26 November 2009

If Al Qa’ida's in the Market for a New Place, Yemen Looks Like a Nice Neighborhood

Within the next ten years Yemen could either become a serious concern to the US or a success story in proactive intervention, according to CNAS (Center for a New American Security) analysts Andrew Exum and Richard Fontaine. Yemen is a relatively small, impoverished, and politically messy country lying along Saudi Arabia’s southern border and stretching along the Gulf of Aden, just across from the Horn of Africa.

It would be a very dangerous base for transnational terrorist groups and a hazardous spot for instability in an region of great geopolitical importance. The entire world has a stake in not seeing Yemen go to the bad guys.

Over the past year, concern about Yemen’s future has become increasingly widespread. On the human rights front, the UN and the Red Cross are worried that the flood of citizens running to get away from clashes between government forces and Shi'ite rebels (mostly in and around Sa'ada in the North) is drastically overcrowding the aid camps. Yemen is already the poorest nation in the Arab world. There are already nearly 200,000 internally displaced persons from the conflict, and hundreds more are flooding in every day. One family tents are occupied by 3-4 families.

On the political front, the armed conflict is likely to get worse before it get any better. The Northern fighting has started spilling over into Saudi Arabia. That’s bad news for a bunch of reasons. The rebels say that Saudi Arabia has been enabling Yemeni troops, so they took control of a strip of Saudi border territory, leading the Saudi government to launch a counteroffensive. In the South, fighting is more sporadic, but support for secession is beginning to swell.

Al Qa’ida, as usual, is also stirring the pot. They are shouldering up alongside the Yemenis (and Saudis) to quash the Shi'ite rebel threat in the North, while attempting to build their own infrastructure in the South. U.S. military and intelligence officials have confirmed that AQ has recently opened a new training camp housing over 400 fighters in Yemen’s southern Abyan province. Most of the fighters are Yemeni, Saudi, or Somali.

Exum and Fontaine point to three emerging trends in Yemen that may also make for a more volatile climate. First, that Yemen who derives most of its national revenue from taxes on oil production, has been suffering marked declines in petroleum production. So much so that some analysts believe it may fall to zero in the next seven years. And they apparently have no economic back-up plan.

Second, Yemen’s population is expected to double in the next 25 years (but without concurrent economic growth to support it). The nation’s unemployment rate is 40%, and 46% of its 7.4 million primary school age children do not attend school. Many have to work to help support their families. The population is very young – nearly half are under the age of 15. The youth bulge has been a troubling demographic trend in areas of the world – like Yemen- already plagued by problems with violent extremism.

Third, Yemen is about to run out of ground water resources. A huge majority of their water is currently used in agriculture in ways that are highly, highly inefficient. The water crisis will have further detrimental effects on the economy, development, and human security.

Yemen appears to be poised to cultivate a new generation of young people, raised in poverty without job skills or education, knowing only war in their surroundings, to live in an abject economic climate without hope for future opportunity, where even basic life-sustaining resources such as water are scarce, but violent extremism is abundant. That can’t be good. Exum and Fontaine conclude:
This confluence of political, ideological, economic, and environmental forces will render Yemen a fertile ground for the training and recruitment of Islamist militant groups for the foreseeable future.

They believe that the:

United States should implement a comprehensive strategy that marries counterterrorism support, development assistance, diplomatic pressure, and efforts at political reconciliation.

They discuss their strategy in a bit more depth in the full Policy Brief, On the Knife’s Edge: Yemen’s Instability and the Threat to American Interests By Andrew M. Exum and Richard Fontaine.

30 November 2009 - ADDENDUM:

Christian Science Monitor
Ben Hancock

Saudi Arabia said Saturday it has cleared a mountain foothold used by Yemeni rebels along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border, in what appeared to be part of a larger battle against Al Qaeda's expansion.

The rebels, called Houthis, are followers of the Zaidi sect of Shiite Islam, and the Saudis believe both that they have ties to Shiite-dominated Iran and have Al Qaeda members within their ranks. Saudi Arabia fears they may destabilize Yemen, posing a major security threat to the world's largest oil exporter, reports Reuters.

Read the full article HERE.