Yemen: The U.S. Partnership's Flawed Approach

By Ronan McGee
Staff Writer
February 15, 2010

In light of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to bomb a U.S. airliner last December, calls for increased engagement with Yemen emanated from around the world, as if rapprochement with the country was just now suddenly urgent. The world’s knowledge of Yemen – oftentimes limited to some broad generalization that al-Qaeda exists there – is both superficial and misunderstood, and fails to recognize that Yemen’s rapidly emerging economic, political, and security concerns are interrelated and must be addressed simultaneously in order to achieve any sort of stability in the country.

The current U.S. partnership with Yemen is framed largely through the prism of counterterrorism and overlooks the economic issues that are arguably more important to the long-term security of Yemen. Bilateral military cooperation is severely limited in the first place, as the United States cannot afford (and does not want) a troop presence in Yemen, never mind the fact that Sana’a, the capital, is unwilling to align itself too closely with Washington for fear of inciting further backlash from domestic opponents. The United States’ reliance on drone attacks and targeted airstrikes is also limiting and counterproductive. Such “solutions” may in the short-term eliminate individuals known or alleged to be involved in terrorism, but they often result in civilian casualties (as was the case recently in Abyan and Shabwah) and thus risk alienating the Yemeni population. Moreover, simply killing terrorists does not address the problem of extremism at its roots. Plans to more than double security assistance to Yemen to $150 million may also prove to be impractical, as Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s priorities are different from those of the United States. Saleh is more likely to use such funds to fight the Houthis in the north and secessionists in the south, as he believes these groups threaten his regime far more than al-Qaeda does.

Although there is no doubt that extremism is a growing problem in Yemen, the present U.S. partnership is flawed because it does not understand that Yemen’s security issues are largely unrelated to security per se, but are instead rooted in the country’s highly underdeveloped economy. The inevitable void left by the Yemeni government’s inability to deal with its economic problems risks an even greater revival of extremism in the near future.

Unemployment in Yemen is around 35 percent, 50 percent of the population is illiterate and under the age of fifteen, and, with one of the world’s highest population growth rates, public dissatisfaction with the government continues to intensify. Yemen has made no plans to diversify its economy away from oil, which is problematic since some experts estimate that Yemen will have no oil in five years. Water supplies are also rapidly diminishing, largely due to the widespread cultivation of qat, a mild narcotic chewed socially across Yemen, which requires heavy irrigation. Furthermore, qat’s lucrative profits dissuade farmers from growing other crops that could be put to better use in one of the world’s poorest nations. If not dealt with appropriately, these combined issues will cause Yemen to collapse into chaos and weaken the central government far more than it already is.

In order to prevent Yemen from deteriorating further, the United States must encourage more regional involvement, especially on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Encouraging the GCC to allow the return of Yemeni laborers (who were expelled due to Yemen’s support of Iraq in the first Gulf War) will help these workers gain relevant skill sets and alleviate some social grievances. Directing more U.S. financial assistance towards education and health reform will improve human development. The Yemeni government must also establish a better legal infrastructure to monitor and tax the use of water aquifers and digging of wells, most of which are unlicensed, and implement penalties for overuse. Similar taxes could be introduced for the production and sale of qat, which would encourage agricultural diversification and put U.S. development funds to better use. Mismanagement and corruption at all levels of government must also be dealt with through strict penalties. Offering fair interest rates and equal import tariffs to encourage foreign investment in sectors in which Yemen potentially has a comparative advantage (such as tourism, fisheries, and maritime transport) would help economic diversification away from oil.

With a strong economy comes improved political stability, especially as economic concerns and underdevelopment are partially responsible for the grievances felt by the Houthis and secessionists. In the past, Qatar has acted as an effective intermediary in talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, and such regional involvement should be encouraged in the future. Yemen’s border security and coast guard are expected to be major benefactors of U.S. security assistance this year, which is a very positive step towards ensuring domestic security.

Only through substantial progress on Yemen’s economic development can the government focus its concentration on al-Qaeda and related groups in Yemen. Any U.S. partnership must recognize this fact if it wishes to be effective in its national security goals.

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