On 15th September 2013, saboteurs blew up the pipeline linking Yemeni oil fields in the North to the Hodeidah export terminal, on the Red Sea coast. It was the third time in two months. In the meantime, the Yemeni political life was also marked by a deluge of US drone strikes against militants of “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP).  On 18th October, a militia of armed and well-organised Islamist militants attacked a Yemeni military base in the Southeast, preceded by a car bomb suicide attack, which killed five soldiers. The two following weeks saw endless attacks and manifestations, against the government as well as sectarian violence, leaving dozens dead.

Anne Knight Smoke_above_Westgate_mallIn the meantime, on the other side of the Gulf of Aden, the Al-Shabaab Islamist militia, coming from Somalia, launched a terrible raid in neighbouring Kenya, on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 62 people during a siege that lasted more than three days. Kenyan security forces, helped by Israeli Special Forces, finally overwhelmed them.

On 5th October, an operation was launched by US Special Forces in the Somali coastal town of Barawe, against a “high value target”, meaning a high-ranking Al-Shabaab leader. But the commando was repelled after a savage 20 minutes fight, and evacuated by sea (The long war journal).

These events raise several questions: why is the region covering Kenya, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea, the theatre of armed violence politics? Who is involved, and why? What are the reasons for those conflicts? What can link oil blackmail, Al-Shabaab spectacular attack in Kenya, the Yemeni civil war, and a generalized heightening of tension in the whole area of the Red Sea and of the Indian Ocean, a region profoundly affected by the planetary and economic dynamics of environmental global change?

 Resource quests in a warming region

Some well-informed commentators analyse the attack on the Westgate Mall as a political statement from the Al-Shabaab leadership, trying to reassert power (Prunier, Le Monde diplomatique, 2013). Prunier, among others, suggests that the Al-Shabaab militia has been loosing ground in Somalia, since 2011.

Al–Shabaab had emerged from the short-lived “Islamic courts”, which took power in 2005-2006 in Somalia. The Islamic militia started to recruit in Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya. It became a dominant force in Somalia, gaining ground not only in Somalia, but also in Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya, exacting tribute from the pirates on the Somali coast of the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and thus receiving dozens of millions dollars. However, during the terrible drought of 2010-2011, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, it chased away the European and US NGOs, which were the only instances taking care of the population (in 2009-2010, a new famine was triggered by the failure of yearly precipitations, and between 2010 and 2012, an estimated 258,000 excess deaths was attributable to severe food insecurity and famine in southern and central Somalia – see 2013 FAO FEWSNET report).

This happened to be a very bad political move, turning the people against Al-Shabaab, and thus undermining its legitimacy and authority, because it was perceived as aggravating the social consequences of the drought. The same year, with the accord of the African Union and backed by the USA, Kenya, Eritrea and Somalia invaded Somalia, to restore some order and to strike at the numerous militias, guerrillas, and traffickers of all kinds, whose proliferation was a threat to the whole Horn of Africa, already under great social, environmental and economic pressures, pushing a lot of small and regional communities towards the edge of collapse (Parenti, 2011). The attack on the Westgate Mall of Nairobi by an Al-Shabaab commando in September was a show of force, demonstrating that they were on the offensive, reassuring their backers and attracting new recruits (Will Ross, BBC News Africa, 5 Oct. 2013).

Aljouf Al_Shabaab_UN_Attack_Mogadishu

What do the militias trying to blackmail the Yemeni government by blowing up a pipeline, Al-Shabaab attacking Nairobi, the decision of the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Eritrean governments, the Somali pirates risking their lives at sea to attack trawlers and tankers to get a ransom against captured crews, and the Yemeni government accepting US military support have in common? They are all fighting to obtain resources, be they financial, human, or natural.

And the fight goes on because all these actors, state and non-state, from the Horn of Africa to the Suez Canal, are on the edge of a social, environmental and economic abyss. And they strive and struggle, for their own form of viability (Klare, Resource wars, 2001).

Losing resources …


The whole region is under the pressure of this new imperative: the depletion of environmental, economic and social vital resources.  The Yemeni situation, or, should we say, condition, is a “perfect” case study of what is happening all around the Red Sea. Armed violence by militias, an especially Al-Qaeda, is what made Yemen ephemerally famous in 2000, with the suicide attack against the U.S.S. Cole in Aden.

However, in 2011, Yemen, as many other countries, was swept by the “Arab spring” (Georges Corm, Le Proche-Orient éclaté, 2012). After 35 years as head of State, President Saleh was thrown out by a coalition of insurgents and replaced by President Abd Abou Mansour Hadi. However, what is really interesting to notice is that, during the long reign of President Saleh, which represents almost two generations, the socio-environmental condition of Yemen and of the Yemeni entered an endless cycle of degradation, while experiencing a demographic explosion (UNEP, Yemen human development indicators).

Bernard Gagnon 640px-Marib_dam

 As Abdul Rahman al-Eryani, Yemen’s former minister of water and environment, quoted by Tom Friedmann, declares: “In Sana, the capital, in the 1980s, you had to drill about 60 meters to find water. Today, you have to drill 850 to 1,000 meters to find water. Yemen has 15 aquifers, and only two today are self-sustaining; all the others are being steadily depleted. And wherever in Yemen you see aquifers depleting, you have the worst conflicts.” (Tom Friedman, New-York Times, 7 May 2013).

