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Yemen: Walking the Line November 25, 2009

Posted by Rebecca Williams in Analysis.
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In 2001, just after the 9/11 attacks, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh visited Washington, D.C. and pledged cooperation in countering terrorist networks in Yemen. Since then, the US has engaged in various security partnerships and initiatives with the government of Yemen in the hope of cracking down on terrorist cells.  Yet, while the US’s principal priority in Yemen is defeating al-Qaeda networks, many argue that President Saleh’s priorities are not so neatly aligned, forcing Yemen to walk the fine line between its own interests and Western-defined ones.

From Washington’s perspective, Yemen’s domestic instability, ungoverned territory and porous borders make this, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, a potentially dangerous al-Qaeda and extremist foothold.  US security assistance programs have accounted for the bulk of US assistance in recent years, including roughly $98 million for the training and equipping of the Yemeni Armed Forces, known as Section 1206.  This assistance pursues US-defined goals of suppressing terrorist operations and deterring and defeating extremists operating within the borders of Yemen.

From FY 2006–FY 2009, nearly three-fourths, or 71 percent, of all US assistance to Yemen went toward security assistance programs, defined here as programs intended to strengthen non-American military and security forces.[1] Policy-driven economic assistance, aid that funds programs developed with US strategic and foreign policy interests in mind, accounted for 21 percent, while non-security assistance programs totaled 8 percent.

While it looks like the FY 2010 request for Yemen is less than FY 2009, this is not necessarily case.  Section 1206 funds are not included in the FY 2010 request because country allocations for such funding are not known at the beginning of the fiscal year.  Therefore, if Section 1206 funds are excluded, US assistance to Yemen would actually increase in FY 2010 by $10.6 million or 26 percent over FY 2009.

The composition of assistance, however, would significantly change in FY 2010.  Unlike previous years, 68 percent of the FY 2010 request would be allocated for non-security assistance, such as development and global health initiatives, an increase of $26 million or 180 percent over FY 2009.  The FY 2010 request decreases policy-driven economic assistance to zero, which saw a significant plus-up in FY 2009, and the remaining 22 percent would go to security assistance, an increase of $4.8 million or 75 percent.

While these investments have been important, whether or not al-Qaeda and its extremist allies operate in Yemen may ultimately depend on other, more powerful, factors.

Ongoing Conflict in Yemen

The ongoing Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen dominates domestic politics. The Yemeni government (predominantly Sunni) has been engaged in an on-again-off-again conflict with the predominantly Shia Houthi rebels over historical grievances.  It is speculated that Iran has a hand in funding the Houthi rebels, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are in support of the Sunni Yemeni government.  The result is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran with Yemen causalities, including many civilians.  Clashes of late have intensified, continuing to threaten President Saleh’s power and influence over the region.

Another security concern is the growing secessionist movement in the southern region of Yemen.  Secessionist sentiments and violent rebellions are on the rise, as many southern Yemenis and their leaders do not feel an equal part of the unified state.  President Saleh walks a fine line, between too strong of a government response and a too weak of one, as north-south divide only worsens with declining economic conditions.

Poverty and the Economy

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, with high unemployment and illiteracy, significant population growth, and roughly 45 percent of the population living below the poverty line.  Yemen’s large youth population (about half of the population is under the age of 15) faces pervasive unemployment and the Yemeni people are in need of viable economic opportunities. Yemen is dependent on external aid but is perhaps in greater need of stable, economic and development partners.  Long-term investment is hard to attract, however, given that experts have been saying for years that Yemen is on the verge of collapse.  Declining oil reserves, water depletion, the global economic crisis and inflation further complicate matters.  The result is that extremists groups use the desperation of many to recruit for their causes, often by means of religiously-inspired promises or just plain compensation.

In the Year 2013…

As President Saleh and the Yemeni government juggle these challenges, looming around the corner is the scheduled presidential election in 2013. President Saleh has led a united Yemen since 1990, and the potential change in leadership is surrounded by a significant number of unknowns. Will President Saleh be eligible for a third term?  If not, who would take his place?  Will the next president support or oppose US-Yemeni cooperation?  How would the next administration handle many of the aforementioned challenges?

Ultimately, it is not in Yemen’s interests to have al Qaeda-inspired terrorist activity within their borders.  The new generation of militants in Yemen is more inclined than their predecessors to attack the Yemeni government, in addition to foreign and Western interests. As the US and Yemen peruse their common goal of reducing the al-Qaeda presence and influence, the outcome of various domestic issues confronting President Saleh may be more deciding in the success or failure of such efforts.

Special thanks to Trice Kabundi for her efforts in this piece.

Information for this piece was taken from these outstanding works:

CRS Report: Yemen: Background and US Relations


Carnegie Endowment: Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral


Section 1206 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2006: A Fact Sheet on Department of Defense Authority to Train andEquip Foreign Military Forces


[1] Security Assistance includes Global Train and Equip (Section 1206), Foreign Military Financing (FMF), Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR), International Military Education and Training (IMET).  Economic Support Funds (ESF) are defined here as policy-driven economic assistance.  Non-security assistance includes Development Assistance (DA) and Global Health and Child Survival (GHCS).




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