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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Yemen: Why a Regional Approach?

By Nima Khorrami

Yemen is a multifaceted country with diverse ethnicities, cultures, and religious affiliations where anti-Western sentiments are at a record high. As such, any direct western involvement in Yemen can give rise to the already tense anti-Western attitudes in the country with Western governments being perceived as supportive of a regime that is greatly discredited among the public. Therefore, U.S. and European officials are better advised to limit their direct role only to the modernisation of Yemen's armed forces and intelligence-sharing while also seeking to encourage and push for a comprehensive set of regionally supervised policies in order to address socio-economic problems in Yemen.

The Yemeni market is set to suffer from three negative trends in the coming years. Yemen depends heavily on oil production. Analysts predict that its petroleum output will fall to zero by 2017. The government, which receives the vast majority of its revenue from taxes on oil production, has conducted virtually no planning for its post-oil future. This has wider security implications given that it is not clear who and under what arrangements will provide Yemen with its required energy, or how the government might generate financial resources for itself.

Demographically, Yemen’s population – already the poorest in the Arabian Peninsula – is expected to double by 2035. An incredible 45 percent of Yemens population is under the age of 15, and widespread and continuing economic stagnation has provided a fertile recruiting ground for extremist groups, particularly Al-Qaeda.

Environmentally, this large population will soon exhaust Yemen’s ground water resources. Given that a full 90 percent of Yemen’s water is used in highly inefficient agricultural projects, this trend portends disaster.

There is thus an urgent need for agricultural reforms as well as diversification of economic activities of the state with a push towards more heavy industries. This requires heavy subsidies from the international community and Yemen's oil-rich neighbours certainly have the financial resources to be among the main donors.

Furthermore, provided that in most cases extension of tribal protections to AQAP elements are based on political calculations rather than ideological affiliation, it could be inferred that prominent tribes in Yemen seek socio-political autonomy in their respective regions. Thus, community driven approaches to development and security stand a good chance of proving effective.

Given the GCC states awareness of and familiarity with cultural sensitivities in Yemen, community-based approaches to security initiated by these states can have a transformative effect on security-related behaviours within communities, and between communities and security providers. In this way, local populations themselves are responsible for maintenance of stability within each community with the help of a familiar outsider and that they will not feel subordinated to security providers.

Similarly, community-driven development projects can deliver high rates of return, robust local participation, and moderate scalability thereby creating social cohesion by giving locals a sense of ownership over communal achievements. This is critical to the success of deradicalisation efforts because social cohesion defends communities and tribes from the excesses of populist/leftist and Islamic social justice discourses. Specifically in the South, separatist movements and AQAP are gradually finding a common ground in social justice discourses to stage their fights against the state.

However, great care ought to be taken because community based projects can create parallel institutions outside of existing power structures thereby affecting state-communities relationships in weak and fragile states. As such, the Yemeni government may appear as the main obstacle to implementation of such policies due to its fear over its ability to maintain a hold on power. Only GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with their historically cultivated, tribal links to the Yemeni elites can address the regime's concerns satisfactorily.

In short, it seems that a regionally implemented approach to Yemen's myriad problems has been the missing component of Western strategies in the Yemeni theatre due to, in part, their inadequate knowledge of GCC states’ interests and concerns. This is of paramount importance because Western strategic interests will be better served if GCC states are proactively engaged in stabilisation efforts in Yemen.

Persian Gulf states have concerns over the possible domestic repercussions of having a strong republican government in their backyard and they may prove reluctant to contribute to nation-building efforts there. One way of overcoming this problem, perhaps, is to present the need for their involvement in Yemen as a need for their leadership in containing terrorist threats in the region and the preservation of the status-quo for the sake of their own economic growth and security.

Nima Khorrami is a security analyst with the Transnational Crisis Project.

Shifting Sands is the blog of the Middle East International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS, analysing current events in the Middle East and contributing to the ongoing deliberations over policy prescriptions.

Silvia L. Peneva, Editor

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