Observers have fretted that the low-level war between Sanaa and the northern Houthi rebels is really a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But in truth, the conflict’s roots lie firmly in Yemen.
Since becoming president of the reunified country in 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh has done well to keep Yemen’s disparate tribal groups largely happy. This has only been possible through the careful distribution of oil revenues, but that delicate system of patronage is breaking down as oil production tumbles.
The war in the north is just one of the problems facing Yemen. Another is the resurgent calls for secession by groups in the south. The danger of Yemen breaking into two is a concern for other countries in the region with put-upon minorities who feel aggrieved at their governments.
But far more worrying is the risk of the country staying unified and descending into the sort of anarchy seen in nearby Somalia.
There is a real danger of such an outcome, particularly as Al-Qaeda establishes an ever-firmer grip in the east of the country. It is not too late for Yemen’s neighbours to do more to help Saleh. For all his faults, including a doubtful adherence to democratic principles, it is better for Yemen to have a strong central government than to collapse into a failed state.
While onlookers worry about the involvement of some foreign powers, in truth, more involvement is needed from abroad, not less