Yemen Failed state

Troubled Socotra – the “World’s Most Alien Place” – Seeks Autonomy

Socotra mapYemen’s Socotra Archipelago, dominated by the main island of the same name, is best known for its unique flora, with almost 700 species found nowhere else. Some of its plants have gained fame for their unusual forms, such as the dragon blood tree and the cucumber tree. Socotra’s millions of years of isolation, its complex geology, and its harsh climate have contributed to the evolution of its vegetational oddities. Owing to such plant life, the Dragon Blood Treeisland is often described as the “most alien place on Earth” (see also here). It has also been famed since antiquity as a place of magic. Marco Polo supposedly claimed that, “The people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world.”

Cucumber TreeA relatively arid land, most of the island receives only about 250 millimeters (10 inches) of rain annually, fairly evenly distributed across the year. The Haghier Mountains in the center-northeast, which reach 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet), are considerably wetter and cooler than the rest of the island. Catching both the southwest and northeast monsoon winds, Socotra Satellite Imagethese highlands experience frequent seasonal fog. As a recent meteorological study concluded, “Preliminary measurements suggest that at higher altitudes, fog-derived moisture may constitute up to two-thirds of total moisture, amounting up to 800 mm.” Fog drip is vital for dragon blood tree, which in turn provides shade necessary for the survival of many other species. The tree itself is widely regarded as something of a wonder, as its red resin provides a wide array of products. According to the Wikipedia, it is used as a stimulant, abortifacient, astringent, toothpaste, breath freshener, lipstick, wound dressing, coagulant, varnish (especially for violins), and treatment for rheumatism, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, and ulcers.

Unfortunately, Socotra is currently a troubled place, and even its iconic dragon blood tree is in some danger. Socotra’s problems are mostly not of its own doing, but rather stem from the fact that it is part of Yemen. As Al Jazeera recently reported:

The current power vacuum in Yemen has left Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a precarious situation. Concerned about the rise in food, fuel and gas prices, islanders have scrambled to purchase goods in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Budgets for infrastructure and recreation have also dropped amid the turmoil, island residents say – and because all flights to Socotra require a stopover on the mainland, tourism has also taken a hit.

According to the BBC, tourist arrivals dropped from around 4,000 in 2010 to some 1,400 in 2013, delivering a devastating blow to the nascent business. But tourism on Socotra seems to be adapting, and direct flights from Dubai now available weekly for $650. The drop in fuel subsidies, however, continues to generate discomfort. According to a recent article in Yemen Times, “the island’s pristine nature and rare plant life has come under threat from a domestic fuel crisis that has left locals without gas or electricity, forcing many to begin cutting down the rare trees to collect firewood”

Socotra has faced other perils in recent years. In 2011, reports claimed that Somali pirates were using the archipelago as a refueling hub. More recently, rumors have been circulating that the United States and Yemen are planning “to build a military prison — a ‘new Guantánamo’ — on the remote island of Socotra.” A less likely threat comes from the government of Somalia, which has “claimed that the islands of Yemeni Socotra Archipelago are part of it, requesting the United Nations to determine the status of the archipelago…” Considering Somalia’s inability to control its own territory, such claims hardly seem realistic. They would also be vehemently rejected by the majority of Socotra’s inhabitants, whose cultural and historical affinities are with the Al Mahrah region of eastern Yemen, not Somalia. (The marginalized

Greater Somalia MapSocotran minority of African descent, however, might feel otherwise.) Still, in newspaper discussion forums, some commentators claim that Socotra is rightfully part of Somalia. Here I find the comments of one Hassan Adam to be particularly pertinent: “In the good old days of greater Somalia we were taught in the school that Socotra is part of Somalia — but no more.  I guess Somaliland or Djibouti could claim better. Today its part and parcel of Yemen and the people are more Yeminate in their Arabic than Somali. Let us conserve for all.”

Although, as Hassan Adam notes, Arabic is widely spoken on Socotra, it is not the first language of the island’s indigenous inhabitants. The people of Socotra, some 50,000 strong, speak Soqotri, a South Arabian Languages Mapmodern South Arabian language most closely related to Mehri of Yemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate. Soqotri, however, is quite distinctive. As noted in the Wikipedia, “the isolation of the island of Socotra has led to the Soqotri language independently developing certain phonetic characteristics absent in even the closely related languages of the mainland.” As Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle noted in a 2003 study, Soqotri is characterized by a high level of dialectal diversity. She expressed concern, however, that many of its dialects are disappearing. She also claimed that the language itself is under some threat from the spread of Arabic:

The influence of Arabic is noticeable in the numeration system: seven years ago, Soqotri people, from the inland or remote places, used the Soqotri system of numeration from one to ten in commercial transactions with other Soqotri speakers in ˆadibo. But, in 2001 in ˆadibo, even old people used Arabic system, and it was very difficult to obtain the first ten numbers in Soqotri from young people. When they remember Soqotri, the syntax was often incorrect, and copied from Arabic.

