Yemen Threatens Regional Stability

Kidnappings Underscore Need for Regional Engagement

Yemen is caught in a trap of instability that marginalizes the country and brings further instability; neighboring countries and the international community can no longer afford to ignore it.

Burning tires left by antigovernment protestors as they block the road during clashes with Yemeni security forces in Taiz, Yemen. (AP/Yemen Lens)
Burning tires left by antigovernment protestors as they block the road during clashes with Yemeni security forces in Taiz, Yemen. (AP/Yemen Lens)

The European Union’s anti-terrorism chief warned following the kidnapping of nine foreigners by guerilla forces on June 14 that Yemen could become “another Afghanistan.”

Indeed, Yemen is both a source of and repository for instability. The country has a weakened central government, a crippled economy, a young population, and is home to multiple insurgencies plus Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These issues are bleeding over into the surrounding region and threatening neighboring country’s security. Its economic and security issues demand regional and international attention and cooperation, yet these same issues that threaten regional stability are also isolating Yemen and making other countries wary of engagement.

The recent kidnappings only serve to further isolate Yemen from its neighbors. Because of the foreigners’ nationalities and their work for a Christian organization, Al Qaeda is believed responsible for the kidnapping and murders. Responsibility for this attack would add to a long list of attacks that Al Qaeda is suspected of organizing in Yemen, including the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000 and the deadly 2008 assault on the U.S. embassy in the capital of Sanaa.

Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch announced after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January that a former Guantanamo detainee and Saudi citizen had reemerged as the deputy leader of the newly formed Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—a group that combines the Yemeni and Saudi factions, with a Yemeni at its head. Nearly half of the remaining detainees at Guantanamo are from Yemen. And the country’s reputation as a safe haven for terrorists has not been helped by Al Qaeda’s increasing visibility, or by the growth of a violent separatist movement in the South and a sporadic insurgency in the North, where thousands have been killed since 2005.

Al Qaeda’s regional merger suggests that Yemen’s instability is not merely a local problem, but a broader regional issue. Some of the wealthier Gulf states have recognized this: Saudi Arabia increased border security in early 2008, reinforcing the concrete-filled security barrier that runs along portions of its border with Yemen. Yet Islamic militants from the Gulf region and beyond—including Afghanistan and Iraq—still cross the border into Yemen on a regular basis.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in February that, “Yemen is reemerging as a jihadist battleground and potential regional base of operations for al Qaeda to plan internal and external attacks, train terrorists, and facilitate the movement of operatives.”

According to a prominent expert on Al Qaeda in Yemen, the aim of incorporating Saudi fighters is to use Yemen as a base for attacks through the region. Al Qaeda’s movement and growth contributes to Yemen’s status as a repository for instability. The weak border means that the U.S. must consider the question regionally.

Yemen and the United States have cooperated on counterterrorism, but a number of security lapses have frustrated the relationship—most notably the escape of 23 Al Qaeda members from a prison in Sanaa and accusations by U.S. officials of paroling high-level and dangerous terrorists.

The other Gulf States, meanwhile, continue to distance themselves from Yemen at their own peril. Yemen sided with Iraq during the first Gulf war, alienating its principal economic benefactors—namely, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They punished Yemen by reducing their generous financial aid, and Saudi Arabia went even further, expelling over one million guest workers. This crippled Yemen’s economy for most of the 1990s as the country slid into a civil war. Now, Yemen stands alone as the only Arab Gulf country awaiting entry into the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Yemen, like other countries in the region, confronts a frustrating combination of economic and demographic problems, namely a large young population and high unemployment, which stood at 35 percent in 2003. Not coincidently, these are some of the main reasons giving the GCC countries pause about admitting Yemen to the club. GCC ascension would not magically solve Yemen’s numerous ills, including domestic and transnational terrorism, but Yemen appears to be caught in a painfully familiar Catch-22. Yemen’s instability demands regional and international attention and cooperation; at the same time, its instability and lack of institutional capacity make other countries wary of involvement, isolating a country in desperate need of constructive engagement.

The wealthier Arab Gulf states would benefit from engagement with Yemen. Saudi Arabia has created what appears to be a largely successful counterterrorism program, cracking down on jihadists while attempting to deprogram former Islamist militants. The high cost of the rehabilitation program is beyond Yemen’s means, but cooperation on counterterrorism and jihadist deprogramming methods would benefit Yemen and the broader region. One of the few recidivist graduates from the program gave himself up in Yemen, after fleeing Saudi Arabia. Challenged on the issue, the director of the Saudi rehabilitation program acknowledges that the program’s flaw: “We can’t guarantee he won’t go back to Yemen again …  you’re dealing with people, not cars.” A close relationship on the issue would therefore help plug a gap in Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism strategy and strengthen its own security.

Yemen is clearly linked to—and extremely dependent on—its stronger neighbors, who suffer from Yemen’s instability. The other Arab Gulf states—as well as the United States—would be well served in viewing Yemen not as a state apart, but as a regional problem with a regional solution.

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