We are proud to host another important paper by the Pakistani leader and intellectual guide of our time, Parvez Asad Sheikh.

A World of Ungoverned Spaces: Yemen and Somalia

The ungoverned spaces of the world are increasingly becoming focal points around which the terrorist-dialectic pulls the uneasy attention of the international community. From the political vortex of Pakistan’s tribal-belt to the anachronism of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, these geopolitical shatter zones seem to have developed alongside the post-modern, post- Cold War, geopolitical framework as one of its core concepts. The fact that these spaces exist, and are coming to the fore in a global context, shows that this is not merely a scenario involving the bad seeds of a ghostly terrorist entity sweeping the globe in search of fertile grounds in the grey areas of the political map but rather a phenomenon of our times that can serve as a symptom to help understand the greater instability that surrounds us. If these regions share similar political symptoms then they must suffer from a similar ailment.

Yemen is a case in point. The failed attempt by a young Nigerian to detonate his explosive undergarment on an American airplane brought renewed interest in the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula, where it is said that he received some manner of instruction. Yemen has been described as an ‘almost failed’ state by more sensitive analysts and ‘seriously challenged’ by those who use the rationale that, since the country has been failing for the past thirty years, it has not hit rock bottom as of yet. However, Yemen, in terms of the stability and the reach of its central governance structures and systems, does possess vast areas that can be classified as ungoverned spaces.

Across the Gulf of Aden, running along the tip of the Horn of Africa, lies another country that has been attracting international attention due primarily to its ungoverned nature. Somalia has hit rock bottom according to popular consensus. Attempts at establishing some form of unified central government after the toppling of the Barre regime in 1991 have failed consistently and there are two separate, if unrecognised, states within the state itself.

Both Yemen and Somalia share the spotlight as focus on the Horn of Africa region increases. Both countries are seen as potential ‘breeding grounds’ for terrorists in large part due to their under-governed nature. Beyond the involvement of both nations’ citizens in piracy and their alleged potential as terrorist havens, these two countries share particular characteristics that have placed them in common infamy.


The first of these common attributes is the presence of nationalist movements. As mentioned earlier, both countries possess areas within their borders devoid of direct governmental influence. The power vacuums left behind are filled by alternative forms of governance that usually bring with them a fractious energy that destabilises the nation state. In the case of Yemen these destabilising forces come in the form of the secessionist Southern Movement and the armed militant nationalist movement of the Shia Zaidi Houthies in the north of the country. President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s regime is held together through a combination of strong-arm politics and a system of informal patronage to clan leaders ― what he has been known to describe in interviews as “dancing on the heads of snakes”― a form of political opportunism, if you will. The government’s ability financially to support its system of patronage is under pressure as Yemen’s oil reserves continue to run dry. After thirty years of opportunism that has allowed him to survive, Saleh is also reaching the end of his natural term as head of state, and court intrigue is already taking place between his eldest son, who has been groomed to inherit the position, and other members of a predominantly family based presidency. While the Houthie Hezbollah-styled ‘Believer Youths’ demand the constant attention of the government, the secessionist Southern Movement has gained increasing momentum in its calls for the re-establishment of a separate southern state.

To add an almost primordial dimension to Yemen’s woes is the fact that the country is running out of water. Where it was once sufficient to dig ten meters to find water, with the drastic fall in the water table, that figure has now multiplied to five hundred and up to an entire kilometre in some areas. A side effect of the boom in industrial-scale agriculture during the 1970’s, studies have found that eighty percent of armed conflict is primarily caused by competition between groups over access to the most basic of treasures. What was once a symbol of human triumph over nature will be responsible for ensuring that Sana’a will be the first capital in modern history to run dry. With some villages already being abandoned and one of the most heavily armed civilian populations in the world, the effect of future large-scale migration on the conflicts in the north and south of Yemen remains uncertain.

In Somalia, attempts by the political elite in the country to establish a ‘building blocks’ federalist political set-up based on clan demarcations has seen some success in the north of the country with the founding of the separate, if unrecognised, republics of the Puntland and Somaliland. However, the use of parliamentary structures within these mini-republics has lead to a crisis of legitimacy as a result of such a system’s incompatibility with the traditional forms of governance. When a parliament is used in the setting of predominantly clan-based politics, it becomes the seat of dominance of one clan or sub-clan over the other and eventually leads to destabilisation brought on by a receding line of legitimacy. The clan militia in the south of the country have been pitted against the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism, who enjoy American support, leaving the region in shambles. Somalia has no official central government and Somaliland continues to nudge its way towards secession.


The presence of nationalist movements in Yemen and Somalia are due to a large extent to the ethnic incongruity of the borders that form these nation states. It therefore follows that they both have disputed border areas with neighbouring states. Yemen’s Houthie nationalists in the north of the country have incurred the military retaliation of the Saudi Arabian government following attacks on the border posts that separate the two countries. Oil rich southern Saudi Arabia and northwestern Yemen are home to Shia tribes separated by an international border.

