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Yemen: Profile of a Failed Arab State

INSS Insight No. 156

The media prominence given to Yemen, this time for the aborted attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, is not accidental. For some time Yemen has been a center of instability and proof that the clash between states - at least in the Middle East - has been superseded by local or even global distress caused by the weakness, possibly collapse, of national entities. Evidence lies both in the spillover of the fight against the Houthis into Saudi territory and in the transfer of al-Qaeda's regional center of gravity to Yemen. These are no more than symptoms indicating that Yemen is soon liable to become - if it has not already become - a failed state, and one of the most dangerous ones at that.

A failed state is often defined as an entity lacking a monopoly on the use of force in its territory, and thus also lacking the ability to govern its sovereign territory effectively. While every case is different, common to all failed states are chronic violence, economic collapse, basic non-governability, and growing international intervention in internal matters, whether negative (as by Iran) or constructive, e.g., with humanitarian assistance and counter terrorism efforts.

On the basis of this definition, Yemen is hardly the only failed state in the Middle East, but the intensity of the challenges it faces as well as the connections between them distinguishes its failure. The result is that Yemen has become an increasingly attractive option for al-Qaeda, certainly as long as American military pressure continues in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area

The government in Sana'a has so far concentrated its efforts on containing the two insurgencies within its borders (the separatists in the south and the Shiites in the north), because it deems them a more serious threat to the integrity and stability of the state than the potential threat inherent in al-Qaeda operating from within its territory. Thus, for example, half of Yemen's military is now engaged in fighting the Houthis in the north. Foreign observers have even accused Salah's government of recruiting experienced al-Qaeda operatives to help it fight the Shiite rebels, reminiscent of the asylum Salah granted to Afghani mujahideen and their recruitment to his forces in the 1994 civil war.

Yet as in other cases, here too the monster has to a large extent turned on its maker. Over the years al-Qaeda ranks have made use of the approximately 60 million uncontrolled weapons around the country to attack Western interests (kidnapping tourists and attacking embassies), inter alia to exert pressure on the Sana'a government to improve their conditions. Despite the significant differences between the groups fighting against the government, Sana'a's concern is that they will work together against it. Even if the probability of that happening is slim, it cannot be discounted altogether.

The poorest Arab state, Yemen has already posed challenges not just for its neighbors in the Arabian Peninsula and the Red Sea but also - as international interest indicates - for the entire free world. The presence of hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees from Yemen and elsewhere, inter-tribal and inter-religious violence, border-transcending criminal activity, piracy on the high seas, significant demographic changes (spearheaded by uncontrolled urbanization and a disproportionately high number of young people), starvation, and disease are all part of day to day reality in Yemen. While Yemen has survived many challenges in the past, the complexity and unprecedented intensity of its immediate problems set the present situation apart. Among the scenarios envisioned is that the Yemenite state - like Somalia - might disintegrate into separate autonomous provinces, a scenario that to a large extent is already taking place.

It is not easy to single out Yemen's most urgent problem. With the draining of its oil reserves, which were small to begin with (though responsible for 70 percent of the nation's income), an acute water shortage, and the fact that about half of the population lives below the poverty line and cannot read or write, Yemen is increasingly dependent on the external assistance of Arab nations, the West, and international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The collapse of Yemen is liable to harm not only the security interests of the nations in the regions but also - because of its location near the most important oil producer in the world and one of the most sensitive shipping routes (3 million barrels of oil pass through the straits of Bab el-Mandeb every day) - to puncture the world's trade and energy security.

To date Yemen has not been at the top of America's list of priorities in the Middle East. The scope of trade between the two nations is marginal, Russia and China are its traditional arms suppliers, and most of the tribal chieftains look askance at American involvement in the region. Since the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and the American embassy in 2008, the Yemeni government has strengthened its cooperation with the United States: American military personnel equip and train the Yemeni security forces and help them with intelligence gathering. Twice in the last month, they even attacked terrorist strongholds directly from the air.

However, increased American involvement, certainly if it results in civilian deaths, might contribute to antagonism towards the United States and is liable to increase the ranks of new al-Qaeda recruits. Moreover, military equipment is at times not used for its designated purpose - i.e., fighting elements identified with al-Qaeda - rather serves the Yemenite government in its struggle against its political rivals, as in the warfare against the Houthis.

The third visit to Yemen by General David Petraeus, the head of US Central Command, since assuming his post last year is evidence of the increasing importance Yemen is assuming in the American mind. Further evidence is, pending Congressional approval, America's doubling of its military aid to Yemen to some $150 million for the 2010 fiscal year (which despite the significant increase, still falls far short of American support for states such as Pakistan). Yet generally speaking, these steps are like aspirin for a terminal patient, because security issues that the aid is supposed to tackle are no more than symptoms of a deep, systemic political failure.

What can be done? There are no easy solutions. However, the responsibility lies primarily at the door of the Yemeni government, which in recent years has been consumed by corruption and nepotism and neglected to tackle the nation's problems. Unless the government takes action now - in five years its oil reserves are expected to be depleted - the government will not be in a position to supply water to its population, which at the current rate of growth, is projected to double itself by the end of the next decade to about 40 million people.

The situation requires governmental reforms, including the eradication of corruption, strengthened rule of law, separation of the branches of government, civilian supervision of the security forces, and gradual advance towards democratization from within, processes that Yemen cannot assume without external assistance (and pressure). To a great extent, the solution is also regional and lies at the door of Yemen's Arab neighbors, especially the wealthy Gulf states. Yemen's problems are theirs as well, because there too the income from oil conceals structural weaknesses that are destined to spur future government instability.

Yemen has long tried to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional institution uniting the Arab Gulf States, but to no avail. Removing the opposition of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (because of Yemen's support for Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War) is likely to ease Yemen's way to joining the organization. This would supply cheap Yemeni labor to nations starving for workers and help these nations bring Yemen into the fold of the pragmatic bloc. And while the increase in US military aid to Yemen is important in and of itself, it is not a substitute for international cooperation in seeking a comprehensive solution to the ills besetting failed states before they spark a global sickness.


The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.



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