60-Second Expert: Yemen

Despite major demographic and infrastructural differences, the Yemeni people face with the same fundamental problems that the successful insurgents of the Arab world have sought to eradicate through collective action this year. The 32-year-old regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh has systematically denied basic political and economic rights to the country’s majority, controlling the population through a combination of “bribe-a-tribe” cronyism and outright political repression.

As the elite class enjoys a cosmopolitan lifestyle flush with the luxuries standard to neoliberal economic development, living conditions for the majority of Yemenis have plummeted, leaving millions to survive on a dollar or two per day. Access to food, water and work has become a scarcity, and state resources are far too concentrated in providing security to the regime and the elites it protects.

Meanwhile, the oft-parroted claim that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has become the strongest node of the international terrorist organization and threatens the U.S.-backed dictatorships in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, has pushed Washington to increase its military aid to Saleh by a magnitude of five since Obama took office. Although Wikileaks has revealed that the United States knew Saleh was using American military aid to crush his political opponents under the banner of anti-terrorism, Washington increased its material support.

Washington remains the principal source of funding and weaponry for Saleh’s regime. However, the United States did withhold the first installment of a new $1 billion multi-year aid package in February, and the Obama administration has continued to call for Saleh’s resignation.

Yemen is the most heavily armed countries in the world in terms of individual gun ownership, with some estimates as high as three weapons per person. That millions of Yemenis have taken to the streets without these weapons and largely maintained a strict nonviolent discipline is nothing short of remarkable.

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Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco. He is the author, along with Jacob Mundy, of Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010).