Yemen today is invariably and alarmingly described as a "failed state" - or at least one on the brink. But on the brink of what? Abigail Fielding-Smith reports from a country still forming as much as falling apart. The leftover salmon en croute lay abandoned in a forest of empty bottles. In the next room of the elegant oriental-style house, young diplomats were dancing to the '90s disco classic Informer, while a small crowd mingled on the roof above. Outside was an armed guard, and beyond him, the dark night of Yemen, where, according to the security briefings given to the embassy staff and energy company employees at the party, ungovernable forces were lying in wait. For some time now, western diplomats have been restricted from travelling outside the capital - and at the start of this year, even parts of Sana'a itself were declared off-limits. For an outsider walking into this scene of revelry after digesting an endless series of articles about the rise of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula and the other crises gripping the country, it was hard to tell whether the display of high spirits represented some kind of fall-of-Saigon abandon or an insight into the hidden resilience of the Yemeni state.
"No one knows," said one guest leaving the party, when asked his view of the security situation outside. "Not the government, not the embassies, not the NGOs." Since the attempted bombing of a US airliner on December 25 by a militant apparently trained in Yemen, the world has woken up to the multiple problems of the Arab world's most impoverished country, which are characterised in increasingly apocalyptic terms. The Times, of London, ran a headline saying the country was a year from "collapse." Foreign Policy predicted that 2010 would see Yemen "explode", and the US House Foreign Affairs committee convened a hearing entitled "Yemen on the brink".
But on the brink of what, exactly? For all the quasi-scientific rigour that is put into efforts like the Foreign Policy/US Peace Fund's Failed States Index - which, after consulting 30,000 sources to measure 12 indicators of instability in 177 countries, moved Yemen up from 21 to 18 in 2009 - it is very hard to get the measure of what is actually going on there. The checklist of problems is starting to become familiar; armed conflict with the Houthis in the North, a secessionist movement in the South, dwindling oil revenues and water resources, a growing al Qa'eda problem, explosive population growth, endemic corruption, and six to nine million small arms in circulation. But there is no clear view on how exactly these issues are combining to challenge the integrity of the state.
"We will be at the start of Somalia's descent," Hassan Zaid, an opposition party leader, told me as we sat in his mafraj (sitting room) last November, watching the sun set over the higgledy-piggledy outline of the Old City. The "Somalia scenario", in which islands of government authority are beset by external forces, like Mogadishu in 1991, is often assumed to be the logical outcome of the current situation. "If (the conflict in the north) is still going two to three months from now it will reach Sana'a," he said.
Apocalyptic scenarios grab attention and unlock funding, but Sana'a does not feel like a capital under siege, especially on Thursday afternoons (the start of the Yemeni weekend), when it is bathed in a kind of serenity approaching seizure. Most people who can are at home chewing khat, most of those who have to work sport a Popeye bolus in their cheek, as blazered men and niqabed women move slowly through the half-shuttered streets. 40 per cent of the city's residents lack access to the state water network, and there are periodic shortages of things like cooking gas, but no one is stockpiling goods.
At a time when "failed states" have become a hot topic in diplomatic discourse, policymakers and journalists alike invariably describe Yemen in these terms: the idea that the state is in retreat, or losing control over its territory, is a staple of reporting and analysis on the country. But the problem with applying this paradigm to Yemen is that it implies the deterioration of a previously functional state, which has, in fact, never really existed here. As a recent report from the British security think tank the Royal United Services Institute puts it: "Yemen cannot fail, as it has never been fully constituted as a state." Some go further. "I think what we're witnessing at the moment is a process of state-building," says Sarah Phillips, a Yemen expert at Sydney University's Centre for International Security Studies.
Yemen did not exist as a coherent political unit until 1990, and tribes here have traditionally been strong and, crucially, armed. At the beginning of the 20th century the North was governed by an Imam, though technically under Ottoman occupation. After the end of the First World War the Turks withdrew, and the British eventually expanded from their colonial base in Aden to take over much of the South. During the Cold War, which played itself out idiosyncratically in inter-Arab politics, Socialist Egypt armed a republican movement in the North against the Saudi-backed Imamate, which was eventually overturned in 1962, though the civil war carried on for several more years. Armed groups also fought to throw the British out of the South, which was declared a socialist republic in 1967 - but riven thereafter by bloody internal factionalism, to the frustration of allies like Fidel Castro, who is said to have asked one of its leading politicians, "When are you people going to stop killing each other?"