During the rule of General Barre in Somalia, his socialist regime centred itself on fostering a national Somali identity and the establishment of a Greater Somalia. This inevitably lead to claims of Somali territory being held by neighbouring Ethiopia in the Ogaden region followed by frequent cross-border skirmishes leading up to a full scale war in 1978. The region continues to be a source of unrest and a major reason behind Ethiopia’s constant involvement in Somali affairs. The Ogaden National Liberation Front is currently fighting for the regions independence from Ethiopia.

These two common characteristics that are shared between Yemen and Somalia can be identified as the most important traits of states that have areas within their territories that are removed or devoid of the influence of a central government in the sense of a modern Republic. That is, nationalism and border disputes that reduce the ability for a central government to function properly, if at all. This is the result of the ethnic heterogeneity of the populations and clan dynamics that remain socio-politically relevant distinctions. Barre’s drive to eliminate clan identities in favour of a national Somali identity were unsuccessful to the extent that, on his being overthrown, the country has increasingly negotiated itself as best it could along clan and sub-clan lines. Border disputes further inflame those nationalist movements that are separated by an artificial border and this leads to the dissolving of borders due to human traffic. This erosion of borders has another effect that is even more significant and that is the inclusion of foreign interests as these militant movements spread.

Foreign Intervention:

The Houthi movement is modelled on that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. There have been reports of Iranian support for the movement; especially after an arms shipment from Iran was seized last year on its way to Yemen. This has spurred Saudi Arabia to support Sana’a in its fight against the rebels as well as retaliating directly over the border after a Houthie incursion late last year. Israel, a most unlikely of suspects, has reportedly supported Islamic militants fighting against the Houthies as a means to curb the spread of Iranian sponsored Shia militant groups. M K Bhadrakumar of the Asia Times goes further to suggest that Israel, ‘whose effectiveness as a regional power has always been seriously handicapped by its lack of access to the Persian Gulf region’, is attempting to gain a ‘toehold’ in Yemen that could also serve as a front in the case of an attack on Iran.

The regionalization that results from cross border conflicts accelerates the dissolution of borders and the dismantling of the nation state as a coherent entity, as is also the case in the Af-Pak region. Somalia’s disputed border with Ethiopia has lead to the enthusiastic support of the latter towards the establishment of the country’s mini-state of Puntland and directly the dismantling the Islamic Courts Union in 2006. America’s support for one clan-based militia against another can only lead to further destabilisation.

Further a-step lies the increasing competition between America and China over the Indian Ocean. China has increased its presence in Africa considerably during the last decade. Sudan is deeply connected to Beijing and diplomatic inroads are being made in Kenya as well. With the recent announcement of China’s plans to establish a naval base in the Horn of Africa region and the ongoing establishment of its string of naval bases along its trade routes, America needs to ensure that any options open to the Chinese are covered. Yemen and Somalia represent two possible candidates for such bases that would tip the balance of maritime presence towards the Chinese. China has had success in supporting the strongest players in a host of unstable African countries such as Sudan, another state fraught with the effects of clan dynamics.

After Post-Modern Geopolitics:

There is a Somali saying that roughly interprets as, “Am I going crazy or am I hearing singing in Aden?” The two countries of Somalia and Yemen are an important and interlinked front in the age of the terror dialectic both historically and culturally. The thousands of Somali refugees living in Yemen, trade links and human interaction indicate that these troubled states should be seen as a unified region possessing ungoverned spaces. The core reasons behind their volatile nature are not to be found in their being potential ‘safe havens’ or Islam but rather the incompatibility the structure of a nation state has with the ethnic make-up of their populations. The solutions to the problems of governance in these regions will not be found in terms of ‘capacity building’ by a central government but, as the borders that ensnare the populace dissolve by force, a mode of governance compatible with the ground realities must take root.

During his campaigning days, the-then Senator Obama declared that it was the “impoverished, weak and ungoverned” states that have become “the most fertile breeding grounds for transnational threats”, echoing Bush administration’s view that America was “now threatened less by conquering states” than by “failing ones.” Beyond the technocratic jargon lies the fundamental flaw in the terrorist-dialectic. These “failing” and “ungoverned” states only suffer from an escalation in violence and instability when foreign powers attempt to intervene. And, due to the dissolution of their borders, this instability only spreads.

Robert Kaplan writes in his article, ‘The Revenge of Geography’, about the manner in which we are returning to a realism in which ‘the focus now is less on universal ideals than particular distinctions, from ethnicity to culture to religion’. Part of this realism entails recognising that these ungoverned areas are those where the parliamentary system of governance within an artificial nation state simply cannot take hold. In the meantime, the renewed interest in Somalia and Yemen will necessitate a re-thinking of strategies by America and her allies. With its military bogged down in the Af-Pak region, NATO and the West cannot afford to follow the same neo-conservative militarism of the Bush administration. They should therefore turn their focus away from the cranial ideal and towards ‘the mountains and the men who grow out of them’.

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