Why we should care about Yemen (and its not all about Al Qaeda )




You may have noticed Yemen in the news lately. One of the Charlie Hebdo attackers was trained there, and Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for the attack. In the last few days, the actions of the Ansarullah group- also known as the Houthi rebels- that took Sana’a in September 2014, culminated with  the capture and resignation of President Hadi amid Houthi demands for constitutional amendments and greater power-sharing.

Yemen’s future is, again, uncertain.

Whilst only a small country, this oft-ailing state is important – and not only because of Al Qaeda’s presence. Instead of heeding the calls to throw-in the towel or send in the troops, here is why (and how) we should continue to care about Yemen:

Look out also for our forthcoming interview on Yemen’s future with Danya Greenfield, Deputy Director of the Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Political transformations take time
Yemen is an example of the unpredictable and often volatile paths that follow shifts in power in fragile states. Let’s not turn Yemen into an example of why we should not let go of support for governance once an initial political transition has taken place.  Amongst the mixed-bag of current outcomes following the Arab uprisings, Yemen was seen as working its way towards being a success story. Prior to November 2011, analysts predicted that the country was heading for a full-scale civil war. Yemen has brought itself back from the brink before, and that may well be what will happen again after this current crisis. While each of the Arab uprising countries is very different from the next, with varied constituencies and institutions in each country that need weakening or bolstering, one commonality is that progress is not always linear and that there aren’t  easy formulae that can be applied to make successful political transitions grow into functional democracies.

We are learning that newly elected governments in transition countries do not always equal responsive governance nor bring about changes to the status quo, and certainly not in a neat and timely manner. While the 2011 uprisings, 2012 transfer of power, and subsequent National Dialogue Conference and associated reform process in Yemen have clearly not been silver bullets- they are certainly flawed- they are nonetheless important steps in a long process of transformation  that far pre-dates the 2011 popular protests, and  that we can’t yet judge as having been unsuccessful. (Read this analysis  of the intifiIdat al-khubz or food riots in the 1970’s and 80s in the Arab World as early steps towards democratization).  Yemen’s lesson for the international community is that we should expect less, less quickly, but continue to aim for more.  

Substantial US and international support has already been critical
An enormous amount of support from the US and other countries has already gone into Yemen. Now is not the time to abandon those investments, or send the troops in, as some are calling for us to do.  Less well known than the highly unpopular drone program, is that Yemen is the recipient of one of the US’ largest military assistance programs in the world. Along with the US’ direct support and funding for security has been strong diplomatic support and technical assistance to the reform process.

And its not just the US that has been investing in stability in Yemen. In October 2012, the G-8 and international financial institutions launched the Deauville Partnership to help Yemen and other MENA countries in their transitions. Aid commitments to Yemen made at the Riyadh conference by the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the World Bank and others came to $6.4 bn, and a Friends of Yemen meeting in New York added a further $1.5bn. Other backers have not been so committed. Saudi Arabia reportedly suspended financial assistance to Yemen because of the Houthi advance and continued Al Qaeda operations. An estimated $4 bn in the past couple of years had come from the Saudis, which effectively kept the economy afloat and financed critical government expenditures. Without the current uncertainly around Saudi funding, civil service salaries could go unpaid, poor service delivery would further deteriorate and the economy falter. Research findings from the International Monetary Fund show that countries experiencing political instability undergo sizable economic losses including reduced outputs and increased unemployment. Recovery typically takes about 5 years, yet citizens expect change to happen far more quickly.

We need to continue support for economic growth, social safety-nets and visible governance reform as well as domestically-owned security strengthening in the long haul , in particular through periods of crisis, if we are to see real results.

The new regional geopolitics
Yemen is important to both Saudi Arabia (who have been supporting the Hadi-led administration) and to Iran (who have been financing the Houthis), to ensure that Yemen has a government allied with their interests, and as part of a broader regional strategy of power-shoring. Yemen cannot be seen out of context of other struggles in the Arab world and Levant which are reshaping the sectarian and political dynamics of the region. ISIS, it is being claimed, is also trying to make inroads into Yemen to tap into the recruitee pool and financing sources.  Despite the fact that the country doesn’t have a history of Shia-Sunni violence or animosity, this might be starting to change. Al-Qaeda is using its usual strategy of globalizing and linking local struggles and has framed the conflict in sectarian terms. When laid on top of the long history of political tensions between the northern highlands and the Shafai south, new tensions and conflict dynamics emphasizing sectarian differences could take root.

Exit Saleh, exit Al Qaeda?
The presence of Al Qaeda is just one of the reasons we should continue support to Yemen, but quite a compelling one. AQAP has launched attacks on US interests in and around Yemen in the past 15 years, and is considered the terror group most likely to attack on US soil. Like most things in Yemen, the AQAP story is not a simple one. While ousted former president Saleh was a mercurial US ally, his seemingly more committed successor has also not been able to significantly push back AQAP, despite the continued military support (many argue US military support has infact bolstered AQAP’s popularity). But the conflict isn’t only between Al Qaeda and the current administration-  the Houthi’s have also been clashing fiercely with Al Qaeda and allied tribes. The degree of complexity is not atypical compared with other contexts where AQAP and similar groups have a presence- Iraq, Somalia and parts of the Sahel. Yemen presents an interesting test case for the current US administration’s much vaunted counter- terrorism strategy. The success of the strategy however remains to be seen, and continuing and evaluating it is important for our ongoing efforts in countering terror-groups elsewhere in the world.

It can be easy to lose the human element in a political narrative. Yemen is not just the poorest country in the Arab Peninsula, it is impoverished. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs called Yemen in 2013 “one of the world’s major humanitarian crises”.

Armed non-state actors such as Al Qaeda, the Houthi rebels and the southern seperatists have carved out power bases not only through effective military strategies, but also because they appeal to people who feel they have been marginalized by the elite for decades and left out of even the most recent re-imaginings of the nation.

Lives, livelihoods and human dignity matter. The Arab uprisings and the continued Houthi rebellion in Yemen are a reflection of that. Our support for peaceful, negotiated change should not waver, but we should also be committed with our non-military development assistance. The counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen must be just one part of joint-up stability strategy that reverses the impacts of conflict, brings forth much-needed services and livelihoods opportunities and restores dignity to the Yemeni people’s lives.

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