A month ago, it would have been difficult for most Americans to find Yemen on a map, or for most policymakers in Washington to engage meaningfully in a discussion on the internal complexities of this almost failed state. But all that changed in the wake of the Christmas Day attack by the Nigerian underwear bomber aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallah, who apparently received his training and his explosives from Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Now that Yemen is front and center in the minds of U.S. national security experts and the American public alike, it’s time for a serious reassessment of our military, diplomatic and economic development assistance to the poorest nation in the Middle East. Some threats must be confronted militarily, but U.S. strategy in Yemen must take into consideration the wide range of factors that threaten Yemen’s already tenuous political and economic stability.
The Yemeni government led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh faces challenges in every direction. In the north, the government is waging a war in the Saa’da region to suppress a rebellion of the Al Houthi clan, which is pressing for greater autonomy. In the south, secessionists are fighting for political freedom, equal rights, and basic services that results in an underlying drumbeat of violent conflict—along an unsecured coastline awash in weapons smuggling and more than 200,000 Somali refugees.
The stability of Yemen depends on overcoming other threats as well, among them a severe water shortage, worsening budget shortfalls, declining oil reserves, corruption, political instability, succession questions, and suffocating unemployment. Facing all of these almost insurmountable problems, the Yemeni government is understandably hesitant to alienate any sources of support, including those that harbor Al Qaeda sympathizers. This is the tough nut the United States and its allies have to crack.
The Yemeni government is struggling to withstand all of these domestic, regional, and international pressures. The current government survives because of the masterful balancing act that President Saleh has perfected during his nearly 31 years of rule—balancing the competing interests of tribal and political groupings through patronage networks—but his game is becoming increasingly difficult to play. The Yemeni system is an electoral, parliamentary system, but the rotation of power has been non-existent and the president’s party—the General Party Congress—boasts a firm grasp on power in the regions where it holds political sway.
As Yemen teeters on the brink of becoming a failed state, the U.S. government and international allies acknowledge they must pay greater attention to the broad spectrum of grave challenges facing that country. The recent announcement by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to convene a summit on Yemen on January 28 should open the door to a more coordinated and constructive international strategy toward Yemen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s scheduled presence indicates U.S. support for this approach and has already pledged to double its security assistance to Yemen.
It would be a shame, however, if this high-level gathering focuses on strategies to combat extremism solely through the lens of counterterrorism, border security, and security sector reform. A comprehensive policy approach in Yemen is needed. To be sure, military assistance will be discussed at the summit, but addressing Yemen’s instability must also focus on good governance, corruption, and economic reform.
The strategy that emerges from the summit should bolster the capacity of the Yemeni government to respond to the needs of its citizens to help curb the poverty and hopelessness that breeds conflict, discontent, and extremism. While this is by no means a panacea for the myriad of factors that drive individuals to violent action, which may come in the shape of educated, wealthy radicals as well as the desperately poor and disenfranchised, it will help address the environment that allows extremism to develop.
U.S. policy should focus on enhancing the government’s ability to deliver basic services—particularly at the local level—and address the grievances of average Yemenis in order to foster political stability and economic growth. Basic institutions of good governance are largely absent in most parts of the country, and rampant corruption has caused a crisis of confidence in the regime and created an economy in a tailspin.
During a recent trip to the capital of Sana’a in November, I spoke with businessmen and civil society activists who worry about what will happen as the end of President Saleh’s term of office approaches in 2013. Some believe that his successor would likely be a member of his family, but how that transition plays out in the coming years could be exceedingly destabilizing. Ideally, Yemenis would witness robust competition for president between candidates that present cohesive electoral platforms and solutions that appeal to their constituents. But, even if citizens must choose between less than optimal candidates, the process of free and fair elections is vitally important and the United States should support a base for a true democratic transition.
In this precarious environment—without a peaceful transition of power—the country could deteriorate even further. To avoid such a situation, the right government and civil institutions must be in place to ensure a process where the rights of citizens are respected and the building blocks for a better economic future are clearly being put in place. Here’s what needs to be done.