Many young people in the town borrow from Arabic, and code-switch with Arabic; they do not remember any piece of literature…

One problem faced by Soqotri is its historical lack of a written form that could be used to preserve the island’s rich poetic traditions. That stumbling block, however, has recently been eliminated, as a Russian team of linguists led by Vitaly Naumkin has devised a writing system for the language. As was recently reported in Al Jazeera:

[Naumkin’s] team also invited Socotri-speaking “informants” to Moscow – where they spent months retelling their mother island’s oral poetry and folk tales, or conjugating verbs for the Socotri grammar tables.

There, in 2010, one of the informants named ‘Isa Gum’an used the Arabic script to write down a story he’d heard from a friend. “It was our major surprise … when one November evening in 2010, ‘Isa Gum’an somewhat timidly revealed to us that, in order to better preserve an interesting story he had heard from a friend a few days earlier, he had decided to put it in writing using Arabic script,” Naumkin wrote in the preface to the 2014 book of Socotran folklore.

The eureka moment prompted the invention of an easily accessible Socotri alphabet based on the Arabic script. To reflect the phonetics of Socotri, Russian linguists decided to add four letters to the Arabic alphabet – using symbols that denote non-Arabic phonemes in the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

But it was not the use of the Arabic script and additional symbols that make the new alphabet matter – it is the comprehensive scientific effort that followed it.

Such Russian interest in Socotra might seem surprising, but Socotra was formerly part of South Yemen, which was a close Soviet ally in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a time, the island even hosted a Soviet military base.

Today, political discontent in Socotra understandably runs high. Dissatisfaction with Yemeni rule, however, may be leading to a revival of the Soqotri language. A 2012 article by Nathalie Peutz provides essential context. As she reports:

For if revolution has reached Socotra, as many young enthusiasts in Hadiboh would claim, it is manifest not merely in the biweekly gatherings of male protesters marching through the dusty market to the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It is evident also in the way that Socotrans have begun to speak openly and forcefully about their preferences for Socotra’s political future. And it was measurable in the islands’ largest cultural event, a five-day festival during which nine Socotran wordsmiths vied for the title of “poet of the year.” Now in its fourth year, the festival, which began on the eve of 2012, featured poem after poem, in the islanders’ native Suqutri tongue, reflecting on the Arab revolts, the turmoil on the mainland and the fate of the archipelago. Where political discontent long found expression in ruminations on a pastoral past, today it is articulated in contending verses on the prospects for Socotran sovereignty.

Mahra Sultanate MapPeutz also reports that although many Socotrans look back at the period when the island was part of the Mahra Sultanate of central-southern Arabia as a “time of autonomous, sovereign statehood,” they still tend to view the sultanate itself as a foreign, mainland imposition. As a result, many want full autonomy or even independence. Yemen did make Socotra a separate governorate in 2013, but that was not enough to satisfy local aspirations. But as Peutz’s reporting makes clear, Socotran’s are far from united in their vision of the island’s political future:

Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for “return” to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. … Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the “colors” (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the “fires” or “dark rain clouds” of the present.


Oman and Yemen: So Similar, So Different…

Arabia Satellite ImageAt first glance, Oman and Yemen almost appear to be sibling states. They fairly evenly divide the southeastern slice of the Arabian Peninsula. Both countries have extensive highlands on their opposing extremities, which receive much more rainfall than the rest of region and thus allow intensive agriculture both within the uplands themselves and in the adjacent lowlands. They share the seasonally wet central coastal area of Dhofar/Al Mahrah. Both countries sit at the entrance of a vitally important strait that leads to a major sea (the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian [Arabian] Gulf in the case of Oman; the Bab-el-Mandeb leading to the Red Sea in the case of Yemen).

The histories of the two countries are also closely linked. Some sources date the formation of Oman to the migration of a large portion of the Azd tribe from Yemen in the first century CE, following the collapse of the Great Dam of Ma’rib, one of the engineering wonders of the ancient world. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Oman, “The present-day name of the country, Oman, is believed to originate from the Arab tribes who migrated to its territory from the Uman region of Yemen; many such tribes settled in Oman, making a living by fishing, herding or stock breeding…” Both countries also share a similar historical dynamic in the tension between theocratically Imamate of Oman and Muscat Maporiented, inward-looking inland areas and more secular, cosmopolitan coastal regions. Key to understanding Omani history was the periodic tension between Oman Proper, generally ruled by the elected Ibadi Imams, and the coastal Sultanate of Muscat (before 1970, the official name of the country was “Muscat and Oman”). Similarly, the history of Yemen must be understood in the context of the long-lasting rivalry between the Zaidi Imamate of the northwestern highlands and the more secular rulers of the coastal and southern highland regions. Equally significant is the fact that Oman and Yemen were two of the world’s least internationally oriented and socio-economically developed countries in the mid-20th century.


