautiful, long-teetering country finally tip.

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Yemen: The 50-Cent Tour

NRA Heaven

Yemen is one of the most heavily armed nations in the world. Some studies have indicated that there are as many as 17 million guns in the country and that about 75 percent of the male population packs heat. (Women there don’t generally own guns.) Other studies put that number closer to 60 million, indicating that about 98 percent of Yemeni men own at least one weapon; most own four or five.

Many Yemeni boys receive their first gun as a rite of passage in their teenage years and keep it their entire lives. In the countryside, particularly in places where there are long-standing tribal feuds, men often shop for vegetables, visit neighbors, and drink tea, all with their AK-47s in tow.

Until recently, men could buy weapons easily at massive arms markets scattered around Yemen. But in 2007, the government began a disarmament campaign that required weapons to be registered. This led many arms dealers to move underground. Today, most Yemenis buy their weapons on the black market with relative ease. The government also made it illegal to carry firearms in major cities, such as the capital of Sana’a. Still, it’s common to see young boys playing in the streets of Sana’a with plastic toy AK-47s slung over their backs.

Khat Fancy

Two-thirds of Yemenis chew khat. (Also spelled kat and qat in English, making it a useful Scrabble word.) It’s a mild narcotic that often makes people feel more alert and motivated. Many people chew the leaves every day for about four or five hours after lunch, and it’s not uncommon to see taxi drivers, store keepers, clerks, and policemen with a wad in their cheeks.

At first, the drug acts as a social lubricant. As one Yemeni man put it, “It makes you talk like a teenage girl.” But as the effects of the drug wear on, people tend to become more introspective and goal-oriented. “Every time I chew, I promise myself I’m going to do push-ups every night and finally write a book,” reported another Yemeni man. “I never do.”

While khat remains a major part of Yemeni culture, some believe it should be outlawed. It can cause liver damage and ulcers, and it’s bad for teeth. Khat is also surprisingly expensive to buy and grow, because the trees require tons of water. In fact, khat cultivation is contributing to the nation’s dire water crisis.

Ancient Romans nicknamed Yemen “Happy Arabia,” thanks to the country’s booming trade. Back then, camel caravans delivered more than 3,000 tons of frankincense to Rome and Greece every year.

My Big Fat Yemeni Wedding

If you’re planning to get married in Yemen, the first thing you need to know is that Yemeni weddings are not coed. The men usually convene in a banquet hall, a tent, or a courtyard, where they listen to music, take pictures, and chew khat with other men. The women meet at the groom’s parents’ house, or another house in the neighborhood, where they listen to music, dance, ululate (a kind of celebratory yodeling), and, of course, chew khat.

After three or four days of gender-segregated celebrations, the groom is led into the room where the bride is staying. That’s typically the first time the couple meets, as arranged marriages are still the norm. Then, the guests wait until the bride and groom emerge from the room, signifying that they’ve “sealed the deal.” At this point, the men fire guns and fireworks into the air, and the women ululate some more. A good time is had by all.

Uncle Saddam

Yemenis have a thing for Saddam Hussein. It all started during the first Gulf War, when Yemen sided with Iraq. “He is a Muslim who stood up to the superpower,” explained one storekeeper. Thousands of boys born around that time are named Saddam in his honor. Then, when the United States invaded Iraq again in 2003, Saddam became a national hero. If you’re ever in the market for a canvas bag or a cigarette lighter with Saddam Hussein’s smiling face on it, just head over to downtown Sana’a.

This Old City

The medieval architecture of the Old City of Sana’a, the capital’s historic district, is both magical and dilapidated. It’s like a castle made out of gingerbread that’s been delicately frosted and then rediscovered months later in the back of a cabinet. It’s home to 103 mosques, 14 bathhouses, and more than 6,000 houses built into towers—and much of it was constructed before the 11th century. The entire district has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site, with the hope that it will be protected and renovated carefully. Unfortunately, due to dwindling funds and a bankrupt government, more and more of the old houses are collapsing every year.

Yemen’s port city of Mocha was once famous for its coffee exports. Its java had a distinctive chocolate flavor that made it a hit in Europe—and led to the misnomer of mocha meaning chocolate-flavored coffee. Mocha originally—and more accurately—referred to quality Arabian coffee.

The Meaning of Knife

Lots of Yemeni men wear thick, foot-long curved daggers strapped to their waists, just above their bellybuttons. The daggers, called jambiyas (jam-BEE-yas), have been a part of the traditional Yemeni dress since way back before Islam hit the scene. Historically, a man’s jambiya was his prized possession, passed down from one generation to the next. It was at once a weapon, a status symbol, and an investment, because the daggers often appreciate over time. Nowadays, jambiyas are still highly valued, and many Yemeni men, especially in the north, wear them to work, to school, and just to hang out.

Crude Politics

Yemen’s economy is in a world of hurt. For starters, it’s almost entirely dependent on the waning oil and gas industry, which supplies 70 percent of the government’s revenue and accounts for 90 percent of the nation’s exports. According to a 2008 World Bank report, the oil and gas reserves will dry up over the next decade, and the oil fields could be tapped out as early as 2017.

The other four large sectors of the economy—tourism, fisheries, trade, and agriculture—aren’t doing well, either. Tourism is particularly weak. In 2007, local al-Qaeda operatives began killing Westerners at major tourist attractions, and Spring Break Yemen has been a tough sell ever since. These days, an estimated 35 percent of Yemeni men are unemployed.

Getting Your Bearings Where is Yemen? Just south of Saudi Arabia, on the heel of the Arabian Peninsula. Major Industry: Oil and gas. Capital City: Sana’a. It’s also the country’s largest city, with a population of 1.8 million people. Kids Rule! Of the roughly 23 million people living in Yemen, about 46 percent of them are under the age of 14. And the baby boom has only just begun. Yemen’s population is expected to double over the next two decades. How Old is Yemen? Tough question. People have been living in the area for about 5,000 years. The Romans occupied Yemen, as did the Ottomans and the British. But in some ways, Yemen is only 20 years old. During the Cold War, political strife created two separate nations, pro-Western North Yemen and socialist South Yemen. The two states reunified in 1990 to form the modern country, which acts as a parliamentary democracy. Made in Yemen: Over the past 5,000 years, Yemenis have given the world coffee, honey, the Queen of Sheba, and a hilarious episode of Friends in which Chandler tries to break up with his girlfriend by pretending to move to Yemen. But in December 2009, Yemen also gave the world the Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who made headlines by attempting to detonate explosives hidden in his pants on a flight to Detroit. Although Abdulmutallab is from Nigeria, he received his training from al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen.

Haley Sweetland Edwards is a freelance reporter living and working in the Caucasus and the Middle East. Her reporting has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, Foreign Policy online, New York Magazine online, The National, New York Times online, Slate, and, of course, mental_floss magazine. She'll be joining us regularly here on mentalfloss.com later this month.