For years, criminals have used ports in the Arab world's poorest country, Yemen, as staging areas for trafficking humans, drugs, and weapons. There are growing fears that criminal groups in Yemen and pirate gangs in Somalia are moving closer together, further complicating international efforts to stabilize the region.
In a report released last December, the U.N. group tasked with monitoring the 1992 arms embargo on Somalia included a paragraph on piracy, alluding to the growing financial ties between Somali pirates and criminal entrepreneurs in Yemen.
The U.N. report said the NATO Shipping Center had identified five ports along the Yemeni coast, which were serving as re-supply stations for mother ships belonging to Somali pirates. Mother ships are usually hijacked fishing trawlers or merchant vessels, used to tow the speedboats needed to attack slow-moving ships sailing in open waters.
Maritime terrorism analyst Peter Lehr at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland says the information is worrisome because it implies that Yemenis, facing high unemployment and widespread poverty in their country, are being increasingly lured into the lucrative world of piracy.
"So far, there is no evidence that Yemeni fishermen are actually working as pirates," said Peter Lehr. "You have just these opportunistic people on the shore, who do not care to whom they sell their stuff. But because of the economic meltdown, we have lots of people descending into even deeper poverty than before. And it is quite logical to me that the Yemeni fishermen there might also embark on piracy because this is, at the moment, the only show in town, even for them. And the Gulf of Aden is perfect for pirates because you have confined waters and lots of targets."
The Gulf of Aden is a narrow waterway that divides Somalia from Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. It is also a vital shipping route for hundreds of maritime companies around the world. In the past year, dozens of vessels have been seized in the area, earning Somali pirates and their associates tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of million of dollars, in ransom.
The U.N. Monitoring Group believes much of the arms, ammunition, and fuel needed to sustain the growth of piracy off the coast of Somalia is being supplied by locals in Yemen. Its adds that pirates, in turn, may be assisting smugglers by using hijacked vessels to move refugees and economic migrants from Somalia to Yemen, and then bringing arms and ammunition on the return journey to Somalia.
An analyst with the global intelligence company Stratfor, Scott Stewart, says the problem is growing largely because the Yemeni government has been unable to crack down on criminal activities taking place in its southern ports.
"They do not have the resources," said Scott Stewart. "It takes people. It takes boats. It takes training, and they simply do not have the bandwidth to devote to that issue. They have got much bigger problems, where they really need to focus at this point. The south is really looking to break away. There are a lot of mass protests and uprisings right now. The country is very, very tense. So, that is a very important dynamic in what is going on here. There are factions and tribes and people trying to make money off this trade, not only for personal gain, but also to use it to foster their independence of the south."
Oil makes up two-thirds of Yemen's public revenue and 90 percent of its export earnings. Most of the oil facilities are in the south, where the people have long complained of being discriminated against by northerners and the government in Sana'a.
Secession would be disastrous for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who took power in the former North Yemen and has been the country's leader since the merger with the south in 1990. His government is already trying to cope with numerous other problems, including a separate tribal rebellion in the north, a rapid population growth, threats from a regional al-Qaida group, and worries that the country's dwindling oil and water resources may soon plunge Yemen into deeper poverty.
Peter Lehr at the University of St. Andrews says he fears Yemen will begin to mirror Somalia, acting not only as a breeding ground for al-Qaida, but also for legions of impoverished youths joining pirate gangs.
"The more the problem persists, the more likely that you will have Yemeni pirate expeditions on the scale comparable to the Somali expeditions," he said. "What you need to do is move fast now to prevent the situation deteriorating in Yemen any further. How you do that is anybody's guess."
In a recent report, London-based Chatham House warned that Yemen faced a potent combination of problems, which, if left unresolved, could expand a lawless zone stretching from northern Kenya, through Somalia and the Gulf of Aden to Saudi Arabia.