Yemenis optimistic despite profound challenges

It looks likely that the regional repercussions of a failed state in their midst would force Yemen's wealthy GCC neighbours to provide increased financial assistance to bolster its government's ability to survive, say observers.

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Whoever tries to govern Yemen next will be taking control of a country whose people are poor, armed with millions of firearms, split by tribal and political differences and running out of oil and water.

It is also host to Islamist militant organisations, including a branch of al Qa'eda. The US, Saudi Arabia and their allies worry that Yemen will become an ungoverned haven for militants to recruit and train without interference.

The government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has kept the nation of 24 million people stitched together mostly by doling out favours and money to its friends and using force against its enemies.

Mr Saleh, who fled to Saudi Arabia over the weekend after he was wounded in a rocket attack, has himself called governing Yemen like "dancing on the heads of snakes".

Whether he returns to Yemen or not, some experts consider the country a failed state - or at least well on its way to becoming one.

"Yemen has for many years seemed perched on the edge of state failure, been hamstrung by civil and tribal conflicts, foreign intrigues, poor levels of education and deficient infrastructure and governance," according to a report by the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy in November 2009. "In the last few years, however, these problems have grown even more acute."

That assessment is even more accurate today as peaceful youth protests have been supplemented by tribal-based warfare in the past two weeks, with two former allies of Mr Saleh - Sheikh Sadeq al Ahmar and Major General Ali Mohsen al Ahmar - pitted against him. All three are members of the powerful Hashed tribal confederation. All told, the three-month uprising against the president has cost at least 320 lives.

Despite the bloodshed and political uncertainty, some are sanguine about Yemen's prospects.

"We face profound challenges," acknowledged Dr Khaled Mohsen, head of the political science department at Sana'a University. But he contends that the spirit of the Arab Spring has spread throughout Yemen and "these dreams are a powerful thing".

Yemen is an amalgam of tribes, religious sects, political parties and militant groups. To the rest of the world, it is important primarily because its southern tip - the area around the city of Aden - is located at one of the world's most important shipping lanes.

North of Aden, Yemen is a mix of hot desert and temperate mountains. Its residents live in remote towns and villages, and have a profound mistrust of the central government in Sana'a.

Compared to Egypt and Tunisia, where autocrats were driven from power earlier this year, Yemen is more complex.

Unlike the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is a democracy, though far from a perfect one. It has political parties and vigorous political debate. But Mr Saleh has been in power for nearly 33 years by strictly controlling the system.

He has survived partly by taking money from the US and Saudi Arabia, so that the US can wage its war against al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula and Saudi Arabia can keep the Houthi rebels contained to northern Yemen.

"Despite the government's lack of fiscal discipline, it is likely that the regional repercussions of a failed state in their midst would force the wealthy Gulf Arab neighbours to provide increased financial assistance to bolster the government's ability to survive," according to the Lowy Institute report.

"Saudi Arabia already reportedly provides US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) of direct financial assistance annually, as well as the larger discretionary funding that flows to many of Yemen's political stakeholders, particularly within the tribes," the report said.

The tribes grasp the seriousness of Yemen's situation, said a leading political figure in Yemen, Sheikh Mohammed Abu Lahoum.

"If there's a weak government, the tribes grow stronger," said Sheikh Abu Lahoum, the head of the Justice and Building Party, a new coalition of academics, civil-society leaders and defectors from the Saleh regime. "If there's a strong central government, the tribes will respond."

Beyond the militant groups, tribes and political factions, governing Yemen is a challenge because it is the poorest and least developed country in the Arab peninsula. It has some oil and natural gas but only small amounts, and they are running out.

Worse than that, it is running out of water, partly because the demand for it is soaring because of a growing population, which increases by about 700,000 people each year, according to Yemen's National Population Council. Its population of 24 million is triple what it was in 1975, and it is expected to double in the next two decades. Yemen has one of the highest growth rates in the world; the average Yemeni woman has five children.

If population growth remains unchecked, the ailing economy, with an unemployment rate of about 40 per cent, will have to create more than 2.2 million jobs in the next 25 years, according to the NPC. The country will need an extra five billion cubic metres of water - which it does not have. To maintain already poor health services, it will have to train and employ an extra 10,000 doctors.

Oil exports have provided about 75 per cent of the money for the Saleh regime, according to the Lowy report, but Yemen reached its peak oil production in 2003.

Both Dr Mohsen and Sheikh Abu Lahoum say Yemen is rich in natural resources that could solve its financial problems. But as long as there is political turmoil, international companies capable of developing those resources will not come near Yemen.

"Only 10 per cent of our natural resources are developed," Dr Mohsen said.

Both men also contend that the al Qa'eda threat could be controlled by a strong central government that Yemenis trust and support.

Finally, they both say Yemen needs stronger support from the US.

"I tell my students that America is with you," Dr Mohsen said. The opposition is "defending everything the United States stands for. Come help us now. It's only common sense".

But it is unlikely that even a more generous commitment from the US will enable Yemen's next leader to easily "dance on the heads of snakes".

"There is no ideal quick-fix solution to rising militancy in Yemen," according to the Lowy report. "Yemen is in its current predicament as a result of a prolonged period of developmental neglect by its leadership and no outsider can hope to remedy the vacuum in the short term."