Such similarities should not be exaggerated, however. Yemen’s highlands are much more extensive than those of Oman, and they receive significantly more rainfall. As a result, the population of Oman Yemen Population Density MapYemen is, and has long been, much larger than that of Oman. Oman, moreover, has nothing like Yemen’s Hadhramaut, a sizable desert area with abundant water in its deeply incised wadis (seasonal waterways), which allow intensive cultivation and settlement. But despite Yemen’s much larger population, Oman played a much more important world historical role in the early modern period, when its Muscat-based empire controlled large parts of the western Indian Ocean basin. “Yemen proper” (the more densely populated western third of the country), on the other hand, was never much of a power center in this period. The Hadhramis of the Hadhramaut, on the other hand, did play a major economic and cultural role across most of the Indian Ocean realm, with their diaspora taking them all the way to Indonesia.

Yemen Oman ComparedDespite their similarities, Yemen and Oman are today remarkably different places. Yemen is war-torn country at the edge of being a completely failed state. Even before its recent descent into chaos, it was noted for its poverty and general lack of development. Oman, on the other hand, is a stable and prosperous state, with a per capita GDP almost 20 times that of Yemen.

It is tempting to attribute Oman’s better fortunes solely to oil, as oil wealth has allowed its extraordinarily rapid progress in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As the table posted here shows, Oman’s oil production is much higher than that of Yemen. The fact that Oman’s population is much lower, Yemen Oman Fertility Ratemoreover, means that its oil revenues go much further. Here the discrepancy between the two countries will only grow more pronounced, as Yemen’s birthrate in much higher than Oman’s, although it is dropping rapidly. Due to a combination of Yemen fast-growing population, chaotic politics, rampant insecurity, poverty, and general aridity, the country is experiencing a water crisis that could prove devastating within the next few decades. Oman faces problems of its own, most notably an impending oil production decline, but it will probably be able to adjust, given its more general developmental success and its small population. Much depends, however, on the sultanate’s uncertain political succession, as mentioned in a previous post.

The gargantuan difference between the two countries, however, also rests on institutions and even personalities. The tolerant, deliberative nature of Oman’s Ibadi religious establishment may be a foundation of the country’s success. A clear difference between the two counties is found in the characteristics of their recent governments. In Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, in power since 1970s, has been an autocratic but competent ruler who has been devoted to the welfare of his country. In Yemen, president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power from 1978 to 2012, has been rather different figure. As argued by Thomas Juneau in 2010:

The president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, rules by maintaining a precarious balance among a variety of competing forces, including the military and the security apparatus, the main tribes, political parties and factions, and key clerics. By buying loyalty through patronage and ruling through a combination of cooptation, inclusion and coercion, Saleh has painstakingly built an “administrative feudal system”2 that has evolved into a mix of “kleptocracy and plutocracy.


Finally, some observers link Yemen’s failure to its notorious qat habit. Development is constrained, they argue, when virtually the entire urban male population of the country devotes almost every afternoon to the convivial chewing of the leaves of this mildly narcotic, water-demanding plant. Many Yemenis agree with this perspective. As was reported locally in 2012:

“Qat, the cursed plant in Yemen,” was the headline in a five-part series published by the Yemen Times in 2010, documenting extensively the social problems associated with qat chewing in the country. …

On January 12 [2-12], through social media, Yemenis are organizing an event called “I want Yemen to change – I will not store qat”. This event, organized by Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni activist based in Beirut and who made headlines with the “Shame Reuters” campaign, is a call for all Yemenis, wherever they are, to say no to qat, to not store any qat and to protest the cultivation and consumption of qat. International organizations should watch for this event and support the people of Yemen in making a transition that is much more difficult than any political process: That of building a new country in which the widespread cultivation and consumption of qat can be eventually replaced.

H=Greater Yemen MapDespite Yemen’s myriad problems, a “Greater Yemen” movement evidently still seeks the enlargement of the country, hoping to acquire the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia as well as Oman’s Dhofar Governorate. Right now, there seems to be a larger chance that a “Lesser Yemen” will emerge from the wreckage of the shattered state.