Conflict in Yemen: From Ethnic Fighting to Food Riots


Cite as:

A. Gros, A.S. Gard-Murray, Y. Bar-Yam Conflict in Yemen: From Ethnic Fighting to Food Riots. arXiv:1207.5778, July 24, 2012.

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Abstract

Yemen is considered a global terrorist base for Al-Qaeda and in recent years rampant violence is threatening social order. Here we show that the socio-economic origins of violence recently changed. Prior to 2008, violence can be attributed to inter-group conflict between ethnically and religiously distinct groups. Starting in 2008, increasing global food prices triggered a new wave of violence that spread to the endemically poor southern region with demands for government change and economic concessions. This violence shares its origins with many other food riots and the more recent Arab Spring. The loss of social order and the opportunities for terror organizations can be best addressed by directly eliminating the causes of violence. Inter-group violence can be addressed by delineating within-country provinces for local autonomy of ethnic and religious groups. The impact of food prices can be alleviated by direct food price interventions, or by addressing the root causes of global food price increases in US policies that have promoted conversion of corn to ethanol and commodity speculation. Addressing the food prices is the most urgent concern as a new bubble in food prices has been projected to begin before the end of 2012.

Press Release: Global Food Pricing Seeding Conflicts in Yemen

CAMBRIDGE (July 24)- A popular uprising during the Arab Spring. Unrest stoked by a massacre. A would-be president-for-life toppled. A country wracked by violence while American drones play a lethal game of cat-and-mouse with Al-Qaeda operatives. Is this Syria? Bahrain? Egypt? No, it's Yemen, perhaps the most opaque and poorly understood nation in the Middle East.

In a new study, scientists at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) find that neither ethnic nor religious factions (nor the presence of Al-Qaeda) are to blame for the latest round of conflict in Yemen. Since 2008, rising global food prices have triggered new waves of violence centered in Yemen's poorest regions, leading to subsequent demands for political reform and economic concessions.

The report, "Conflict in Yemen: From Ethnic Fighting to Food Riots" by Andreas Gros, Alexander Gard-Murray and Yaneer Bar-Yam, uses mathematical modeling to take a detailed look at what lies at the root of unrest in Yemen, past and present. The authors calculated the propensity for violence in any given populated area by identifying patches of ethnic groups of a critical size of 56 km — a size consistent with predictive success in past research focused on similar countries. They performed their analysis for focal points on a fine regular mesh throughout Yemen and indicated incidents of violence involving civilians for each year from 2005 through 2011.

Their analysis shows that before 2008 violence was ethnic and sectarian in origin, but the dynamics changed that year.

NECSI president Yaneer Bar-Yam recalls something distinctly familiar about the findings for Yemen: past rises in global food prices triggered violence in the form of food riots across the globe, from Haiti to India to the Middle East, triggering regime change and other events which dovetailed into the Arab Spring.

"Food price spikes in 2007-08 and 2010-11 have been a trigger of global violence and insecurity" said Bar-Yam, "If we want to improve security we have to start there."

The authors call for actions that can stabilize global food prices, providing some relief to famine conditions in Yemen while in turn restoring stability and diminishing opportunities for Al-Qaeda to feed on unrest.

On the local level, they suggest, inter-group violence can be addressed by delineating within-country provinces for local autonomy of ethnic and religious groups. The impact of food prices can be alleviated by direct food price interventions.

On the international level, the authors call on the U.S. to address corn-to-ethanol policies and commodity speculation, both of which continue to destabilize food prices globally.

"The most urgent socioeconomic problem driving violence is high food prices," said Bar-Yam in releasing the paper's findings.

Figure 1. Propensity to violence (low to high colors from green to red) and incidents of violence (black dots) in populated areas of Yemen
Figure 1. Propensity to violence (low to high from green to red colors) and incidents of violence (black dots) in populated areas of Yemen. Prior to 2008 conflict is mostly in the ethnically patchy north, afterward it expands to the endemically poor southern areas.

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