In Anti-Piracy Fight, Yemen May Be Part Of Problem

Sixth in a series

Yemeni forces escort Somali pirates upon arrival at the southern port of Mukalla on the Gulf of Aden i i

Yemeni forces escort Somali pirates upon arrival at the southern port of Mukalla on the Gulf of Aden on April 27. The previous day, the pirates had seized an oil tanker off Yemen's coast. Yemeni special forces stormed the tanker, killing three hijackers, capturing 11 and regaining command of the ship. Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni forces escort Somali pirates upon arrival at the southern port of Mukalla on the Gulf of Aden

Yemeni forces escort Somali pirates upon arrival at the southern port of Mukalla on the Gulf of Aden on April 27. The previous day, the pirates had seized an oil tanker off Yemen's coast. Yemeni special forces stormed the tanker, killing three hijackers, capturing 11 and regaining command of the ship.

Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni special forces stormed an oil tanker that had been seized by Somali pirates last week, killing three pirates and capturing 11 more.

The government of Yemen, which is just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, is trying to portray itself as part of the solution to piracy in the region. But others say that Yemen — which is itself a failing state where sympathy for the Somali pirates runs deep — might be part of the problem.

The pirates had seized the Yemeni-owned tanker just 10 miles off Yemen's coast, after it left the port city Mukalla. The next day, the Yemeni coast guard retook the ship and brought the alleged pirates back to port. The men were paraded in front of reporters while the Yemeni national anthem blared from a coast guard boat.

Some of the accused pirates wore nothing more than their underwear. One was hopping on one leg.

Mohammad Hajri, a Yemeni coast guard captain, said the pirates would be detained and interrogated, then brought to trial.

Pirates Just 'Ordinary' People

It was the fourth group of alleged pirates from Somalia to be placed in Yemeni custody. In February, 10 men were captured by a Russian navy boat and handed over to the Yemeni coast guard. Officials say that group of Somalis was caught with Kalashnikovs, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, ammunition and a small, fast boat. The group now awaits trial.

Yemeni reporter Mohammad al-Qadhi met the accused Somalis in the library of the central jail in the port city of Aden. He says the men told him they started out as fishermen, then grew angry when they saw large international ships overfishing Somali waters and dumping waste there, too. So they decided to rob a ship.

The men were ordinary people, Qadhi says. "They were not some people who are strange — just young people."

They told Qadhi that if there were stability in Somalia — education, employment — they would not be pirates.

"One of them told me, 'If there is stability in Somalia, we are ready to give up and be members of the army and protect our state,' " Qadhi says.

Sympathy For Pirates, Not Western Countries

This kind of sympathy for pirates is shared by many people — officials and civilians alike — in Yemen, despite the coast guard's crackdown. An American Navy commander recently alleged that private citizens in Yemen are selling weapons, fuel and supplies to Somali pirates. And maritime experts worry that pirates are increasingly able to find refuge along Yemen's vast coast.

The sympathy runs so deep in the country that some Yemeni officials suggest the extensive international attention to piracy is just a pretext for big powers like the U.S. to gain control of the Gulf of Aden, a waterway through which millions of barrels of oil pass every day.

Ahmed al-Asbahi, a member of the Yemeni parliament, suggests that Western powers are allowing piracy to continue as a way to serve their own interests.

"What the international community should do is help bring a real and lasting peace to Somalia. If they do this, then there won't be any piracy. They can do this without bringing their military forces to our waters," Asbahi says.

Yemen May Face Its Own Piracy Problem

But that kind of peace takes time, says Yemeni political science professor Abdullah al-Faqih. Until that happens, he says, "Yemen is part of the problem."

That's because Yemen itself is a failing state, Faqih says. It has a growing separatist movement in the south, an insurgency in the north, a re-emergence of al-Qaida and, on top of all this, a collapsing economy.

"Yemen is dependent [on] oil revenues. Now with the financial crisis, the oil price is going down. ... Basically, the country lost most of its credit and financial resources," he says.

What's more, the oil itself is running out. And the government has failed to diversify the economy. Faqih says a total economic meltdown could come very soon. The government already has cut the state budget in half.

He says he thinks that within three to five months, the government won't be able to pay its salaries.

If the state fails, Faqih says Yemen would expand the belt of lawlessness in the region to both sides of the Gulf of Aden and become yet another place where pirates, smugglers and militants could thrive.

Instead of worrying about how to fix the problems in Somalia, he says, Yemen should worry about whether it will become the next Somalia.

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