Just a few short months ago, the Republic of Yemen was probably better known for its singular status as the only country that starts with the letter “Y” than for anything substantive related to its history, culture or contemporary politics. Today, however, one can hardly turn on the television without being bombarded with some news on Yemen. But as media pundits, policymakers and average Americans rush to catch up on their knowledge of this once obscure country, nuance is often sacrificed at the altar of thirty-second sound bites and quick-fix solutions.
To understand and craft effective policies towards this incredibly complex country, Americans must appreciate the underlying crises that shape the current situation in Yemen. These interconnected problems must be treated holistically, rather than focusing exclusively on security and al-Qaeda, as the news and the Obama administration have been wont to do. To a great extent, each pivots on a largely corrupt and ineffective government that lacks full control outside the capital of Sana’a. This is the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh (president of North Yemen since 1978 and of a unified Yemen since 1990), a man the United States is counting on to champion its security interests and defeat al-Qaeda in Yemen. Yet, Saleh continues to foster dangerous enemies and perhaps even more dangerous friends, and this has created four core quandaries for the country and its long-term stability and prosperity.
First of all, a growing secessionist movement in southern Yemen has been brewing over years of central government neglect and exploitation of the South’s oil resources. Southerners’ frustration with the political and economic fallout from unification between Saleh’s North Yemen and the Communist South has only escalated in recent years, leading to the 2007 creation of the Southern Secessionist Movement (SM). In recent years, we’ve witnessed a number of dramatic protests and violent reprisals from the Saleh government. Despite Yemenis’ nearly universal desire for a unified Yemeni state, the SM – and the widespread attitudes it represents – threatens to undermine the sovereignty of the Saleh regime and even drop the country into another civil war (civil war between North and South Yemen took place in 1994).
Second, there is a lingering insurgency in the northern highlands of Yemen between the Sunni-oriented regime and a marginal group within the Zaydi Shi’i sect known as the Huthis. Often mischaracterized as sectarian or religiously motivated, this multifaceted conflict is at its core a struggle over communal identity and rights, so-called tribal loyalties, access to resources and underdevelopment, and ultimately the legitimacy of the Saleh regime. In this sense, it mirrors the secessionist movement in the South. Now in its sixth round of fighting since 2004, the Huthi conflict has spilled into neighboring Saudi Arabia, threatening to become a regional crisis. This is especially true considering accusations, however tenuous, of Iranian meddling. Significantly, the conflict continues to drain massive sums of scarce government resources which could be utilized to address long-term problems facing Yemen, including combating extremism.
It is important that Americans realize that for the Saleh regime, al-Qaeda falls a distant third behind the aforementioned Huthi insurgency and Southern Secessionist Movement in terms of immediate threats. Nevertheless, the presence of al-Qaeda in Yemen has only intensified since the early 2009 creation of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a merger of Saudi and Yemeni al-Qaeda branches based in Yemen. In large part, this situation is the result of an opportunistic Saleh’s own approach to governance, as well as his limited control over the country. He has consistently utilized a divide-and-conquer approach, allying with radicals to combat his primary threats: “unbelieving” atheist Communists in the South and “unbelieving” Shi’is in the North. Historically, al-Qaeda members have been allowed to operate in Yemen on the condition that they refrained from attacking within the country. As a result, decades of fostering extremism – or at best, turning a blind eye to it – are now coming back to bite the regime, as the new guard of al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen generally does not recognize previous agreements with the government. AQAP represents an unprecedented challenge for the already ill-equipped Yemeni government, both due to its willingness to terrorize within the country and the marked American pressure to suppress its activities.
Finally, an impending economic disaster looms large in Yemen. The country already suffers from rampant poverty (Yemen is considered the poorest country in the Arab World), a booming population, lofty unemployment rates (over 30 percent), and a severe water shortage (Sana’a could become the world’s first capital city to literally run out of water) continues to loom large in Yemen today. These daily crises, and the regime’s basic impotence to resolve them, significantly exacerbate the challenges described above, and they certainly encourage the presence of extremism in the country.
With such a seemingly bleak situation, the question must be asked: what should be the response of the Obama administration? I would offer four major recommendations.
- First, it must reject short-sighted policy approaches that focus exclusively on security and counter-terrorism. Any expert on Yemen will readily insist that amplified American attention to Yemen’s security is long overdue; however, this cannot come at the expense of addressing the numerous long-term challenges facing the country. The administration must resist temptations to seek a silver bullet solution to Yemen. What’s needed is a holistic and comprehensive approach that recognizes that Yemen cannot be “solved” tomorrow. Such a policy would entail democracy-building, anti-corruption measures and promoting better governance. In general, a country once regarded as fairly democratic has become progressively authoritarian in recent years – a dangerous trend that could increase with US pressure to crack down on militancy.
- Related, the Obama administration must significantly increase its long-term development and capacity-building aid, in addition to counter-terrorism aid. Such assistance can more effectively bring security to Yemen by addressing the country’s poverty and food and water shortages, the regime’s dearth of resources, and the spread of dangerous ideologies among the population. The US did recently increase support to Yemen, committing $50.5 million in development aid and $12.5 million in military aid for 2010 (plus counter-terrorism aid – $67 million in 2009). Yet, considering the billions in aid granted to such countries as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Israel, American aid to Yemen remains a paltry sum given the country’s strategic importance.
- Third, the Obama administration must recognize that any lasting solution to Yemen’s ills must integrate its neighbors and the broader region, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar can offer critical aid to Yemen, they can mediate conflicts (as Qatar has done in the North), and when necessary, they can pressure the Saleh regime to confront its demons. Americans must remember that this isn’t primarily the US’s problem to solve, and in fact, the more Saleh is tied to American interests, the more we will witness the growth of local, violent opposition and ultimately, anti-American extremism. An American-led military solution may succeed in the short-term, but in the end, it will most certainly fail.
- Lastly, the Obama administration cannot rely on President Saleh’s ability – or his willingness – to curb extremism. If this is Obama’s basic approach, it’s a tenuous gamble at best. Most importantly, the administration must recognize that Saleh’s priorities will often fail to align with its own. The Yemeni regime’s most immediate interest will always be survival at any cost, even if this means ignoring or allying with radical groups, as it has in the past. This is not to suggest that the US should abandon Saleh, which could lead to serious security setbacks. Not only does he represent a known entity and the only viable option at this point, his regime does enjoy genuine popularity in many parts of the country. In fact, most Yemenis consider the secessionist and Huthi movements as illegitimate challengers that must be dealt with by the regime, even militarily. But a corrupt and authoritarian Saleh cannot be counted on as a viable long-term solution, even if he were to occasionally placate the US in fighting extremism.
To conclude, I would offer readers one final nuance they will inevitably miss in the ongoing flurry of media coverage on Yemen: the country’s rich culture and history. Anyone experienced in the Middle East will immediately appreciate Yemen as a unique nation full of interesting, charming and hospitable people, a country strikingly distinct from its regional neighbors. Owing to its sundry of dramatic landscapes, diverse religious traditions, proud history of intellectual production, distinctive tribal heritage and stunning architecture (Old Sana’a is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), Yemen is replete with both mystery and richness.
As we endlessly debate what constitutes an effective long-term US “Yemen policy” in the months to come, it is important that we also consider this side of the country. Such a policy cannot simply be a carbon-copy export from other states in the region. In fact, the first step to securing Yemen for the long haul is the recognition of its unique problems, as well as its unique potential. In order to do so, the oft-blinding security lens must be lifted in favor of a holistic and Yemen-specific approach.