The way forward: Prioritizing U.S. assistance
Military-to-military assistance may be effective in the short term, but a long-term and sustainable strategy must take into account the root causes of Yemen’s instability. A more comprehensive approach to stabilizing Yemen would include increasing assistance to the following three sectors: local governance, anti-corruption, and economic reform. Let’s consider each in turn.
U.S. policy should focus on strengthening government institutions at the municipal and governorate level where most Yemenis encounter the state. Many local leaders lack the capacity to govern effectively. A component of U.S. assistance should focus on a robust local governance training program strengthening skills in financial management, constituency outreach, and service delivery.
The government of Yemen recognizes the necessity of this, creating a National Decentralization Strategy as a cornerstone of President Saleh’s 2015 strategic vision. As in many other weak states, the central government has limited reach outside Sana’a, and cultivating strong leadership at the local level will be essential to creating more stable conditions where conflict can be resolved peacefully. This debate has plagued U.S. policy in Afghanistan as well, and the tide has turned toward strengthening local leaders instead of extending the reach of the capital. To be sure, these efforts won’t reap gains quickly, but it is a long-term investment worth making.
To do so, the United States should support current efforts by civil society groups to foster partnerships between local councils and community-based organizations to increase communication, build trust, and jointly determine how best to spend their meager budget. Local non-government organizations, such as the Studies and Media Economic Center based in Sana’a, have launched programs that train citizen groups to work directly with and monitor municipal representatives, both to enhance performance but also to reduce opportunities for corruption. The U.S. Agency for International Development is on board with this strategy and recently announced that it will support two major stabilization projects totaling $85 million in Yemen that focus on improving the quality of life and governance by specifically supporting community-based organizations and empowering local government.
Outreach to tribal and religious leaders is another critical piece to achieve these goals. The U.S. should provide support to international and local non-government organizations such as Partners for Democratic Change and the National Democratic Institute, both based in Washington but with offices in Sana’a staffed with locals, to tap into these traditional sources of power outside of the capital city to gain their support in the peaceful resolution of conflict and encourage greater community participation to define priorities and solutions. A colleague at the USAID told me that the U.S. Department of Defense is way ahead of them in embracing this approach in Yemen, in part because of their experience in Iraq working with tribal groups.
In order to inspire hope in the future, U.S. assistance should prioritize rooting out the scourge of corruption. I watched kids participating in a Children’s Parliament in Sana’a discuss how corruption engenders a feeling of hopelessness, and their frustration was palpable. Currently, unemployment rates in Yemen reach 35 percent among some groups and nearly 80 percent of the youth sees no hope of getting a job without connections. The government in Sana’a recognizes that it is no longer able to provide sufficient job opportunities in the public sector and is increasingly turning to the private sector to avoid this ticking time bomb. To succeed, however, the government must ensure a clean business environment that is conducive to growth.
Both the demand side and the supply side of corruption in Yemen must be addressed. Pervasive corruption in the public sector erodes the public’s trust and siphons money from the state coffers to private pockets. It is found in countless ways including soliciting and paying bribes to win tenders, interfering in the courts to sway judicial settlements, dodging taxation and tariffs, and engaging in family or tribal nepotism. When businesses engage in bribery or spend time to solicit preferential treatment, it wastes millions of dollars and human resources. Utilizing these resources to productive ends would facilitate business growth that generates new job opportunities.
There is a great deal of local activity already on the anti-corruption front. The government has taken some steps in the right direction, such as establishing the Supreme National Authority to Combat Corruption in 2007, which is tasked with receiving complaints and addressing cases of grand corruption within the judicial system. The independent group YemenPAC, or Parliamentarians Against Corruption, advocates for legislative reform and helped pass an Access to Information Law that guarantees citizens have access to government records.
