Yemen on the brink as military and political leaders join revolt
Dubai (Platts)--21Mar2011/847 am EDT/1247 GMT
The fate of the once-divided state of Yemen was at a crossroads Monday as
senior military and political leaders resigned from their positions and joined
a growing anti-government protest to demand the ouster of veteran president
Ali Abdullah Saleh.
"Saleh has an opportunity to make a historic decision now," said one of
the opposition's youth leaders on al-Jazeera television, which aired footage
of what appeared to be the largest demonstration in weeks of unrest in Yemen,
an oil and gas exporter and the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula.
Tanks were deployed outside the presidential palace in the capital
Sana'a, where an increasingly isolated Saleh has faced a swell of popular
anger over his heavy-handed handling of protests that threaten to unravel the
cohesion of a tribal nation that was once split along north-south lines.
More than 20 people were killed in fighting in northern Yemen, where
Saleh has been battling mainly Shi'ite Muslim Huthi rebels since 2004 in a
fight that last year drew in Yemen's powerful northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia.
In the south, where Saleh has faced a secessionist movement, the governor
of the southern province of Aden, home to the country's main oil terminal and
refinery, also resigned on Monday as pressure grew on Saleh to quit.
The tank deployment in central Sana'a followed one of the bloodiest days
in the uprising that has so far resulted in the deaths of more than 70 people
and prompted the defections of senior army officers, including some from
Saleh's own Hashid tribe.
Saleh's last ditch effort to restore calm by firing his cabinet failed
to subdue the masses as they prepared to bury their dead on Sunday.
The US, which considers Saleh a key ally in the fight against al-Qaida
militants operating out of Yemen, was compelled to condemn the violence in a
strongly worded statement.
President Barack Obama's top counter-terrorism official on Friday
condemned "in the strongest terms" the brutal crackdown on protesters saying
it would feed extremism.
General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an armored infantry division commander who
Monday announced that he had joined the youth-led revolution, warned in a
statement on al-Jazeera that the crisis was pushing the country to civil war
and urged a peaceful transition of power.
The triple threats of rebellion in the north, secessionism in the south
and al-Qaida militancy have made the country more vulnerable than its
wealthier neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, to the type of unrest that brought
about regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.
The regime has already been weakened by the resignations of ministers,
ambassadors and a number of parliamentarians, but Saleh has so far refused to
step down until his term ends in 2013.
Saleh, who was re-elected to a seven-year term in 2006, last month
ordered social reforms to try to ease some of the economic pressures on the
most vulnerable sectors of society in a country where the average age is 18
and unemployment is running at over 40%.
The inauguration of Yemen's LNG plant in 2009 after years of delay should
have been a bright spot for the country but failed to repair deep flaws in the
Yemen's economy faces huge challenges, the fall-out of which has
contributed heavily to the state of political unrest that has fomented the
spread of extremism and bred secessionist movements.
The country's dependence on its limited and rapidly dwindling oil
reserves -- oil income generates 70% of the general budget, 92% of export
income and 30% of GDP -- has turned an already volatile situation into a
potentially explosive one, while posing a threat to the region at large.
From peak production of around 420,000 b/d in 2002, Yemen saw its oil
production fall to 300,000-350,000 b/d last year. The civil unrest and rising
violence now presents a big challenge for attracting new foreign investment.
While armed tribesmen in the Marib region to the east of the capital
Sana'a have previously attacked an oil pipeline and engaged in gun battles
with security forces protecting oil installations, these attacks have
generally been considered a protest against the policies of the central
government and a bid to secure more jobs for local populations.
However, the situation has worsened in the past year and Saleh faces his
biggest challenge since the country's unification in 1990.
In the north, the government has sent in the army to attack Huthi
rebels, a strict Shi'ite Muslim group unhappy with the Sunni influence in the
country, especially from Saudi Arabia north of the border.
OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia has always kept a close eye on developments in
its southern neighbor, fearful of infiltrations by extremists across the
porous Yemeni border. Riyadh last year provided military support to the Yemeni
government against the Huthis, sending jets and tanks to attack rebel posts
In the once-independent south, where bitterness towards Sana'a is
swelling, the military has been involved in clashes with the local
secessionist movement seeking a return to the pre-1990 separation of the
Any secession would see Sana'a lose some of its most prolific oil
producing regions, as well as the vital port of Aden, its refinery and the
Yemen LNG plant, one of the largest LNG facilities in the world.
The 6.7 mt/year Yemen LNG plant, a joint venture with French major Total
its major shareholder, is the country's largest ever investment project and
was meant to provide a new source of income to replace falling oil exports.
It was not immediately known if the protest had affected foreign oil
company operations in the country that lies on the southernmost tip of the
--Kate Dourian, email@example.com
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