Yemen, beloved of the Travel Channel, is the largely unknown corner of the southwestern Arabia peninsula.
Its oil production is modest compared to its giant northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, but political events there have concerned Riyadh for decades, and since 9/11 western governments, as Yemen was the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, and incubator of several of the 9/11 hijackers.
It is concern for the ongoing political instability emanating from the country and its ability to destabilize its wealthy northern neighbor, a key OPEC player, that has focused local and foreign attempts to quell the state’s political unrest, as the stakes are high should they spill across the border and affect Saudi oil production.
And, in the latest example of the natives being restless, on the morning of 10 March armed men believed to be members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked an oil pipeline in al Buriga in Yemen's port city of Aden at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.
The assault was part of AQAP’s ongoing attacks against public infrastructure and government officials in the south of the country, a police officer speaking off the record told China’s Xinhua news agency.
So, why should anyone care?
For answer, see above – AQAP’s proximity to Saudi Arabia and the government’s inability to quell its activities.
And the attacks are having an effect - attacks on pipelines in Yemen has seen oil production drop by 40 percent over the past few years, from 286,000 barrels per day in 2009 to an average of 170,000 bpd in 2011.
Because the Yemeni government is unable effectively to quash AQAP on its territory, covert U.S. military missions there have increased. On the same day as the pipeline attacks, U.S. drone attacks killed at least 25 al Qaeda-linked guerrillas, including one of their purported leaders, while a Yemeni air force raid killed 20 more in southern Yemen.
Since last month Yemeni militants have expanded their operations in southern Yemen following months of turmoil after the “Arab spring” suddenly erupted in the North African Arab Magreb, which increasingly paralyzed the country and eventually unseated former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was replaced last month in a vote by Saleh’s chosen successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
Nothing to see here, move along.
So, how to quell the discontents?
For now, target them in the wastelands and drop Predator UAV Hellfire drone missiles on them, courtesy of the CIA.
While the policy currently contains the insurgents with their grievances against the authorities in the capital Sana’a, it does nothing to alleviate the long-standing issues of the countryside’s grievances against the capital.
And the U.S. is slowly getting inhaled into Yemeni politics into another “mission creep” agenda in the Islamic world. In late January, at least 12 al Qaeda militants, including four local leaders, were killed in a drone strike in southern Yemen, which a tribal chief attributed to a U.S. attack.
As for U.S. interests in this previously obscure part of the world, last year CIA Director David Petraeus described AQAP militants as "the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad."
So, given Yemen’s fractured tribal politics, where to go from here?
For the U.S. try to assert the central government’s authority, or deal with regional “realities on the ground?
If the former, try to work through newly elected Yemeni President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Since 2007 the U.S. has earmarked more than $326 million in security and civilian assistance into Yemen, a trifle overall in its Middle East commitments, but a fortune to Yemen.
The Saudi-Yemeni border is increasingly resembling the U.S.-Mexican one, where a prosperous First World country is trying to shut out the turmoil from its poverty-stricken and increasingly radical southern neighbor. Not to push the parallel too far however, as Saudi Arabia and Yemen are only divided by sand, not the Rio Grande.
On 11 March two men were killed in southern Yemen when a bomb they planned to use in an attack on government forces exploded prematurely, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. Yemeni forces subsequently picked up four members of Somalia’s al Shabaab militant network. The CIA has been conducting armed UAV strikes on Somalia’s al Shabaab militants as well.
What is the Somali word for “outsourcing?”
Chaos on the southern frontier of the world’s largest oil producer will require some innovative thinking besides simply trying to kill the bad guys, a Saudi effort that has the full compliance of the U.S. If the Yemeni radicals decide to go further afield than attacking their own energy infrastructure, then the world could quickly find its attention focusing once again on Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com