Many civil society organizations have launched awareness-raising campaigns and created watchdog groups, among them groups such as the Media Women Forum and Women Journalists without Chains, which are helping to equip journalists with investigative reporting skills necessary to report on corruption schemes and scandals. The Center for International Private Enterprise is working with a well-known Yemeni director, Khadija Al Salami, to produce a full-length film that exposes bribery and corrupt practices, highlights the detrimental impact on society and the economy, and presents recommendations for policy reform.
U.S. anti-corruption development assistance should build upon these efforts. We should also add a new approach to engage the private sector in this fight against corruption, and develop tools promoting collective action in the business community to combat bribery, increasing civil society’s ability to hold government leaders accountable for their actions, and creating effective mechanisms to punish offenders.
Sustainable economic development is crucial for Yemen. The United States should support efforts that empower the private sector in Yemen to advance significant economic reform by the government. There is a unique opportunity today to spur economic reform since the government has a strong incentive to cooperate and respond to the demands of the business community on political and economic fronts. When the private sector is successful in advocating for such changes, this helps build broader democratic norms by laying the foundation for advocacy on a myriad of other issues.
Political parties should also be engaged and should base their electoral platforms on solutions to pressing economic problems to compete for voters based on issues and not ideology. The Political Development Forum, a Yemeni NGO, is doing just that, facilitating debate between political parties, government, and the business community. These efforts are now reaching outside Sana’a, which underscores the recognition that local-level outreach is becoming a focal point.
In addition to fighting corruption, U.S. assistance should bolster the ability of the Yemeni government to implement reforms that uphold market institutions, create a positive investment climate, and allow the private sector to flourish. With the decline in oil revenue, the government must support diversification and foster public-private partnerships to grow the economy. Support from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in and around the Persian Gulf will be vital at this stage as well. In 2008, Yemen was admitted to four new GCC bodies, and in early March 2009Yemen was admitted as a member of the Federation of GCC Chambers of Commerce. Such overtures can help Yemen to forge closer ties with the GCC states and promote Gulf private investment in Yemen.
The U.S. government can support local business associations that advocate for market-oriented reform, such as modifying an onerous tax code that dissuades transparency, facilitating access to credit, and minimizing barriers to entry for new entrepreneurs by reducing the number of procedures required to register a new business. If laws related to commercial activity and investment are clarified and streamlined, then an unencumbered business community will have greater resources to expand. In some cases, the government has shown itself amenable to input from the private sector through independent business associations, such as the Yemeni Businessmen Club, whose membership includes the second and third generation of the most important businesses in Yemen. Such groups can be powerful advocates for the kind of changes that would foster economic growth.
Sustainable development is possible in Yemen
Investing much needed U.S. assistance in good governance, anti-corruption efforts and economic reform alongside military assistance is our best chance at enhancing the long-term stability of Yemen and preventing radicalization. This kind of integrated approach to development is the only sustainable way forward in Yemen. And this perspective echoes President Barack Obama’s global vision—as stated in his Cairo and Accra speeches—to connect and coordinate efforts to stem security threats, foster economic growth, and create resilient political institutions around the world.
But foreign assistance is just one side of the equation. The other side is the Yemeni leadership—or more specifically—what Yemeni leaders can deliver. Change from the inside—among leaders in the government, the private sector, civil society, and the media—is imperative to demonstrate real commitment and stem the downward spiral. There are reformists in each of these sectors that command respect in their communities and are finding ways to push for change where openings exist. While U.S. military engagement may take on a more public face in Yemen, our task is to find ways to support these new leaders without undercutting their legitimacy. Ultimately, the responsibility rests not with the U.S. and the international community, but rather with the Yemenis themselves.
Danya Greenfield is a program officer with the Middle East and North Africa division at the Center for International Private Enterprise, and travels frequently to Yemen, the Gulf, and throughout the region. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent CIPE.
For more information, see:
- Terrorism in Yemen Rediscovered, by Brian Katulis.
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