As Yemen descends further and further into chaos, it is in danger of becoming (if it is not already) a failed state. The president has fled and a full-blown proxy war between Iran and a Saudi Arabian-led coalition appears to be underway. A humanitarian disaster is looming, with the United Nations high commissioner warning that the country is ‘on the verge of total collapse’. With an already highly unstable and volatile region experiencing multiple threats to its integrity, Yemen looks set to join Syria and Iraq as another Middle Eastern nation whose government has lost control over the country.
It is not just this particular area of the world that is experiencing a turbulent moment. Somalia has been a failed state for decades, and Libya has become another after it was largely abandoned following the NATO intervention in 2011. Egypt is now a military dictatorship, while Boko Haram is terrorising Nigeria and its neighbouring countries with impunity. Meanwhile, the forgotten African countries of the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan/South Sudan, among others, remain mired in ongoing conflict. There does not seem to be any concrete progress being made towards global peace. With Yemen and other Arab-Muslim nations expressly in mind, let’s have a brief look at why this is, why there are so many failed states, and a never-ending spiral of war across such a large proportion of the earth’s surface.
The prevalence of poverty, corruption, and poor governance are obvious contributors to instability but these are not new issues. Undoubtedly, if more had been done to support democratic, representative governments in many of the afflicted countries, and meaningful steps had been taken to achieve a reduction in poverty, there would be less conflict. But in the last decade or so, more factors have come into play, which, in conjunction with the pre-existing conditions, have made many countries far more susceptible to collapse.
Western intervention in the Middle East and many African countries has played a significant role. Although this existed prior to 9/11, and is at least partially to blame for the initial rise of violent Islamic extremism among other things, since 2001 it has been drastically stepped up, most notably with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which undeniably contributed to the destabilisation of the region.
Al-Qaeda, sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, simply fled over the border to Pakistan following the invasion of the former in 2001. Pakistan became an immeasurably more dangerous country, while Afghanistan was destroyed by the US-led coalition. Iraq’s relatively stable (though horribly repressive) regime under Saddam Hussein was dismantled and replaced with a sectarian government that sidelined Iraqi Sunnis, causing well over a million deaths in the process. The demolition of Iraq was also instrumental in causing the creation of ISIS.
The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya similarly replaced a brutal dictatorship with a chaotic and unmanageable situation, ripe for warlords and extremists to gain control. In Yemen and Somalia, admittedly not the securest of states anyway, the use of drone strikes has terrorised the civilian population and has undoubtedly radicalised many more young Muslim men. The former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced out following protests during the Arab Spring, but his successor, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, continued the policy of allowing US drones to indiscriminately target civilians. This was a significant contributor to the uprising of the Houthis in that country today. The Western policies of war-making and oil-grabbing in the Middle East have directly contributed to instability, collapses of government authority and the growth in extremism that we are seeing now.
There is another significant factor that must be acknowledged. It is the internal struggle within Islam that is primarily threatening many of its own observants. The religion of Islam is going through a profoundly transitional phase, which has at times become revolutionary. The Arab Spring was a clear demonstration of this, as repressed Muslims living under despotic rulership rose up in protest against their situation. The effects of those events are ongoing. Syria’s civil war shows no signs of abating but has spread to Iraq, and Libya and now Yemen are also collapsing. The divisions between extreme Sunnis and the rest of the Islamic world are becoming more pronounced and dangerous. Yemen is now serving largely as a battlefield for a proxy war between Sunni and Shia forces, as a Saudi Arabian-led coalition air force unlawfully bombs supposedly Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, causing mass civilian casualties. The United States’ support for Saudi Arabia can only serve to exacerbate the conflict. The conclusion of the events in these many countries remains to be seen, and further conflict in other Muslim countries should not be unexpected.
It is vital that this juncture of the Islamic religion is recognised and addressed rather than automatically vilified. Of course, there is no defence for the barbarism of groups such as ISIS or Al-Shabab, who murdered 147 people in Kenya this week. But the wider picture is an internal conflict within the Muslim world, such as occurred with respect to Christianity some centuries ago. The best thing that Western countries can do is stay out of the conflicts, and cease the supply of weapons to any military force, which will only worsen the situation and increase its menace. The only form of intervention should be in the form of providing immense humanitarian aid and asylum to refugees of the crises. Attempting to engage in diplomacy, like the nuclear accord agreed with Iran recently, is the only way forward.