Monday, April 20, 2015

Backgrounder About Yemen and the Middle East Reset

Guest post by Blogger PZ, Plank hold Member of The Skiff...

Yemen lurks in the back corner of news bureaus in America due to the sheer discomfort that the subject brings up for the talking heads of D.C. What is it about this remote, yet strategic corner of land at the south east corner of the Arabian peninsula that should captivate the reader's attentions?

Information Bullet # 1

Geography.  Like most things, geography will explain a lot to the observant. 

Yemen's position is astride the Strait of Mandeb (Bab al Mandeb), which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Appropriately, this means “Gate of Tears” ( باب المندب) in Arabic .  A narrow passage about 20 miles wide, with small islands interspersed throughout, it hosts two internationally significant shipping channels.

Graphic courtesy of Iron Mike @ Rapid Republican Blog
Through this key and narrow choke point, trade flows to and from Europe. It is a major export route for petroleum to Europe, and finished value-added goods from Europe to all points in the East, as the primary shipping route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian ocean.

The British, French, Ottomans and Portuguese all vied for control of this strategic trade route over time. The basis for that conflict and struggle for control remains the same, although the players may change.

The Houthis have sought to reassure Egypt, over concerns this will have on shipping transiting through the Suez Canal, which Egypt controls and brings it billions of dollars in revenue.  However, should the Houthis lose control of the region, all such "assurances" are moot.


Information Bullet # 2

The turmoil in Yemen is tied to control of potable water.

Public drinking fountains in Sanaa, Yemen
 Access to clean drinking water and rudimentary sanitation is a struggle for Yemenis at the best of times.  An report published by the Guardian newspaper in 2012 found that the average Yemeni uses 140 cubic meters of water per annum - in stark contrast to the average for Americans, who consume the highest per capita, at 2,842 cubic meters a year.
Even before the most recent turmoil, ongoing political instability in the country had already pushed down access to potable water and basic sanitation even further down the list of priorities.

The American consultancy consortium McKinsey stated that the S'anaa basin, where the majority of Yemenis reside, will most likely run out of water by the year 2020.  The water table has dropped to more than 1,200 metres below surface level in some areas.

The 1974 Kissinger report, NSSM 200, outlined the issue of food scarity and water allocation as source of destabilization, stating that "at present there are no solutions to these problems in sight".  The US Army has commissioned a number of White Papers that examine the potential for global conflict over access to fresh water.
Control of sustenance (water, food, shelter) has been used throughout history to effect defeat of enemies. The entity that can provide water, or, in the alternative, successfully use water denial as a weapon of war, will increase their chances of prevailing and securing control over the Bab al Mandeb.

The price of potable water in Yemen will skyrocket.  This singular event will bankrupt Yemenis, already the poorest of the poor.  People will not just be unable to afford water to live, water itself will be unavailable even from "free" government provided public taps. At that point, complete chaos will erupt even among today's marginal allies.

Evacuation of non-Arab skilled and technical expatriates working in Yemen is ongoing; India news agencies estimate that approximately 3,000 Indian ex-pats are waiting for egress to India, half of which are estimated to be nurses.  Loss of trained medical personnel will exacerbate the already deteriorating conditions.

Information Bullet # 3

The middle east is dominated by tribal systems of loyalty and power.
This aspect is merely given a modern look by the draping of nation-state structures upon ancient and stable systems for ordering life itself. Consider the Sykes-Picot Treaty as an example of this superficiality.

The Yemeni conflict has several main players. The Houthis, a tribal group that is of the Zaidi sect of “Fiver” Islam are in control (for now). They are domestically opposed by Al Quaeda/Ansar Al Sunnah, the secessionist southern socialists and remaining Sunni politicians. The Houthi takeover changed the dynamics of the region, as Yemen went from Saudi influence to Iranian influence. Blood (tribe, religion) is thicker than water.

The Houthis control the main watersheds and ground water in Yemen, as evidenced in this map of Houthi/Zaidi/Shia (dark green) presence 

The external players in the conflict are many: the Saudis, erstwhile supporters of the ousted Saleh Regime, the Iranians- supporters of the Houthi, Egypt/Sudan/Eritrea/Djibouti all having local interest in control of the Bab al Mandeb (trade influence, easy pirate access). 

Interestingly, American forces of CJTF-HOA are heavily ensconced in Djibouti at Camp Lemonier. Where they use the base for a variety of functions and to base drones from. The distance between Djibouti and Sanaa is a mere 230 miles, which gives drones a stunning loiter time

Information Bullet # 4 - A point to ponder

The dynamic where Saudi Arabia was replaced as the main foreign influence in Yemen is puzzling. The House of Saud has been staunchly linked to America for decades. It is the home to both Mecca and Medina, the focus of the Ummah. 

Saudia Arabia has the cheapest production costs for crude oil in the world, listed as 1-2$ a barrel in 2009  The Saudis have defiantly rebuked any suggestion by professional petroleum engineers that they have reached "Peak Oil" and what they are conducting now is an elaborate shell game with an ugly ending.

The Saudi oil fields are not randomly distributed. Saudi oil fields are mostly in the eastern section. Let the following sink in: 

It is apparent that the oil resources in Saudi Arabia sit under the sandals of Shia. Shia are clumped together above oil fields and at strategic junctions. 

Consider the implications to geopolitics if one were to suppose that Iran were to be on the rise with America, and that the House of Saud had outlived its usefulness. Maybe, maybe not. In any event, the future will be pretty sporty, though.

1 comment:

Ann T. said...

Just found your blog - thank you! Your articles on Yemen and Greece have helped distill the info into a more easily understood summary.

I will be back, often.