Yemen and Its Challenges
A Yemeni man sits by the wreckage of tourists' cars at the site of a suspected al-Qaeda car bomb attack in Marib in July 2007.
Yemen is a dysfunctional, disorganized state; it is vulnerable in political, social and economic arenas. But as usual, the picture is not black and white; it is highly nuanced. With sufficient political will there is real potential for improvement, especially in the areas of responsible and proactive governance, economic development and social inclusion.
However, for improvements to become a reality, well-targeted regional and international support is required.
Since reunification in 1990, Yemen has faced major challenges. Putting two different states together did not make one viable, cohesive nation. Since neither component part had the requisite level of political maturity, this reunification just doubled the inequities.
Over the years, the resulting imbalances came under increasing strain as popular resentment was accentuated and the leadership's unwillingness, on one hand, and incapacity, on the other, to move ahead with some show of justice and fairness became apparent. The decision-making process is over-centralized and personalized; thus, it is not able to cope with the numerous issues that arise in ruling a country of over 22 million in an institutionalized, transparent manner.
There are three major files to be dealt with in Yemen: the Southern Movement, al Houthis, and al Qaeda.
The unity of any state is its backbone. The issues around the Southern Movement are the most decisive in this respect because they include a strong political component, but they also concern economic development and social advancement. The al Houthis challenge largely relates to political ambition and could be quickly resolved. Al Qaeda poses security as well as political, social and administrative challenges. However, this is a problem that has solutions. To a large extent the answer does not lie exclusively with the military, but rather in a combination of elements, such as fatwas (religious edict), the provision of real prospects for those recruited to the group out of material necessity and the enforcement of the rule of law—an essential course of action that simultaneously strengthens the state, engages the local community and establishes good relations with neighboring states.
Today al Qaeda has a relatively small number of members, but some say that the group may grow, not because of the strength of the ideology but primarily as a result of a misguided approach.
The ruling party, the General People's Congress, appears not be governing, and the opposition, not to be opposing. Both sides stop short of fulfilling their (whole) mandate and the expectations of those who legitimized them. Neither party has adjusted its political calculations to meet the needs of the larger population. The irony is that both stand to win from a different approach. Showing some responsibility around election times is just not good enough. There is no point in delaying reforms, yet the country has entered a mode that is perhaps best described as slow motion with pauses.
A proactive Yemeni government might consider taking steps toward broader political and social dialogue and inclusion; participatory decision-making processes; administrative reform; and legal reform. Once these objectives start to be implemented, the end result will be a reformed, updated and accountable political entity.
Mohammad Qahtan, the leader of the main opposition party, Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform), listed the main principles his party would work on should they be part of a governing coalition: cleaning up the financial/banking sector in Yemen; constitutional amendments to reaffirm and re-establish the balance among factions in the country; and education, development, efficient law enforcement, checks and balances on political power, and an independent justice system that will improve the workings of the state machine.
The vice minister of planning and international cooperation, Engineer Hisham Sharaf Abdalla, explained that "Yemen is an emergent democracy. We are taken as one but not cared for as one. There are many challenges ahead. Democracy and human rights are nice words, but if you can't fill the gap when it comes to development, reducing poverty, creating a proper environment to attract investments, then nothing will come out of it."
In his view, "We went very fast politically but very slowly in terms of development. … It created an imbalance. I don't think the government or the people are to blame. We need to restructure the system in order to build Yemen."
He concluded by commenting, "Reforms are our priority. A lot of things we have yet to achieve, but better late than never."
The security factor
Two interconnected dogmas regarding Yemen appear to be widespread. The first maintains that the ruling regime should not be criticized—or at least not too harshly criticized—in public. This conviction leads to the second cliché: that Yemen's security is its top priority, and that since the regime is in charge of the defense strategy, their mission cannot be questioned.
A narrow vision that seeks immediate advantage coupled with unsustainable policies has an impact on everyone from the top to the bottom of society.
Kid-glove handling when the act of governance is put under close scrutiny does not do anyone any favors. The actions, or lack of action, of the central government affect the very existence of the state, as well as all its efforts to expand its authority. Criticism should be welcome; in fact, it is welcomed by some in the upper echelons as long as it is accompanied by a list of realistic solutions.
