Incident: Just east of the capital Sana’a at least five people have been killed in fighting near an oil pipeline that began the last week of December. Tribes in the oil-rich Marib province are suspected of sabotaging pipelines, and on 25 December, the Yemeni army launched a ground offensive in the area. The key target for sabotage is a 320-kilometer pipeline that carries around 180,000 barrels of oil per day to an export terminal on the Red Sea. Again, on 10 January, a bomb attack on the main crude export pipeline halted flows. Oil had only resumed pumping on 31 December after being repaired from the earlier attacks.
Bottom Line: Pipeline sabotage by tribes and Islamist groups with complicated loyalties will increase in intensity as a shaky new government attempts to assert control over the country’s only form of political currency—oil. Right now, we’re looking at major attacks on the export pipeline every 10-15 days.
Analysis: We can expect more sabotage in the coming weeks and months, both by tribes in the area and by Islamist fighters. Oil has long been the main currency of patronage in Yemen. Since the ouster of President Saleh in an Arab Spring-like turn of events, the country has been embroiled in a struggle to re-assert control over oil resources in order to return the system of patronage that keeps various tribes loyal to the government. The tribes are sabotaging the pipelines in order to maintain control over power-sharing negotiations. Islamist fighters linked to al-Qaida are sabotaging pipelines on behalf of military and security forces still loyal to Saleh. It is a power struggle that will doom Yemen’s oil industry.
Contributing to the rise in sabotage is the move by new President Mansur Hadi to restructure the army and Defense Ministry. The intention of this move is to remove elements still loyal to Saleh. The most significant move will be the merger of the elite republican guard—controlled by Saleh’s eldest son—into the Defense Ministry. The backlash will be significant, as the Saleh family is not ready to give up power.
Perhaps more than in any country in the region, Yemen is hostage to oil. The Saleh regime used oil revenues to pay off the country’s numerous influential tribes for support. Those revenues began to dwindle and eventually were responsible for Saleh’s ouster, under the surface. The game now is to see who can control these resources, which are right now still up for grabs. Whoever manages to control them can buy the support of the tribes, without which no government—as it is currently structured—can enjoy any level of control.