With the recent obsession about the Iranian "Velvet Revolution," the ongoing coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, news from a country like Yemen seldom makes headlines in Western media, especially in the U.S. In fact, even for reporters savvy in Yemeni politics and fluent in Arabic, accurate and unfiltered news about what's really going on inside Yemen is hard to unearth. This is due to the security apparatus of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which to a large extent has made it difficult for independent media outlets to access troubled areas like Abyan, east Aden and Sa'ada, in northern Yemen.
During the past several weeks, Yemen's vulnerability as a potential haven for militants has become evident as the country battles a Shiite rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south. Most recently, Houthi rebels in northern Yemen seized a key control post on a strategic highway linking the capital San'a with Saudi Arabia, overcoming an army brigade after 12 hours of intense combat.
Violent confrontations originally erupted between the Yemeni forces and the Houthis in 2004, when the government sought to quell a militant movement gaining popularity in Sa'ada, then known as the Believing Youth. Its leader Hussein al-Houthi was killed during these confrontations, but instead of bringing a halt to the violence, al-Houthi's death contributed to the rebels' narrative that their distinct culture as followers of the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam was under attack by Yemen's central government.
This past July, more than 150 people were killed and injured in clashes between security forces and the Houthis in and around Sa'ada.
In an attempt to garner international support, the Yemeni government and state-controlled media tend to paint the Houthis as Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qaeda. The government has accused the rebels of plotting to attack Western interests, kidnap foreign diplomats, and attack unveiled women. During the Bush Administration, President Ali Abdullah Saleh would boast that the government's campaign against the Houthis was part of the global war on terrorism. Both these accusations are false. The Houthis were not involved in the kidnapping of foreigners, which was done mostly by tribes trying to extract services from the government such as electricity or paved roads, and the Houthis who are Shiite, are anti-Wahabi and oppose al-Qaeda. There are some indications though, that the Houthis have been receiving arms and financial support from Iran, adding more complexity to the problem.
Meanwhile, the Yemeni government has been accused of using excessive force in suppressing the rebellion, conducting mass arrests, cracking down on opposition parties suspected of supporting the rebellion, and imposing restrictions on the press from covering the events.
Secessionist sentiments are also on the rise in the south. Southerners in Yemen have long complained that northerners abuse the unity agreement by stealing their resources and discriminating against them. The south is home to most of Yemen's oil facilities.
The escalation of the Sa'ada conflict could severely undermine the country and threaten its fragile unity. Yemen's stability also poses a key concern to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, and U.S. interests in the region.
With the Obama Administration shifting its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, it may be ignoring what could potentially be the hottest spot in the Middle East...the country which is the ancestral birthplace of Osama bin Laden.