October 16, 2009. Overlooking the central highlands of Yemen. The densely populated mountains of Yemen’s Sarawat range reach over 3,000 metres.
December 14, 2009. Yemeni soldiers chew qat, a mildly narcotic leaf, while on patrol in Wadi Doan in eastern Yemen.
October 16, 2009. Villagers involved in a tribal dispute with a neighbouring village in Yemen’s central highlands show off their weapons.
Vice: How did you become so interested in Yemen? It’s not exactly a country that often features on A Place in the Sun.
The coverage of Yemen in mainstream media seems quick to condemn the place as going to hell in a handcart. Can it really be that bad?
How did this water crisis come about? We’re guessing it wasn’t a case of too many people leaving the sprinkler on.
Aside from a potential complete lack of water, what are the other major issues being overlooked by the media?
October 9, 2009. A boy waits in line for food at the Mazraq refugee camp in Hajjah province, Yemen. The displaced persons at Mazraq camp have fled fighting between rebels, known as Houthis, and the government in the Sa’ada province of northern Yemen.
That doesn’t sound good. How about in the south?
So it became a little jihadi colony?
How deep has al-Qaeda sunk its tentacles into Yemen?
What sort of poverty levels are we talking about in Yemen?
January 16, 2010. A member of Yemen’s counterterrorism police force directs an exercise in the mountains outside the capital Sana’a. The special unit is trained by US and British Special Forces.
Everywhere seems to be running out of oil. Is Yemen’s case more pressing?
It’s more dire than most. They never had that much oil to begin with as they are stuck at the shit end of the peninsula. Most of the oil is concentrated in the south, so the political situation there makes it much harder for the central government to get any money from the oil. In Yemen, every issue ties into at least two or three other problems that make it harder to solve. There are also problems with piracy, right?
Yes, and it’s getting worse. For a while it was concentrated off Yemen’s western coast, close to Somalia, but now we are seeing a lot more piracy around the south, near the port of Aden. I think what is interesting is that Yemen is so much closer to Somalia than it is to the Arab heartland. We tend to see things too simply. We connect Yemen with the Middle East, but culturally it is far closer to Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Ethiopia. When you see similar paterns of piracy in Somalia and Yemen, it makes sense. Crime often follows the same links as culture. What form of piracy is this? Is it the kidnapping and ransom type you hear a lot about in Somalia?
It’s mostly for ransom. But then you have a lot of smuggling routes that follow the same lines as the piracy routes. I think the smuggling of arms and drugs is more of a threat than actual ransom piracy. Yemen is a hub for international crime. It is geographically ideally suited to smuggling arms into war zones in the Horn of Africa and drugs up through Saudi Arabia. Plus it’s a major route for arms supply to terrorist groups. Is there any meaningful effort being made by the West or international organisations to try to avert any of these impending disasters?
There have been a lot of conferences and there is the Facebook group-sounding “Friends of Yemen” who have meetings and talk about helping. We will see if that actually comes to anything but historically these talks don’t tend to. If things were to continue as they currently are, how long do you give Yemen before it becomes a totally failed state?
I would say it could very easily happen within a year. Would a total collapse make the country an even better base for al-Qaeda operations?
The huge fear is that the autonomous tribes now have connections with al-Qaeda and they can use their safe havens, without any government interference, to strike abroad. Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula needs space, but also some structure, and Yemen’s tribal havens can provide both. They have already shown themselves able to strike at the heart of Saudi Arabia, and the fear is that a Yemen that can no longer harass them would be a country where the Saudis, or even worse, the West, feels they need to intervene militarily. That would make Afghanistan look like a cakewalk.
Photos: Paul Stephens