Is Yemen the next failed state?

Is Yemen becoming a breeding ground for terrorists? The question has been posed with much urgency by media commentators after the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab claimed that al-Qaida operatives based in Yemen trained, armed and tasked him with blowing up a US flight.

Yet articulating the question in this form is hardly novel. The western intelligence community has already established that Yemen is indeed a breeding ground for terrorists, more precisely since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The weakness of the Yemeni central government, its inability to penetrate the tribal areas, the mountainous Yemeni topography, in addition to the Yemeni leadership's ambiguous position towards its local jihadists, all contribute to the country's attractiveness to al-Qaida operatives. No wonder that the US Congress has designated Yemen a "front state" in the war on terror.

But posing the question this way fails to capture the seriousness of the situation. Instead, we should be asking: is the country the next failed state? The question has global security ramifications given Yemen's close proximity to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and its control over Bab al-Mandab, a strait at the mouth of the Red Sea through which an estimated 3.3m barrels of oils pass every day.

Yemeni officials tend to brush aside any suggestion that the country might be the region's next failed state, insisting that while predictions of the collapse of the Yemeni state have been reiterated for decades, Yemen is still intact.

Their statement might have impressed on me 15 years ago, but not today. Not so much because of the five-year Houthi revolt that is raging in the northern area on the border with Saudi Arabia, or because of the Yemen's southern separatists movement which is demanding its own state in the former South Yemen.

The country's modern political history is marred with civil wars and revolts leading the sarcastic observer to conclude that there is nothing new in these developments. What is new, however, are signs of divisions within the inner circle of power of the Yemeni president's family. If they continue unchecked, these could undermine the whole political system.

To consolidate its power the ruling elite in Yemen has depended on its traditional base: sectarian/tribal/regional groups whose support is vital for the political system as a whole to endure and survive. In Yemen, two circles have developed in the traditional base of power: the inner and outer. What concerns us in this here is the immediate tribal/sectarian clan, namely the President's Sanhan tribe, which is a member of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation. The president's ability to survive Yemeni recurrent political upheavals since he came to power in 1978 has depended on the unwavering backing of his immediate family and clan. Today, there are signs that some members of the Salilh clan are challenging his authority.

My own field research in addition to unconfirmed news reports points to a power struggle between President Ali Abduallah Salih and his half-brother, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the first armoured division and of the Northwestern Military Flank. He is seen as an obstacle to a smooth transition of power to Salih's son. The struggle burst into the open when some Yemeni online newspapers and blogs reported in 2008 armed clashes between troops loyal to the son of the president and those of Ali Mohsen.

This division within the Yemeni inner circle should be followed carefully by the international community. If it turns into open confrontations, the state's grip on the system will slither. Compounded with the state's weakness, the raging Houthi revolt, Southern separates aspirations, and the unremitting economic crisis, Yemen could become a lawless zone.

Elham Manea, dual nationality – Yemeni and Swiss. She is senior researcher at the university of Zurich, research member of the Asia and Europe research project and affiliate researcher with the NCCR research program 'Challenges to Democracy in the 21 st Century'