In 1990, the two states were unified under the Presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh, but in 1994 they fought a brief war, after which the South became politically and economically marginalised. Aman wa istiqrar - "security and stability" - remains a popular slogan in Yemeni politics, perhaps because the need for neither has yet been met. Saleh has maintained power (and stayed alive) in this fractious political ecosystem by playing different groups off against each other, turning a blind eye to some non-state actors, strategically suppressing others, and co-opting the rest with perks and patronage. Some of the largesse generated by this system may be seen on the narrow streets of Sana'a, where shiny new 4x4s compete for space with fleece-draped motorbikes and dilapidated taxis. After unification in 1990, the parties of the north and the south declared theirs would be a "state based on system and law" (dawlat al nizam wa-l-qanun); wags on the street called it "dawlat al nizam wa-l-salun" - a state based on fancy cars.
Saleh's masterful command of the patronage system, however, has ironically undermined some of those who reaped its benefits: tribal authority, which has often been stronger than the state's in certain areas, is experiencing its own decline. This is partly due to migration from rural to urban areas, but also because tribal leaders who became dependent on Sana'a (and Riyadh) for their handouts found their legitimacy undermined among their own tribes. "The patronage system has undermined [tribal authority] for decades," explains Phillips of Sydney University. "It artificially centralised the Yemeni system. Tribal leaders- are seen as having been bought off by the state." As a result, she says, there is now a "vacuum of legitimate authority" in parts of Yemen.
There is a widespread perception that the government's rule does not extend beyond the capital. This is not true, as anyone who has ever negotiated the 20 odd checkpoints from Hodeida airport to al Masraq refugee camp near Sa'ada knows, but there are a growing number of areas where it cannot guarantee security. Even in areas classified as "stable", people report an absence of government. 100km north-west of Sana'a, across jagged, fortress-crested mountains, lies the governorate of Mahwit. Before al Qa'eda attacks drove the foreign tourists away, it was a popular travel destination. Although not among the poorest places in the country, it suffers from the drought and service provision problems which plague much of rural Yemen. Its capital, Mahawit city, boasts a new-looking Post Office, a further education college and a large, well-guarded local government building, but when I ask a man struggling to find work if the government could be doing more to help the economy he laughs. "We don't have any government," he says.
"Saleh is very good at window dressing a state," says Victoria Clark, the author of the forthcoming book, Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, "but he really governs like a tribal leader. I don't think he could imagine what life would be like as a state." The trappings of statehood are certainly visible, and sometimes even impressive, in Sana'a: anyone arriving at the smart new Ministry of Information, with its gleaming windows and large ornamental pond in the forecourt, might think they were in a first-world country, if it were not for the occasional herd of goats being driven past the entrance. "These fancy ministries don't actually do what they are supposed to," says Clark.
State weakness may be nothing new in Yemen, but there is nonetheless a growing sense that the idiosyncratic governance model Saleh has used to bring a kind of stability to the country since 1994 is buckling under the current challenges, particularly the economic ones. As one Western diplomat put it: "The problems seem more acute. The cycles (between flare-ups) are shorter. The variables are harder to control."
It is difficult to put an expiry date on the Saleh governance model, even more so to say what might supersede it. One informed source estimates it will be "at least 30 years" before Saleh can no longer raise cash, and it is difficult to find an analyst who thinks a collapse into chaos imminent. But as the grave-faced party guest pointed out, we just don't know. In the absence of such knowledge, life goes on. The mood at the expat party, which took place shortly after a $4.5 billion natural gas plant had just been completed, after French energy giant Total had negotiated with each of the 22 tribes whose land the pipelines passed through, was insistently upbeat. On the roof, people were even lighting sparklers. "In Yemen," as one observer noted wryly, "all interests are short term."
Abigail Fielding-Smith is a freelance reporter based in Beirut.