FOR many of us, our first glimpse of Yemen was in March 2011 when the ancient country of the southern heel of the Arabian peninsula faced a diverse protest movement gathered against Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s longtime ruler.
It seemed for moment that he would join Egypt Hoshi Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in sudden and ignominious retirement. However, Saleh was too clever and the nascent revolution quickly collapsed into a muddle that left no one happy.
Street protests which had been almost totally peaceful; an extraordinary achievement in a country rife with tribal vendettas; soon gave way to a deadly battle within the Yemeni power elite, as the president and his rivals fought for control in the capital.
Saleh staved off the inevitable with threats and false promises, even after a bombing in his palace mosque left him badly wounded.
Finally in November 2011 he signed an agreement that ceded power to his vice-president, ABD Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, but left the current political system largely in place. Fast forward to 2015 and we witness Yemen at the brink of a civil war.
Yemen is often described in newspaper shorthand as “The ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden” Even though his father left for Saudi Arabia as a very young man.
It is a country of extraordinary physical beauty; an unearthly landscape of craggy ochre mountains and terraced hillsides where farming has been practiced for thousands of years.However, Yemen is the poorest in the Arab world and is running out of oil and water very fast.
Like many other Arab countries, Yemen encouraged its people to volunteer and fight against the Russian in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
After the war Yemen was divided into two mutually hostile states: A Marxist south, the successor state of the former British colony that had achieved independence in 1967 and a nominally democratic North Saleh was the northern president whose dream had been to crush the Marxists and unify the country.
In 1990 a peremptory unification was declared but the celebrations masked a clash of egos and ideologies. The reckoning came in 1994 after the southerners balked at Saleh’s autocratic ways and civil war broke out.
The war was over in two months and the jihadis who had helped Saleh secure a victory were given free reign to plunder Aden, south Yemen’s capital. Saleh wanted to send a brutal and indelible message and the jihadis were the perfect vehicle.
They looted and smashed the remnants of secular rule in the south; the beachside hotel, the beer gardens. They even destroyed tombstones in graveyards seeing them as a temptation to idolatry.
The most damage came when Saleh simply stole vast swaths of private and public land across the south, deeding it to those who had helped him in the war.
The war left Saleh deeply indebted to the jihadis and to their clerical patron Abd ali Majid Al-Zindani, who became a central figure in Yemeni politics as a leader of Islah, Yemen islamist party.
Yemen had never been very fertile ground for Salafism, the puritanical religions strain that is dominant in Saudi Arabia to the north.
However, the Saudis had been funding religious schools to spread their influence and Saleh tended to favour Salafis, mainly because they preach strict obedience to temporal rulers.
This was not quite true of their ideological siblings the jihadis, but Saleh reckoned he could control them too. Through the 1990s Jidas who were pursued by the police in Egypt and other Arabs countries found refuge in Yemen .
The al-Qaeda branch in Yemen grew more powerful and became far more dangerous while Saleh was distracted by other more serious challenges to his rule including an intermittent armed rebellion in north-western Yemen.
By 2008 the jihadis having once viewed him as almost an ally, now aimed to get rid of him, along with the royal family of Saudi Arabia next door.
Many of the al-Qaeda men were refugees from Saudi Arabia which was cracking down hard on its network in the kingdom. Yemen was a much safer place for them and the long desert border Saudi and Yemen branches of the group officially merged, forming al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.
One thing seems clear :the men who remade al-Qaeda were a different breed from the earlier generation .They were toughened by fresh battle experience and less willing to be co-opted by Saleh with offers of money and reconciliation, as many veterans of the Afghan conflict had been.
By the time Saleh ceded power to Hadi armed jihadis allied with al-Qaeda had taken full advantage of the chaos and were the Defacto rulers of a large swath of southern Yemen.
The military confused and demoralised had put up almost no resistance and local government officials fled in terror. The jihadis had a declared a Taliban-style emirate in Jaah and other towns and began winning the affections of many villagers with handout of water, food and gasoline Hadi’s willingness to fire almost all of Saleh’s family members from their sinecures in the security services endeared him with the Yemen public.
However, when it comes to deeper changes Hadis options seem limited. He is dependent for protection and support on some of the same military and tribal figures who have been bleeding the regime of its oil revenues for years.
He presides over a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy, a largely ineffective military and a country driven by powerful tribal and regional divisions with a de facto rebel state let in the north and an angry secessionist movement in the south.
The Houthi rebel group that controls the north-western Yemen and advancing to the capital is modeled on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia.
That alone is terrifying to Saudi Arabia which is just across the border and fought a brief and somewhat humiliating war with the Houthis in late 2009.
Yemen is rapidly running out of the one resource that is really necessary for life; the World Bank estimated that Sanna could become the first global capital that has no water.