The Road from Mokha to Sanaa

Yemen may be where the Arab spring, this sweeping current of democratic upheaval in the Arabic-speaking world, takes a turn definitively toward violence or toward civic solutions. The regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a tribal dictatorship using feudal power tactics, based in the capital Sanaa, is now waging one war against extremist Islamists and another against non-violent pro-democracy protesters.

Yemen is an intensely poor country, likely to see its dwindling fresh water resources 100% depleted before any nation in the world, and could be the global home-base for jihadist extremists. Yemen could also, however, be a sparkling example of how peaceful democratic change can bring sustainable prosperity and security to an otherwise impoverished society ruled by feudal warlords and kleptocratic dictators. 

The gap between the democracy movement and the regime is stark: while protesters are lawyers and doctors, university professors and economists, the dictator Saleh has only a high-school-level education. Saleh’s former allies have tired of his brutality, and are demanding that he immediately cease all violence against civilians, and honor his multiple pledges to leave power, allowing for a peaceful democratic transition.

Much of the country is illiterate, and tribal politics continue to be an easy way to sow division, to justify cold-blooded killing, and to undermine the progress promised by peaceful protesters. Even the government seems unable to comprehensively put down the Islamist militia vying for power in the deep south. And neither the protesters nor Saleh have been able to fashion a secure plan for bringing prosperity back to Yemeni ports on the Gulf of Aden.

The Yemeni democracy movement is well read, well educated and rooted in a commitment to nonviolence. Yet there are grave concerns that if the regime succeeds in applying the tactics of Col. Muammar Qadhafi—the once and possibly former Libyan dictator of four decades—Yemen could descend into a failed state status reminiscent of its neighbor across the water, Somalia.

Heavily armed Somali pirates—linked to a vast black-market criminal network which feeds the ongoing Somali civil war—have become a menace to global shipping through the Gulf of Aden, the main southern route of entry into the Suez Canal. That vast criminal network has expanded the power of Islamist militia in southern Somalia, and has contributed to the intensification of drought, famine and social collapse.

Yemen may be more at risk than Somalia in many ways, should collapse follow the atrocities committed by Saleh against the Yemeni people. The pro-democracy movement needs to maintain its non-violent approach, but plan for significant innovations and improvements in the process of governing and of economic development and planning.

Yemen is strategic enough to warrant major foreign investment, debt forgiveness and development aid, and its ports might be able to benefit from a secure, reliable, democratic challenge to the armed chaos in Somalia and throughout the Gulf of Aden. Mokha (on the Red Sea), Aden andTa’izz could form a powerful new economic hub for regional trade, facilitating passage from the Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea.

Ta’izz, the intellectual capital of Yemen, could develop into the administrative center of power governing the new port industry. Such an outcome would be very much in the interests of the international community, as Ta’izz is the virtual home base of the surprising, liberal and modern pro-democracy movement.

Al Mukallah, in the remote east of the country, could be a first-stop along the coast of safe passage, if such a situation could be cultivated and secured. Mokha could be a Red Sea trading post, bridging the African and Asian continents in ways strategically designed to sow stability, mutual interest and prosperity.

The United Nations would likely need to be involved in helping to secure a fledgling Yemeni democracy against the chaos and sabotage sought by militant groups on the one hand and by regime loyalists on the other. But the development strategy makes sense for the region and for the wider world: instability anywhere inflates risk everywhere, and long-term planning for the Gulf of Aden trading zone is more than worth any time, effort and resources required to lay the groundwork.

An added benefit would come to Yemen, which as a safe harbor state with revitalized, modernized port cities, would be able to more easily gain access to an affordable imported flow of fresh water, and to afford state of the art desalinization facilities. We know that fresh water resource is urgently needed to prevent the total collapse of civil society in Yemen, and brining that resource value to Yemen could raise its profile among Arabian states, building into the fabric of economic cooperation which as of now, eludes it almost entirely.

The road from Mokha to Sanaa, like the road from Aden to Sanaa, should run through Ta’izz, allowing for what could become a virtuous feedback between the ideals of democratic government and the ideals of a vibrant trading culture in which not all wealth flows to or through the hands of the individuals who hold political power. It could create a more balanced and decentralized relationship between the people of Yemen and the power of those who govern them.

In short, the storied and problematic history of Yemen, along with the vast and surging need for new economic development, creates a real opportunity for massive coordinated international assistance to the nonviolent political activists who are seeking to build a modern, democratic civil society, and to build unprecedented cooperative links between Yemeni society and the outside world.

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Originally published July 31, 2011, at


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