This requires that the term "security" is not confined to weaponry and military action but broadened to include: food security; the education system; demographics and unemployment; the attraction of business investment by creating an environment free from political interference; plans to counter natural disaster (e.g. floods, drought) and the scarcity of natural resources (e.g. water, oil); the situation of refugees; IDPs (Internally Displaced People); and infrastructure (e.g. roads, electricity).
This is not about reinventing the wheel, but rather about having a made-in-Yemen plan and a vision for the medium to long term. A proper starting point is the Ten Point Plan, supposed to be implemented in a two-year time span.?In a nut-shell, the plan is to prioritize, strategize and start enforcing. Creating a comprehensive national strategy involves tremendous work, but it can be done; moreover, an indigenous effort can only give considerable added value.
Al Qaeda's ideology is by now global. It is present in many countries around the world in various forms. When dealing with al Qaeda in Yemen, a stick-and-carrot policy has to be employed, with a suitable balance between the two. Al Qaeda in Yemen is a loose group, lacking the discipline and the tools to take on state security and military forces. Instead, to boost pride and create panic, it uses hit-and-run tactics that make for easier, faster and much cheaper operations.
A leading authority on al Qaeda, Dr. Saeed Ali Al-Jimhi, said that the core of the group is less numerous than the media and propaganda portray it to be. It is Dr. Jimhi's opinion that it consists of around 1500 individuals—half of them Yemenis, one third Saudis, and the last quarter from other countries.
The group thrives on mistakes made by the central government either directly through inappropriate decisions or indirectly through lack of authority and vision. Whenever an attack targets al Qaeda and people who have no connection whatsoever with the group die or are injured in the process—either because of poor military implementation, misguided intelligence, or both—al Qaeda inevitably exploits the incident.
Emotional as well as ideological aspects have been overlooked, although both play a central role in the group's strategy. There is a level of coherence in the messages propagated through various means, although the tactics employed are more often than not violent in nature.
These messages dwell on the foreign presence and intervention in the wider region, the Palestinian cause, the authoritarianism of Arab and Muslim rulers, and the increasing inequality between rich and poor. In each case, al Qaeda calculates its appeal to the population's sense of justice and fairness, but also to its sense of victimhood.
In addition to this, there may still be cases when individuals are being accused or even detained on nothing more than suspicion. Some people in the central government may see a lucrative PR opportunity intended for western and perhaps regional consumption. But in fact, it does more damage than good on all fronts. It puts a question mark next to the reliability and capability of state institutions to assess and address the situation on the ground.
Given time, indiscriminate attacks on the population might lead to alliances between al Qaeda and certain families or tribes. This is not presently the case, but it is a plausible enough scenario should the general strategy not be recalibrated.
There is more to severely limiting al Qaeda's proselytizing and its range of action than fighting it with weapons (although this too is part of the package), including the following three considerations:
First, the group is not protected per se by tribes. Customary tribal law offers anyone a refuge for a temporary stay, with no questions asked. There may also be individuals who are helped by one family or tribe because they are members of that family or tribe and not because they are part of al Qaeda or any other group. A clear understanding of traditions in place can only be a further step in the right direction.
Second, there are vulnerable categories of the population, particularly, but not restricted to, the younger male segment, members of which are easier to influence. These are real persons with real problems. Many are illiterate or poorly educated: some in madrassas (Islamic schools) that are outside government authority. Most are in dire need of the basics of Maslow's pyramid. It is not necessarily a way out of this life that they are looking for, but a way in. The answer is to offer alternatives: accessible education, jobs, basic tools that are necessary for any human being to have a decent life.
Third, to work with the deeply ideologically committed core of the group, the state could develop a rehabilitation/reintegration-into-society type of program similar to that of its ultra-rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia. In fact, Yemen did try this approach, but the program closed down a few years ago. One of the reasons for its closure was the limited financial funds allocated.
Even without this framework there are ways to address the problem. Respected religious scholars that are revered by those who sympathize with al Qaeda's agenda can serve in an advisory position, and tribe leaders, tribesmen and the local administration can all be part of a mechanism that works at the grassroots. Their first-hand knowledge and access is invaluable.
Not all religiously committed al Qaeda members may be convinced that their path is not the right one, but they still might choose to change their behavior if the right opportunities are on offer.
