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Yemen is struggling with economic not just political troubles

Yemen was the only country affected by the Arab Spring to see a negotiated transfer of power, rather than a prolonged bloody uprising or civil war. However, that does not mean that things have been peaceful since long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2011 following an armed rebellion and mass protests. The country has been wracked by unrest; an uprising by Shia Houthi rebels, an Al-Qaeda insurgency, and a southern secessionist movement based around the port of Aden.

In recent months, the most pressing issue has been the Houthi uprising. About 35 per cent of Yemen's 26 million people are Shia Muslims, with Sunnis comprising almost all of the remaining 65 per cent. These rebels, led by Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, have waged a decade-long insurgency in the mountainous north of the country, and were persistently mistreated by Saleh's government.

After Yemen's transitional government took over in 2011, the group took advantage of the poor governance and popular discontent with issues such as unemployment and rising prices. Off the back of this groundswell of public unrest, the Houthis launched a bid for power in the capital, Sanaa, last month. Some allege that Saleh, a Shia, has encouraged his own supporters to join the rebellion in order to destabilise the current government. It is also widely believed that Iran has been providing the Houthis with weaponry.

The crisis reached a climax this week, when the rebels seized large areas of the capital – including the defence ministry, the government's television and radio stations, and the central bank.

President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi signed a peace agreement mediated by the United Nations. Under this agreement, he will appoint a new prime minister and senior adviser from the Shia opposition. That will make Yemen the only country in the Arab world, apart from Iraq, where Shias hold such high positions.

The agreement also includes a plan to devolve power from the capital and a reduction in fuel prices (this has been a major cause of discontent among the population, which the rebels have taken advantage of). The Houthis refused to sign the security clauses of the agreement, which called for the withdrawal of their forces from Sanaa and other areas they seized.

Al-Houthi claimed credit for the new settlement, saying: "These efforts created this great success – victory for all the people, forcing an answer to popular demands." Hadi, vowing to restore state authority, warning of continued unrest: "Sanaa is facing a conspiracy that will lead towards civil war," he said in a speech on Tuesday, after rebels took control of nearly all key state institutions in the capital.

"Many powers came together, either those who lost their interests in Yemen or those pushed by their personal grievances to take their revenge on their country rather than on individual, or the opportunistic who take advantage of any disaster to attack the country."

How did the situation in Yemen deteriorate so far, after what appeared to be – a least relatively speaking – an initially successful political transition? Writing in the New York Times, Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Institute blames international inaction: "The international community should have supported Yemen to ensure its successful transition to stability and development. Instead, the international community largely turned its back on Yemen as it sank further into poverty, chaos and extremism. The United States concentrated almost solely on counterterrorism, continuing its drone strikes on Al-Qaeda militants. Saudi Arabia turned its attention to other parts of the region, ignoring the potential chaos on its southern border."

Certainly, now, the statements from western leaders have focused on the potential security threat. "Not only does the recent violence damage Yemen's political transition process, it could fuel new tensions and strengthen the hand of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – threatening the security of all of us," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.

Of course, the presence of terrorist groups in Yemen is a concern, but it is certainly not the only issue. Just as pressing are the interlinked problems of a floundering economy, prolonged and multiple rebellions that have encouraged divisions and tensions in society to grow and deepen, desperate poverty and unemployment, and a lack of political consensus. All of these have had a part to play.

Sadly, with other conflicts in the region – such as that in Syria and Iraq – dominating the international media and political agenda, it does not seem that the international support for Yemen that Sharqieh and other analysts have called for will be forthcoming anytime soon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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