GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Developing Yemen’s Futures: Can Arabia ever be Felix Again?
Paper Proposal Text :
The ongoing civil and humanitarian crisis in Yemen, precipitated by the fall of Ali Abdullah Salih, the political rise of the Huthis and the Saudi-led military intervention, has destroyed decades of development and grass-roots entrepreneurship. In the late 1960s Yemen, the fabled Arabic Felix of antiquity, emerged from an isolated imamate and a colonial era British protectorate with the beginning of two separate revolutionary nation states: the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. The unification of these two regimes in 1990, following the thaw in the Cold War, seemed hopeful at first but Yemen’s struggling economy was hit with a tsunami by the forced return of up to a million Yemeni laborers in the fallout from the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Whatever the outcome of the current power struggles and sectarian violence, Yemen’s estimated 25 million people will need a massive amount of development assistance to overcome the spiraling poverty, inadequate supply of food, deteriorating health, infrastructure and private business destruction and the sheer trauma of the devastating humanitarian crisis.
How can the possible futures for Yemen be imagined? This paper will examine the possible scenarios for rebuilding Yemen based on the author’s experience as a development consultant, working on projects in Yemen since 1982, ethnographic participant observation of traditional irrigation and agriculture in a rural highland community, and historian of the state-building Rasulid era (13th-15th centuries). All scenarios for the future of Yemen must take into account both environmental and cultural challenges, exacerbated at present by a large population with increasing needs that have far outstripped the capacity of previous governments. The primary ecological constraint is the decline in water tables, impacting both potable water supply and the future of irrigated agriculture. The geographical diversity of Yemen, especially the high mountains that make transport difficult from the coastal ports to the central highlands, poses another concern. Yemen’s natural resources, primarily oil and gas, are limited, although future research may find new sources.
The cultural factors are both positive and negative. Historically local communities have evolved through civil society rather than relying on a central government, especially in the tribal areas. Cooperation with groups and mediation of disputes between groups has ensured relative security and stability in the past. But these traditional mechanisms are under stress by the polarizing rhetoric of sectarianism. Although there have been political differences throughout Yemen’s history, sectarian religious conflict has been limited. Until recently the Zaidi branch of Shi’a and the Sunni Shafi’i coexisted in harmony. The influx of Wahhabi Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood views, intolerant of local practices, have created the stage for sectarian rivalry. On top of this the growth of al-Qa’ida and ISIS have further eroded the tolerance of religious diversity.
No matter how much donor aid can be applied to rebuilding Yemen, Arabia can never achieve any level of happiness without first resolving the environmental and cultural constraints. In order to examine possible scenarios for Yemen over the next generation as it emerges from this conflict, it is important to look into Yemen’s past to see how people in this region have overcome major disasters and regime changes in the past. What are the aspects of Yemen’s cultural and Islamic history which will be most relevant to deal with problems of the present and development for the future? What are the global dynamics at play that will shape the future of the only democracy attempted on the Arabian Peninsula? What role can Yemen play in a region dominated by the wealthy Gulf States and Saudi Arabia? This paper is not meant to be a crystal ball but rather will chart the possibilities in a region that is currently in the midst of major upheavals and polarization.