In the aftermath of the failed Christmas-day bombing, the world has turned its attention to Yemen, an obscure and desperate country on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Given the importance of combating Islamic terrorism to policy-makers and their constituents, the need to aid the poverty-stricken, resource-depleted and strife-ridden country in areas other than security is quickly becoming clear. Merely taking out al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula then ignoring Yemen’s massive structural deficiencies would just be pushing today’s problems to tomorrow, ensuring that we would later have to fix our mistakes.
In order to do this, the West has decided that strengthening the central government is the best solution. While this approach has its merits, the fear is that we will not be paying attention to Yemeni history. We could potentially be exacerbating the issues that have led to a series of rebellions throughout the country. In Yemen, central power has been observed more in the breach than in practice, and an attempt to dramatically change that would serve as a propaganda tool for al-Qaeda and other enemies of the government.
The two most immediate security threats to Yemen, aside from al-Qaeda, are the Houthi rebellion in the North and the Southern Movement. The latter is calling for the secession of what was until 1990 the independent People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Both of these are direct assaults on the legitimacy of the government in general, and of President Ali Abdullah Salih specifically. These movements have different aims and are rooted in different histories, but both are a result of a combination of neglect and authority that is too centralized.
In addition to these major concerns, President Salih’s patronage network, which he used to buy loyalty, is falling apart in the face of economic collapse. The elaborate system of favors, trades, and dividing and conquering is no longer working. Salih has been a skilled player of this game for 30 years, but the game is almost over.
This puts the West and the so-called “Friends of Yemen,” an international working group led by the United States and England dedicated to providing aid to Yemen, in a bind. President Salih has lost much of his legitimacy and his power. Making matters worse, war and oppression has negated any chance for the South or the Huthis to realistically reconcile. Unfortunately, there isn’t an adequate successor to the President; there isn’t anyone who can appease both rebellious sections and maintain power.
So, then what should be done? In addition to providing economic and developmental aid, the US and its allies must help to create a soft devolution. In his January testimony before Congress, the Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffery Feltman talked of a Community Livelihood program, which would be responsible for teaching tribes how to run food, water, health, and education programs. This is important, and will ease some of the pressure on an overtaxed central government. The next step is to facilitate a way to maintain tribal links to the center, so that Salih and his successors still have a base.
More importantly, we have to realize that for the South and for the Huthis, the grievances they are fighting over are real and will not go away simply with the presence of a peace treaty. The grievances need to be addressed carefully, and over time. The Friends of Yemen should pressure Salih to both integrate and relax, especially in the South. The people of the south need to have more autonomy, especially in the economic sector, while still paying a fair amount of taxes needed to keep a skeleton government providing security. The Huthis need assistance with no strings attached; if they are pushed too hard, they will likely rebel again.
The map of Yemen from 1990 on is a historical aberration. With enough subtly and a careful, respectful handling of the major players’ needs, it is possible for enough trust to be built that Yemen, always divided politically with an ancient sense of self, will become a whole. But for now, trying to force centralization will paradoxically speed up the centrifugal forces pushing it apart.
Brian O'Neill is currently an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. He has lived in Egypt and Yemen and previously worked as a writer and editor at the Yemen Observer.
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