What do al Houthis want?
A newcomer in all this is the al Houthis group.?By local standards it is a well-organized and rather disciplined gathering, but it is not yet a political entity. The origins of the conflict are important, but for the purpose of this article it is more relevant to look at the point at which the struggle with the al Houthis group has arrived.
After six rounds of conflict, the time for extended negotiations arrived under the auspices of neighboring Qatar, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia.?The al Houthis group asks to be an active part of the political decision-making process. Due to their persistence in broadcasting a message relevant to the conditions of others beyond the immediate Shia sect and the al Houthi family, they were able to garner sympathy. Nonetheless, due to the group's lineage—irrespective of their message, charisma and social attainments—their power base will continue to be restricted to a certain area. In other words, there is no Sunni/Shia clash in the making and no clear evidence of an assertive Iranian involvement on the side of al Houthis despite the surrounding propaganda.
The state may not be willing to make certain concessions. That is why skirmishes are ongoing. But if nothing extraordinary takes places, the conflict is by now largely a political one.
The al Houthis spokesperson, Mohammed Abdul Salam recently explained the group's perspective on state affairs as well as their objectives: "We respond to all peace and agreement calls, and we have signed up to and proposed a lot of compromises from our side. The wheel of war is running through our houses, farms, and [it] sheds our blood. That's why we want peace. However, when we are attacked and assaulted, we respond, and we rely on our God and we fight back.
"There will be no strife or any sort of conflict if the citizen in Yemen is treated right and his rights and freedoms are respected. Citizens should be allowed to work and be active in economy, culture and politics as long as it is practiced in a safe and peaceful way.
"In order to end any clashes or conflicts, people should be given the right to freedom of thought, ideas and ideologies. Prisoners of Sa'adah should be released. Rebuild what the war destroyed. Those who were sacked because of their ideologies should go back to their work. There has to be an immediate stop to all unjustified arrest based on sectarian and ethnic discrimination.
"We believe that what the system in Yemen has done with all the wars that you see in south and north and middle and the deteriorating economy is a result of bad and incorrect policies that created a huge rift between people and the ruling regime. The ruling regime continues to build its army not to fight against any outside attacks but to continue the policy of oppression. These issues should be dealt with immediately before it is too late."
While the United States focuses mainly on counter-terrorism, and some Western and Asian states on development and capacity building, Saudi Arabia has the ability and the appropriate tools to affect the Yemeni file in its entirety.
With Yemen's request to join the GCC, there are other Gulf countries that play a role, although they play it with some reluctance. The prospect of Yemen descending into further uncertainty in terms of security should be sufficient incentive for neighboring states to reconsider their strategies. If past experiences have taught anyone anything, it is that conflicts can be easily started but not so easily stopped and that the impact is felt internally and externally.
A stronger, more democratic Yemeni state is anything but a peril to its neighbors, although not all share the same perspective. Moreover, Yemen can play a significant role in terms of security at the meeting point of the Horn of Africa and the Gulf.
A senior official spoke of a multinational force to protect the seas. Yemen would be more than willing to provide the manpower to be trained, and the state is well equipped to team up with other states and guard the area. The militarization of seaways is not a novel idea. It is part of a larger vision for that part of the region, and it has a direct impact on global security and trade. For some reason, there has been no constructive follow-up to these plans; perhaps this is due to the shift of attention towards ongoing conflicts in the wider region.
Yemen's relationship with Saudi Arabia could go a step further if it were to do more than theoretically explore the opportunity to have an oil corridor from Saudi Arabia to the Indian Ocean. This too would drastically alter the dynamic of relationships in the Gulf and beyond, as it would affect the international markets and the politics surrounding oil and gas resources.
Yemen is involved in a nation-building process, so its challenges are many. A constitutional base and limitations placed on power in a state whose politicians are working towards a common objective would be a good start.
The central government can adopt measures and a behavior that dispels the worries of those who do not trust in its capacity to move beyond a nepotistic, tribal or partisan ego. The next stage in this paradigm would be a national ego that will place the country on the firm ground it needs to build a stable foundation for a state that is capable of moving beyond the current state of affairs. Many talk the talk, but who is going to walk the walk?
This article was published in its entirety by the Middle East Political and Economic Institute: www.mepei.com/.
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