Aquifers have been overused since the seventies, when lots of rural young men left Yemen to go working for the Saudi booming building industry. This loss of manpower obliged women to cut trees for cooking, which triggered a rapid process of erosion and a silting of wadis (seasonal riverbeds where rich soil is used for planting crops after the rain season) necessary for agriculture, especially coffee.

Raphaël Fauveau 398px-Khat_vendor_in_Yemen

This favoured the widespread cultivation of Qat, a very addictive leaf that people chew together everyday, when the sun sets, all around the country. Qat is not only chewed by tradition, but is also an appetite suppressant, and an anxiolytic, which may be needed in a very anxiogenic and violent country, and it is quite addictive. Thus, cultivating Qat has become a good way to ensure revenue to farming communities. Qat can grow on poor soil, but needs lots of water, which depleted aquifers. Consequently, local conflicts between villages around depleting wells started multiplying and intensifying and still are nowadays (Adam Heffez, How Yemen Chewed Itself Dry, Foreign Affairs).

Besides Qat, oil is the main resource of Yemen. The very rapid depletion of oil reserves is a the national form of “resource curse” for the country. As a result of depleting reserves, oil production plummets: it was 457.000 barrels a day in 2002 and 180.000 barrels in 2012 (Chatham House, 2013). This trend has geological and political causes. On the geological side, Yemen has entered a very fast process of deposits’ depletion, even nearing exhaustion, which could happen as early as 2017. This would be a massive blow to the already very fragile economy of the country.

DNO Oil Yemen_06

However, Yemen’s peak oil has a political side too. Refineries and pipelines are attacked on a regular basis by bandits, militias, tribesmen, whether they are Islamist or not, in order to advance a political agenda or to exact a ransom from companies or government. The attacks have cost more than 4 billions dollars for 2011 and 2012, and oil exports decreased by 4.5% in 2012 (Chatham House, 2013). These amounts are enormous for such a small and poor country, counting 24.1 million people, but having 13.1 million people without direct access to water and sanitation (Chatham House, 2013).

This strange “petro civil war” is not only hurting the Yemeni financial situation and social cohesion, but also the water condition of the population. As aquifers are depleted, and as precipitations regime becomes erratic, most certainly because of climate change, Yemeni communities are having high expectations for desalination. Unfortunately, desalination plants are very costly, while the government is losing its resources (The Norwegian peacebuilding resource center, 2012).

In order to prevent the worst, i.e. the risk of civil war in a famished, drought stricken, thirsty and polarized country, the Yemeni government has launched a national dialogue between communities, tribes, movements, parties, and genders, to try to establish some national consensus about its politics. This dialogue tries to keep on, despite mounting sectarian, political and local resources conflicts.

In other words, Yemen is facing a major sustainability and existential crisis, which is splitting the very fabric of society. While the government is actively looking for solutions, the energy, water and climate conditions are worsening, feeding multiple conflicts. In that sense, one can establish a homology of situations for Yemeni factions and the government.

This movement of fracturing, caused by the nexus of social, environmental and economic degradation and by a brutalization of politics on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, as well in Yemen as, in worse, in Somalia, is not experienced with passivity. On the contrary, governments, community authorities, and violent armed groups, are wildly struggling and competing to find new sources of sustainability.

… looking for resources

This new reality is transforming not only Somalia and Yemen, but also all the coastal countries of the Red Sea. It is a new paradigm, which gives a new dimension, and a new edge, to national politics and strategies between the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal.

This whole region is stricken by a fast process of vital resources depletion, such as water and oil, which is the result of the convergence of new kinds of tensions emerging from changing social, economic, political, military and environmental conditions.

Wikimedia commons Port_Suez

Furthermore, the Red Sea is one of the three most important marine passageways in the world (with Panama and Malacca), because it links the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal in the North and the Gulf of Aden in the South. Thus, the heightening of a large spectrum of tensions is well illustrated by the “maritime great game” played by coastal, Middle East governments and by the U.S.A.

There are strong assumptions that Eritrea is not only hosting an Israeli base on the Red Sea, but also having a project … for an Iranian base (Stratfor, Oct.1, 2012).

The Iranian fleet seems to be more and more active in the Red Sea, and is accused by Israel of selling arms to the government of North Sudan, which then could smuggle them to Palestinian movements. The whole thing is, of course strongly denied by Khartoum (NOW, AFP. Dec. 8, 2012). Meanwhile, in 2011, the US military strengthened its regional presence by opening a new, and huge, military facility in Djibouti, next to the historic base of the French army.

It is interesting to notice that the intensification of strategic tensions happens when countries like North Sudan and Jordan are resource starved, and when the Middle East big players, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran are wondering how to insure not only their security, but, at a much more fundamental level, their viability and sustainability.

For example, since the partition between North and South Sudan in January 2011, Khartoum, capital of the North, has lost the bulk of the Sudanese oil fields out to the South. Even if Khartoum puts the government of the South under lots of pressure to cut oil deals (Stratfor), it doesn’t change the main fact: for political reasons, North Sudan has been brutally deprived of its main natural resource, upon which depended its already fragile economy. Oil deals with the South and possible arms deals with Iran can only marginally help the North (AFP, December 8, 2012), and tensions around the passage of pipeline heightens tensions between North and South Sudan.

These interlocked situations, from Kenya to Yemen and Sudan, show how these countries are sharing a regional nexus of resource depletion combined with climate change, which fuels political dynamics with their own specific origins, but that become thus aggravated and transformed.

Furthermore, it drives these countries, and others, to find, and compete for new resources, in very innovative and extreme ways.

To be continued…

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