In December 2009, the failed bombing of Northwest flight 253 thrust Yemen into the international spotlight Experts now fear that the country is rapidly becoming a centre for radicalization and a haven for extremists. At the same time, a confluence of looming domestic challenges threatens to bring Yemen to its knees, with potentially destabilizing consequences for the region.

Returning from his latest trip to Yemen, Carnegie’s Christopher Boucek discussed the diverse challenges facing Yemen, and the strategies the international community, and particularly Europe, can adopt to help stabilize the country. He was joined by a panel of experts, including EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove and Ginny Hill, head of the Yemen Forum at Chatham House in London. 

The Precarious Situation in Yemen:

According to Boucek, Yemen is beset by a wide range of problems, which span from the economy to hard security:

  • The Economy: Economics is at the heart of Yemen’s troubles. Nearly 80 percent of Yemeni income derives from the sale of hydrocarbons. Yet production of hydrocarbons has fallen from about 450,000 barrels a day in 2003 to around 180,000 per day today. There has been no viable planning for a sustainable post-oil economy. Meanwhile, official unemployment in Yemen is at 35 percent, on a par with the Great Depression in the United States.

  • Water Resources: Yemen is likely to be the first country in modern history to run out of water. Several water basins in Yemen have already collapsed, the water table is falling by several meters a year, and, as a result, water quality is deteriorating.

  • Weak Central Government: The authority of the Yemeni government is slowly eroding. Government control is effectively limited to the major highland cities in the northern part of the country.

  • Poor Education: Up to two thirds of Yemenis eligible to attend school are not doing so. Roughly half of the population is illiterate.

  • Population Growth: Yemen has a rapidly growing population. At present, there are 23 million Yemenis. According to projections, in two decades, this number will grow to 40 million and in thirty years to 60 million.

  • Military Conflicts: Northern Yemen is currently embroiled in a civil war. While a ceasefire appears to be holding, the long-term sources of grievance still need to be addressed. Another conflict in the south of the country, in Saada, is having a disastrous effect on the Yemeni economy and could grow to represent a serious threat to Yemeni territorial integrity.

  • Terrorism: In addition to these conflicts, Yemen is confronted by a resurgent al-Qaeda organisation. In January of 2009, the Saudi and the Yemeni affiliates of al-Qaeda merged to form the regional franchise extremist group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which operates both domestically and internationally. De Kerchove expressed particular concern over the increase in activity of such extremist groups in Yemen.

Structure of Power

The confluence of problems confronting Yemen, Hill suggested, are symptoms of a deeper problem: the structure of power in the country. Informal patronage networks have effectively held the country together for the past twenty years. Falling oil production has put this system under increasing strain. In the last 18 months, parliamentary elections have been deferred, repression of the media has increased, and grassroots discontent is on the rise.

The Wrong Approach

The major issues that need to be tackled in Yemen are not security and terrorism, Boucek explained. The pursuit of Al-Qaeda elements operating in Yemen must be part of a larger strategy that aims to build the capacity, capability, and legitimacy of the Yemeni government. By placing too much emphasis on security issues, the international community will only exacerbate the grievances and challenges already facing Yemen.

Europe’s Role

The current situation in Yemen provides a challenge and an opportunity for Europe to assist in developing the Yemeni government, Boucek suggested. The speakers outlined the approaches that Europe could adopt towards Yemen, as well as concrete ways Europe can and does offer assistance:

  • A Holistic Approach: The EU, De Kerchove stressed, has already adopted a comprehensive approach that aims to address Yemen’s long-term developmental and state building needs. This approach pays special attention to the root causes of the internal conflicts in the north and south of the country, economic and resource strains and the drivers of radicalization.

  • Material Assistance: Between 2007 and 2010, the European Union provided roughly €165 million in financial assistance to Yemen, De Kerchove said. This amount is set to increase by 40 percent annually. In the last two years, the EU has been active on the security front, addressing regional threats, such as piracy and trafficking. It will soon launch an initiative to improve maritime capacity building.  In addition, De Kerchove continued, the EU is starting a counter terrorism assistance program, worth nearly €15 million, and investing in a nascent Yemeni de-radicalization program.

  • Lessons from Afghanistan: De Kerchove suggested that there are three broad areas in which Europe can draw lessons from its engagement in Afghanistan:   
    1. Develop a regional approach.
    2. Devise a long-term development, economic and political reform agenda.
    3. International assistance to Yemen must be better coordinated and more coherent.

  • Improved Coordination: Hill agreed that improved donor coordination and better diplomatic alignment will be crucial to successful intervention in Yemen. The European Union can act as both a significant donor and an institution with experience in working with different constituent parts.

  • Friends of Yemen: In January 2010, approximately twenty countries declared themselves ‘Friends of Yemen,’ in a gesture meant to coordinate aid to the impoverished country. Europe, Hill suggested, can play a more visible role in this group. It can act as a counterbalance to the United States, which might try to overemphasize the security agenda. It can push within the Friends of Yemen framework for real commitment to a comprehensive and coordinated approach and encourage the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to play a more proactive role. It can also provide support to Yemeni advocates of reform and can communicate their reform message to the Yemeni president.

The Role of the GCC

The future of Yemen, Boucek stressed, lies with the GCC.  The Saudis and the Gulf countries have a unique relationship with Yemen. Both Boucek and Hill emphasized that GCC involvement in providing aid to Yemen is crucial:

  • Donors: The GCC are already important donors to Yemen, Hill argued, and will become even more so as Yemen’s oil resources steadily deplete. Boucek pointed out that Saudi Arabia is by far the largest donor to Yemen, giving around $2 billion a year.

  • Employment: The Yemeni economy is essentially a breadline economy, Hill said. Just one family member finding employment in a GCC state can support an entire village.

  • Mediators: In the past, Hill noted, Qatar has played an important role as a mediator in Saada. Other members of the GCC could play an active role in supporting mediation efforts and dialogue in Yemen.

In their closing remarks, the panelists underlined the importance of engagement by the EU and the GCC in Yemen. They also warned that Yemen cannot be allowed to fall off these organization’s agendas. In a year’s time, it might well be too late to effectively help it.