Engaging Yemen on the Sources of Insecurity

  • US aid for Yemen goes predominantly to military and hard security projects.
  • To confront the key sources of instability the U.S. must look beyond military assistance.
  • Tier two engagement will be a critical component of this strategy, especially in looking at challenges to natural resource and human security.

government protesters in Sana'a, 2009

As Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen makes headlines yet again for attempted terrorist activities against the United States, the US government is preparing a $150 million package aimed at training and aiding Yemeni security and military forces.  This unsurprising move represents business as usual for US-Yemeni relations; a continuation of security and terrorism-centric dialogue, policy, and funding that pervades all levels of the two countries’ engagement.    In fact, of the $63 million in aid money to Yemen in FY10, well over half goes toward military and security assistance.

In his October 29th speech on the attempted cargo plane bombings, President Obama announced that the US government intends to “strengthen a more stable, secure and prosperous Yemen so that terrorist groups to not have the time and space they need to plan attacks from within its borders.”   This statement is coupled with an announcement to increase the military aid to Yemen to $150 million.  Considering that the President’s FY11 budget called for just over $100 million in total aid for Yemen, 48% of which was for military and security assistance, this new announcement triples military aid and makes it approximately 75% of Yemen’s aid money.

While security is the primary focus of the FY 11 budget, under its new Yemen strategy USAID is also working to address some of the soft security issues that fuel instability.  Included in this FY11 budget are projects on:

  • Military and security assistance;
  • Responsive governance, a multi-sector project expected to be funded at $43 million for 5 years and aimed to strengthen public policies and institutions;
  • The Community Livelihoods Project, a multi-sector program expected to be funded at $125 million for 5 years with the goal of economic stabilization through government services, job creation, civic participation, and responsive local governance.
  • Urban refugee aid for those living in Sana’a;
  • Public health; and
  • Supporting an independent media.

AQAP, 2009, courtesy of The Long War Journal

This $200 million in aid compares to packages of over $1.5 billion for Egypt, $730 million for Iraq, $680 million for Jordan, $550 million for the West Bank and Gaza, and $250 million for Lebanon.

A recent article by Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace points out that Yemen suffers from more than just the hard security challenges associated with AQAP, the Houthi Rebellion in Sa’da, and the Southern Mobility separatist movement in the South and in Hadramawt[1]. Boucek notes that, “Beyond its security concerns, Yemen is on the brink of economic disaster, suffering from poor governance and quickly dwindling water supplies.”

The article rightly calls for the U.S. government to expand its aid focus to help Yemen: improve its legal system and laws, fight corruption, increase policing capacity, improve the economy, alter the land distribution and ownership system, and enhance the education system. These policy prescriptions are standard practice in the Middle East—multilateral aid packages with the goals of addressing economic instability, furthering governance and rule of law, promoting civil society, and improving education and with debatable effectiveness. Boucek further calls on the U.S. government to partner with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s largest donor nation at $2 billion a year.

While these prescriptions will be important components in a comprehensive Yemen strategy, they fall short of addressing Yemen’s immediate and long term stability challenges, especially those

related to:  natural resources, population growth, and human health and capacity.

Robust track one and track two Yemeni-U.S. engagement will be necessary over the coming years.  Track two approaches will be especially important for addressing these core resource, population, and human challenges as their solutions are highly technical in nature, the target populations often live in areas with limited central government involvement or legitimacy, and effective solutions will require individual buy-in and stakeholder engagement from diverse actors.

Note that an effective strategy must include cooperation and engagement with the tribal and religious networks and stakeholders that are central components of Yemen’s social structure and civil society.  Tribes especially will be important partners in Yemen’s ongoing stability.  As an example of this, the leader of Yemen’s largest Bakil tribe, Sheikh Naji Abdul Aziz Al-Shayef, recently called for the creation of a coalition aligned with the government against Al Qaeda.

In the immediate future, the U.S. must support both track one and especially track two engagement in:

  • Resource ownership. An immediate problem, Yemen’s oil and natural gas are running out and its water is running out even faster.  The U.S. must support scientists, technologists, and other experts in working with Yemeni government officials, scientists, and stakeholders to determine resource distribution, replenishment rate, and must begin dialogues with stakeholders on how resources are distributed, allocated, and managed.
  • Land ownership. Before radically overhauling the land ownership system, the U.S. must work with the Yemeni government to institute legal safeguards that ensure that traditional land tenure systems are recognized. Current land reform efforts seek to secure land titling through registration and ownership legislation.  However, much land is owned at the tribal level, is communally owned, or is owned by the local mosque for the benefit of the mosque and the area’s poor (generally as a result of land donated through zakat or alms) and land reformation has the potential to further increase poverty as those without registration are displaced.
  • Science and technology (S&T) cooperation. The U.S. government should take advantage of the Arab world’s favorable opinion of U.S. S&T to develop exchange programs and build internal Yemeni S&T capacity, focusing on issues such as water, energy, and biosecurity, which are of mutual need and interest.
  • Refugees. Located not just below Saudi Arabia, but just across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden from Africa, Yemen is a country of 23 million people, with almost 200,000 refugees.  The majority of these refugees are from Somalia, with small groups from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Iraq.  The U.S. must work with civil society in the U.S., Yemen, and internationally, as well as with the UNHRC, to develop a strategy for permanent resettlement and to aid refugees as well as the populations in the South of Yemen where the refugee camps are located.
  • Internally displaced persons. Yemen has an estimated 150,000-250,000 internally displaced persons, mostly in Sa’da and the North.  The U.S. must work with local tribes, international human rights and refugee organizations, and the government of Yemen and to develop a strategy for infrastructure and housing development, for public health initiatives, and for economic development.

Long term formal and informal engagement on the following issues is critical:

  • Resource management. With dwindling resources, especially of water and fossil fuels, management is an increasingly critical challenge.  Sustainable resource use and allocation mechanisms are critical.   Their development can be best facilitated by the U.S. supporting tier two collaborations between experts, resource managers, and stakeholders, backed by tier one cooperation with politicians to develop supportive legislation, markets, and profit sharing mechanisms.
  • Infrastructure development.
  • Public health. Foci of these efforts should be infectious diseases, material and reproductive health, access to basic medical services, and population control issues.

No one policy or engagement strategy will be a panacea for Yemen’s root destabilizing factors.  Instead, the U.S. and other donor nations must focus on a variety of strategies at multiple levels of engagement that enhance human capacity and education, stabilize resource use and availability, improve governance, engage Yemen in the global S&T community, and approach Yemen as both a unique state and as a critical actor in a volatile region.


[1] For an overview of the Southern Mobility Movement (SMM) in Hadrawawt, see Michael Horton’s article “The Growing Separatists Threat in Yemen’s Hadramawt Governorate,” TerrorismMonitor Volume VIII, Issue 40.

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2 Responses to “Engaging Yemen on the Sources of Insecurity”

  1. Evil von Scarry November 19, 2010 at 2:40 PM #

    First of all, great article.

    I have a few concerns however with renewed interest and focus on Yemen especially concerning Anwar al-Awlaki the supposed master mind of the ink toner cartridge bombs, considering he was already killed last year.

    The U.S. “intelligence” seems to keep forgetting who they have killed and who was were when assigning responsibility for terrorist actions to dead men.

    Keep up the great work and Im looking forward to future articles. Thanks- EvS

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