A New Role for the US Government in Yemen

By June 8, 2011

Today Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sits in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, the victim of an assassination
attempt.  Back in Yemen, the opposition is cautiously optimistic about what this means for the future of Yemen.  And as the U.S. State Department and its allies continue to publicly call on Saleh to resign from office and make way for genuine, democratic elections, it is paramount to remember that the removal of Saleh should not be the end game in Yemen.  A successful, stable, secure Yemen needs more than one man’s fall from power.

In the meantime, what are other areas of the U.S. government doing and saying about Yemen?

Just one week ago the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012. Included in this act is updated language that affirms and strengthens the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) with respect to “the ongoing armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces.”   In justifying the new language, which gives legal grounding to broadened executive actions in the war on terror, House Armed Services Committee Chair, Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) explicitly cited Yemen’s terrorist threat and the actions of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.

The accompanying press release directly states that “the threats posed by al-Qaeda cells in Yemen and Africa underscore the evolving and continuing nature of the terrorist threat to the United States.”  Former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey praises the updated language as adding “order and rationality” to the current ad hoc authorization of military actions and detentions in the war on terror.

Nevertheless, the language does explicitly authorize U.S. military incursions into any country–such as Yemen–perceived to be or contain a security threat to America.

This stance, while bold, does not mark a new era in U.S.-Yemeni relations.  Rather it highlights the narrow lens through which the American government views and interacts with Yemen.  Under the ongoing Yemen strategy, counterterrorism efforts against AQAP take precedence over all other matters.

For the past four months Yemen has been engulfed in anti-government protests that seek to force Saleh to resign from office.  Since January 2011 more than 50 protesters have been killed, hundreds have been wounded, and the economic fragility of this country exposed as oil exports collapse and food and fuel prices soar.

Throughout the protests the U.S. narrative has focused on this crisis as a political matter only, with the primary issues being the implications of Saleh resigning on Yemeni political stability and capacity to combat AQAP.

However, the answer to the question “Is Yemen failing?” does not come down to one man.  As early as the 1960s the U.S. government recognized that the key barriers to development and success in Yemen are the country’s lack of natural resources, shortages of educated and trained manpower, scarcity of water, and divisions in the country’s social structure.  While Yemen has improved in key indicators such as literacy rates and GDP, to date none of these critical development issues have been significantly addressed.

The current conflict  has already exacerbated and will continue to exacerbate these development concerns.

Hydrocarbon development. A net oil and gas exporter, Yemen depends upon oil for more than 70% of its declared GDP.  The country nevertheless possesses only 0.2% of the world’s total oil reserves (2.7 thousand million barrels proven in 2009) as is believed to have already reached peak production.  Attempts to compensate for the expected oil revenue loss through natural gas development, namely a 5-year $4 billion project to build and supply a liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal, have been stifled by political instabilities, tribal tensions, and reluctant foreign investment.

Since the start of the anti-government protests this national income crunch has only gotten worse.  Daily oil exports have been cut by more than 100,000 barrels per day, down by more than one-third from 270,000 barrels, and worker strikes and pipeline cuts have completely halted both production and export for days on end.  Internally, over the last three months the combination of pipeline disruptions and limited domestic refining capacity has fueled severe electricity, gasoline, and heating fuel shortages within Yemen.

Water. By 2050 several main cities, including Sana’a and Taiz, are expected to drain their water aquifers—effectively running out of water.  Current withdraw rates show the aquifers under Sana’a withdrawing at up to 5-6 meters annually (data from the German Technical Office).  In a water sector already characterized by water management struggles, corruption, bloody fights over irrigated land and water access, prolonged absence of central authority will likely reduce the already limited compliance with Yemen’s environmental and water laws.  Even if central fighting were to stop tomorrow, the Ministry of Water and the Environment is in disarray in the wake of Minister Abdulrahman al-Eryani’s resignation on March 22nd and the leveling of the Ministry building (located in the Hasaba district, near the Ministry of the Interior) during the last week ‘s violent conflict between government troops and tribesmen supporting Sadiq Al Ahmar.

Population. With or without Saleh, Yemen must confront one of the highest population growth rates in the world (more than 3%), a poor education system, high unemployment, and one of the world’s most significant gender equality gaps.  In a population of 23 million, over 45% of people lived on less than $2/day in 2010, a level defined by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as being poverty level.  With many livelihoods either directly or indirectly dependent upon hydrocarbon extraction and tourism, this poverty level has without question risen over the past six months.

Food. Once considered the breadbasket of Arabia, Yemen is now a net food importer.  The World Food Programme considers 32% of Yemen’s population to be food insecure and 12%  severely food insecure.  While there is significant evidence that social networks and communities in Yemen ensure that even the poorest families are not calorie deficient, there is significant nutrient deficiency and many families depend upon borrowing in order to meet their basic food needs.

To aid Yemen in addressing their extensive social, economic, and resource challenges the U.S. Department of State (DOS) has requested just over $120 million in aid for FY 2012.  Of this, just 57 percent or $68.6 million will go towards all economy building, education, health, and democracy building activities.  To offer perspective, in FY 2012 DOS alone requests $5.6 billion for global foreign military funding.

As the U.S. government develops its policies toward Yemen it must look beyond a narrow perspective of counterterrorism and seek to address key causes of insecurity—environmental, social, and economic, as well as political and military. Neither authorizing military force against actors in Yemen nor providing security funding is enough.  Addressing root causes of terrorism and instability means sustained and significant engagement over critical issues including education, resource management, governance reforms, and economic and financial restructuring and development.

When the Embassy staff return to Sana’a and engage with the Yemeni government, whatever its form, the US must work with Yemen to:

  • rebuild key institutions  and capacity;
  • support those existing development and business projects that have been most successful;
  • initiate new U.S-Yemeni partnerships that strengthen Yemen’s internal scientific, economic, governance, and business capacity; and
  • push the Yemeni government for meaningful governance reforms.
Categories: International Science Partnership, Political