Yemen has always been heavily populated compared to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, but there has never been a natural proximity between the arid country’s few natural resources and the many people who desperately need them. Under such competitive circumstances, Yemenis largely rely on their particular tribe, rather than a distant central government, for security and provisions. This tendency is compounded by the past empires and present neighbors that sought influence over the country by dividing these many tribes and pitting them against one another. Saleh built his regime on these fissures. Over the years he crafted an elaborate patronage system that used the country’s energy-export revenues to buy military power and tribal loyalty and stifle any sign of rebellion. However, the country’s resources have dried up while the population has ballooned. Saleh’s reliance on repressive, corrupt divide-and-conquer strategies to rule a large, highly-fragmented populace for three decades was bound to fail eventually.
Though he is likely on his way out, a post-Saleh Yemen will only look worse. The country has been chronically fragile for years and would likely slide toward total state failure—with all the violence, dislocation and regional instability that accompany such collapses. Any successor(s) must contend with even more drastic resource shortages than those facing Saleh. Dwindling energy exports simply will not create enough revenue to provide basic necessities like water, food and fuel for a rapidly growing population, especially as the ongoing upheaval stokes inflation and disrupts vital exports and imports. Foreign assistance can fill some of these gaps, but what trickles down to ordinary Yemenis often goes through nonofficial channels, primarily direct Saudi stipends to selected tribal sheikhs. Much of the rest is grafted directly into the Yemeni regime, and thus most citizens never see a dime from their government. . . .