The international community has turned its full attention to Yemen in the wake of the attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound aircraft on Christmas day. This is not only because Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian accused of attempting the attack, appears to have been radicalized while living in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. Ever since the attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in October of 2000, US security advisors have been aware of the potential of Yemen to become a focal point for Islamist radicalism on the Arabian peninsula. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since the assassination of the previous president in 1978, was swift to visit Washington and pledge support for US actions following the September 11 2001 attacks, fearing that Yemen might be a target in the aftermath of those attacks, and Yemen has received significant US military aid since 2001. Indeed, the US Administration has doubled its military aid to Yemen since the attempted attack on Christmas day. Yet the events of the past two weeks betrays the extent to which the US and its allies are, as in Afghanistan, getting involved in a place that they know remarkably little about and understand even less.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world: half of the population of 23 million lives on less than US$2 a day. It is also a deeply unequal country. The country is plagued by a dwindling supply of oil, its principle export, and high unemployment in urban centers. But first and foremost Yemen is an agricultural country: the agriculture of Yemen is perhaps facing the most acute water shortage of any farming country in the world, and it is in the rural economy that the causes of openness to militancy can be found.
As I demonstrated in a paper for the United Nations Development Programme in Yemen in the early 2000s, following the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 the country drifted towards a civil war that erupted in 1994. It was during this time that President Saleh expanded the use of the state’s coffers to maintain the system of patronage over powerful tribal leaders that he had established in order to sustain his political supremacy and the concentration of power around his family. A pivotal act in the creation of this system of governance was land redistribution towards the already powerful during the 1990s. With the redistribution of land came the redistribution of water, which was pumped out of the ground by the powerful in pursuit of money-generating agricultural exports; and the livelihoods of Yemen’s vast number of smallholding peasants quickly became unsustainable. The result was that President Saleh presided over a remarkably rapid rise in rural poverty and inequality, an economic malaise that the state failed to address because of the patronage network around the President and his family. As the state all but disappeared in rural Yemen, basic services—education and health care—failed to be delivered, the secessionist movement in the south grew, and a political rebellion in the north arose, making the country even more ungovernable.
It is poverty combined with the absence of the state that has allowed Islamist militants to establish a foothold within Yemen. In 2003 and 2004 a number of Saudi Islamists fled the kingdom following a crackdown by the authorities. In 2006 a number of Yemeni militants escaped from a high-security prison in Sana’a. Last year militants began to shift from the Afghanistan/Pakistan border to Yemen. Yet what allows the militants to establish support in the ungoverned regions of rural Yemen is not fealty to a vision of the meaning of Islam but rather money: the money that can buy the loyalty of deeply impoverished people by providing jobs, education, health care and the smallest modicum of social protection. In other words: the outcomes of the very mechanisms that President Saleh has used to sustain his power are the basis by which militant Islamism flourishes.
In this light, the attempt to shore up the position of President Saleh by increasing military aid is precisely the wrong thing to do if al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is to be challenged. As Yemeni reformers know, the problems in Yemen are economic and political: problems of poverty and power that need to be addressed if the foundations of Islamic radicalism are to be undermined. As I argued in the last decade, a decisive step in this direction would be pro-poor redistributive land reform; but given the current alignment of political forces and factors in Yemen, this is, as yet, still remote. Yet it nonetheless remains the case that helping a political leader complicit in the system does not even constitute offering a band-aid; it constitutes supporting militancy. As in Afghanistan, this is the likely outcome of the current course of action being pursued by the US and its allies in Yemen.
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