Of all the nations encompassing the broader Middle East, Yemen always seems to be the odd man out. Over the past decade, Iraq and Iran have gained most of America’s military and diplomatic attention. Ties with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan continue to be strengthened at all levels of government. Even the small Arab states in the Gulf, such as Oman, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, are creeping up in significance within America’s foreign policy. The rise of Iran has forced Washington to sell billions of dollars in American military hardware to the Gulf over the last four years.
So why is Yemen, a country consistently on the brink of collapse, not seen by policymakers in the same light? Like Oman and the United Arab Emirates, Yemen resides on the Arabian Peninsula, an exceedingly vital part of the region. Like Saudi Arabia, Yemen sits atop a pool of oil. And Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh, though an autocrat who has ruled for the past three decades, is quite similar to the Saudi and Egyptian leaders that America relies on for actionable intelligence.
All of those similarities would suggest that the United States would do everything in their power to help Yemen succeed. Yet that is not necessarily the way it has turned out. Despite Yemen’s pervasive problems, the country really only came to the attention of Washington when Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) sent an operative to blow an American jetliner out of the sky last December. Before that event occurred, Yemen was practically invisible in America’s Middle East policy. In 2008, American assistance to Yemen was only $17 million dollars. The only reason for this aid to have increased — $250 million for fiscal 2011 — is Washington’s collective fear that Yemen is becoming the twenty-first century version of Afghanistan.
Of course, you can’t exactly blame President Barack Obama’s Middle East team for not wanting to jump on the Yemen portfolio. In addition to being the poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen is experiencing a whole range of internal problems and disputes, some of which have strengthened the narrative of Al Qaeda.
According to Marisa L. Porges in Foreign Affairs, Sana’a is projected to be the world’s first capital to run out of water. Oil reserves, steadily declining, are estimated to run out in the next ten years. Half of Yemenis are illiterate, 35 percent are unemployed, and the population is expected to double in the next fifteen years.
If those issues weren’t enough, the Yemeni state is battling two distinct rebellions. In the north, Houthi rebels have fought Yemeni soldiers periodically over the past six years. And in the south, a large secessionist movement, disenfranchised politically, is picking up steam on the streets, further diminishing the credibility of Saleh’s regime. Al Qaeda is but a distant third in the line of internal concerns for the Yemeni government, something the United States certainly wants to change.
How to actually affect the calculus of the Yemeni leadership is anyone’s guess. Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have tried to do this with a vast package of incentives, hoping that this will persuade Yemen’s armed forces to aggressively pursue Al Qaeda militants in the southern portion of the country. Teams of US Special Forces have also been introduced into the capital in order to train Yemeni soldiers on how to battle terrorists. Indeed, some very elite counterterrorism forces have been developed as a result of the training effort.
These are all worthy initiatives, yet AQAP still has the time and space to plan attacks against Western targets, the most recent one being last month’s plot to down two US-bound cargo planes. If this is what the United States is getting in return for its investment in Yemen, a slight rethink of strategy may be required.