A STRONG contender to be the world’s shortest book would be one entitled Positive Aspects of Yemen. Writing even one brief paragraph would present a challenge. Few countries can match its catalogue of woes.
Yet, unless the authorities there can find solutions to the problems of Yemen, it will continue to be a breeding ground for al-Qaeda activists. If the festering Arab-Israeli crisis inspires anti-Western hatred in the Islamic world, then chaotic Yemen provides a base for those seeking to translate hatred into violent action.
Yemen’s unhappy state of affairs springs out of decades of instability. Until 1990, it consisted of two states: North Yemen was a Saudi-backed conservative imamate; while the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was a Soviet-bloc clone. Unification was severely tested by a civil war in 1994, which left the south defeated and embittered.
Today, Yemen, officially one of the world’s poorest states, has one of the highest rates of population growth. As a UN official remarked, Yemen is “a least-developed country with a young age structure — half of Yemen’s population is under the age of 15 — and a very high fertility rate”. The population, today about 24 million, is set to double in the next two decades.
Even setting aside this dire prospect, Yemen’s economic outlook is bleak. The country depends on oil for revenue, but reserves and output are falling fast. At the same time, unemployment is rising, and poverty is increasing.
Water resources are among the scarcest per head of population anywhere, which forces many Yemenis to rely on government-subsidised diesel to extract water from underground. Fuel subsidies and civil-service wage bills are crippling the national budget, but economic belt-tightening would probably trigger social unrest.
Then there are political difficulties. Earlier this year, the Yemeni army was engaged in suppressing an armed rebellion in the north, close to the Saudi border. And a resurgence of the secessionist movement in the south, fuelled by feelings of economic, political, and social neglect, poses a threat of another civil war.
A COMMON theme among the various disaffected groups in Yemen is distrust of what is perceived to be a corrupt and inept central administration in the capital, Sana’a. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for more than three decades, and frequent promises to eradicate corruption have been unfulfilled.
Nor has he been able to extend the government’s authority over many parts of the country, leaving remote tribal areas lawless and virtually self-governing, and borders porous and unpatrolled.
For all these reasons, Yemen is paradise for al-Qaeda. For years, young Muslim men, disaffected from the societies where they live (not least in Britain), have been coming to Yemen to seek a wholly Islamic experience. They are offered training in terrorism techniques alongside tutorials on Qur’anic exegesis.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is a dangerous terrorist organisation. Aside from the recent parcel bombs, it also organised the attempt by a Nigerian to blow up an airliner over Detroit last Christmas, and has carried out numerous attacks within Yemen.
HOW Yemen is to cope with all these challenges is, of course, the key question. The regime is aware of the al-Qaeda threat — to itself, as much as to Western states — and has trumpeted its occasional military operations against the group. But the army has little chance of winning a war against a shadowy force that can melt away into remote mountain hideouts.
From time to time, US-led Iraq- or Afghanistan-style military intervention (beyond long-distance missile strikes) is suggested. But military success is far from guaranteed, and, as a recent Chatham House report warns: “Further kinetic US intervention risks polarizing public opinion and could heighten instability by driving a wedge between President Saleh and the tribes, while playing into the hands of the AQAP.”
President Saleh cannot rein in AQAP without tackling the country’s economic problems. This means seeking help from abroad. The drawback here is that foreign donors are reluctant to see their funds swallowed up by a corrupt and mismanaged administration. For example, of the £3 billion pledged by international donors in 2006, less than ten per cent has been disbursed.
The international community has a supporting part to play in helping Yemen, but the lead must be taken by Arab governments, with the rich Gulf states in the front row. As with the Arab-Israeli dispute, there are dangerous international dimensions to the Yemen crisis.
Yet, while the involvement of Israel in the former requires the participation of an external broker to try to influence the Jewish state, Yemen is a totally Arab problem, which requires Arab solutions — political, economic, and, if necessary, military.
Not only do Yemen’s neighbours understand the mess on their doorstep better than other states, but they also have deep pockets. They have an incentive to get involved: in AQAP’s eyes, targets in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are just as legitimate as those in Europe or the US.
Western countries should continue to engage with Yemen, despite misgivings about the regime, and pledge aid. Arab leaders, though, must ensure that the money is spent on legitimate schemes to help poor Yemenis and gradually make AQAP less attractive to young Muslims.
The Arabs must do what they have never done before: take on the responsibility of helping an Arab state that is in trouble — and, ensuring that the pages of Positive Aspects of Yemen are not left blank any longer.