, DUBAI, May 21 – Yemen on Saturday marks 20 fragile years of unity amid growing separatism in the south, an on-off conflict with Shiite rebels in the north, and a growing Al-Qaeda presence.
"Yemen unity is now a serious concern for all its neighbours as well as, predictably, for the Yemeni government," said Neil Partrick, a visiting international relations lecturer at the University of Westminster in London.
The conflict with Zaidi rebels also drew in Saudi Arabia, and Al-Qaeda seems to have located the perfect hideaway in Yemen\’s lawless zones, sparking a US-backed military campaign by government forces.
These are among the "many challenges" facing the government, Partrick said.
Abdulaziz Sager, who heads the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre think tank, called separatism in the south "no less dangerous than the northern rebellion" which began in 2004, resulting in the deaths of several thousand people and displacing more than 250,000.
But Sager also said socio-economic factors were feeding the spread of separatist sentiment in the south, where many people complain of discrimination by the north and a lack of economic opportunities.
"Geographic and political unity has been achieved in Yemen, but social unity has not been reached," he told AFP.
"Most important is to establish real equality as far as opportunities and development are concerned. Otherwise, Yemeni unity will be in real danger," he said.
South Yemen was independent from the British withdrawal in 1967 until it united with the north in 1990. An attempt to break away again in 1994 sparked a short-lived civil war that ended with it being overrun by northern troops.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has led the north since 1978 and maintained his grip on power after unity, is not taking the separation talk lightly.
Yemen will not allow "criminals and bandits, and those who sow sedition, to achieve their goals. The patriotic military establishment is watching them," he said on Wednesday in an apparent reference to southern secessionists.
"Shamed are those… who want to divide Yemen," he said on Thursday ahead of unity day. "They will continue to be dwarfs and will not harm the unity of the state, neither its security nor its stability."
In March Saleh warned that "separatist flags are going to burn in the coming days and weeks," as security forces cracked down on the Southern Movement — an alliance of groups whose demands range from socio-economic equality to full independence.
Sager warned that separatism could expand in the long term if its causes were not addressed, leading to eventual separation and the formation of a failed state.
"The south does not have the components for a state, so there is a danger that we could end up with a failed state in the south and another failed state in the north," he said.
He also warned of a "division of the south itself into two states based on tribal and regional differences, which would allow terrorists to exploit the weakness of the state."
According to a Western specialist who requested anonymity, "a southern state is economically difficult to establish," pointing out that Yemen\’s oil resources are in the eastern region of Hadramut "which is not keen on separation."
Partrick argued that the commitment of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to protecting Yemeni unity should be demonstrated "in political and economic terms, including regarding Yemen\’s limited inclusion in the GCC."
The GCC is Yemen\’s main financial backer.
Partrick also pointed to Saudi sensitivity to the situation across the border.
"This means ongoing Saudi military options," he said of Riyadh\’s military intervention against the Shiite rebels last November after accusing them of occupying two Saudi villages and killing a border guard.
Saudi Arabia especially views Yemen\’s frail economy as a security threat, feeding both the rise of the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the spill-over into Saudi territory of rebel activity.
An uneasy calm currently prevails on the northern front after Sanaa reached a truce with the rebels in February, but clashes between Yemeni security forces and southern demonstrators are increasingly frequent.
Yemen is also Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden\’s ancestral homeland, and AQAP was behind attempted attacks in Saudi Arabia in the past year. It also claimed the December 25 attempt by a Nigerian suspected of trying to blow up a US airliner.