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Yemen: canary in the coal mine

Yemen is a sign of what can go wrong when a country fails to develop political legitimacy and build a sustainable, productive non-oil economy. What kind of augury is this contested transition for the Gulf states and for the world?
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
1 November 2010

The unsuccessful attempt to send two bomb packets from Yemen to a synagogue and a Jewish community centre in Chicago has once again catapulted Yemen up the global security agenda, ten months after the failed bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. The audacity of both attempts focused the minds of policymakers in both the west and the neighbouring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) onto the threat posed by the string of security incidents that have originated in Yemen since 2008. Following years of comparative neglect, in 2010 the international community has belatedly shifted its focus to the interconnected socio-political, economic and trans-national challenges confronting Yemen’s embattled and long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

These interlocking issues act as threat multipliers that feed off each other; collectively, they have pushed Yemen to the brink of failed statehood. This has profound implications for the security and stability of the oil-rich GCC states, and has forced a recalibration of regional and international approaches to Yemen’s problems. Yet too narrow a focus on security-sector reform and boosting the Yemeni government’s capabilities to tackle the threat from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), risks widening a dangerous misalignment between the differing priorities of the Yemeni regime and the international community. They also do little to address the systemic challenges to this country of nearly 24 million people on the Arabian Peninsula - which faces a combination of systemic challenges, each of which, on its own, would be profoundly destabilising.

Systemic challenges

These include a military rebellion in the northern province of Sa’dah that has flared intermittently with six rounds of fighting since 2004, a growing southern secessionist movement that challenges the post-1990 reunification settlement, and the reconstitution of AQAP following the merger of its Yemeni and Saudi wings in January 2009. Underlying all of these hard threats to security is the imminent depletion of oil and water reserves, and the erosion of regime legitimacy and state capacity to govern effectively or even fairly. Across the Gulf of Aden, state collapse in Somalia has facilitated destabilising flows of men, money and material between Somalia and Yemen. This has injected the multiple drivers of conflict and insecurity in the Horn of Africa into the Gulf’s regional security equation. The result is a failing political economy on the south-western flank of the Arabian Peninsula that can no longer be contained within Yemen itself.

The danger has been brewing for some time. Between 2003 and 2006, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula mounted an intermittent campaign of terrorist attacks against Western symbols in Saudi Arabia. These culminated in an audacious attempt to disrupt the export of oil through the Abqaiq oil processing facility in February 2006. The failed assault intended to strike at the heart of the social and wealth-redistributive contract binding the Gulf States to their societies and the global economy.

Saudi Arabia eventually neutralised the threat from AQAP, which claims to be subordinate to the terror network run by Osama bin Laden, by mounting a vigorous and multi-dimensional counter-terrorist campaign that systematically targeted extremist networks, terrorist financing and the misuse of religion to legitimate recourse to violence. Saudi Arabia also developed an innovative network of rehabilitation centres that sought to address the underlying causes of radicalisation and re-integrate former militants into society.

This mix of hard and soft security measures greatly diminished the capability of terrorist organisations in the GCC region. However, they did not succeed in eradicating the threat altogether, and the deteriorating security and governance situation within Yemen provided an opportunity for militants to regroup and reorganise. In January 2009, the emergence of two Saudis in positions of leadership in the reconstituted AQAP exposed the inherent weaknesses in regional and international security responses to the challenge of trans-national terrorism. Both Saud al Shihri and Muhammad al Awfi were ex-Guantanamo Bay detainees who then spent five months in Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation programme before being deemed ready for re-integration into society in May 2008. Their subsequent reappearance in Yemen damaged the credibility of the Saudi programmes and also complicated President Barack Obama’s pledge to close Guantanamo within a year of his inauguration as Yemenis made up 90 of the 188 remaining detainees as of March 2010.

The re-emergence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula highlighted the renewed threat to regional stability from the overspill of violence from Yemen. This became very clear in its official pronouncements and choice of targets, including a new plot to attack oil installation facilities in Saudi Arabia via a cell consisting of 47 Saudis and 51 Yemenis that was uncovered in March 2010. Most dramatically, it came close to assassinating the Saudi Arabian deputy minister of the interior, Mohammed bin Nayef, in August 2009. Such a brazen and high-profile attack on a senior member of the Saudi ruling family is unprecedented in the recent history of trans-national terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula. The would-be assassin, 23-year old Saudi national Abdullah Asiri, featured on a list of 85 ‘most-wanted’ terror suspects issued by Saudi security forces in February 2009. After receiving training in Yemen, he returned to the kingdom and gained access to the Prince, the architect of Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorist strategy, by claiming he wished to renounce his links to terrorism.

Inter-regional linkages with Somalia also proliferated as exchanges of militants and weaponry intensified across the Gulf of Aden. Somalia’s minister of defence even accused Yemeni militants of fuelling the flames of regional conflict following their dispatch of two boatloads of weapons to Somalia in December 2009. The intertwined political economy of Yemeni-Somali conflict extended to cooperation in acts of piracy off the Somali coastline and to the training of Yemeni militants in Somali camps organised by the Islamic insurgent group Al Shabaab. This threatens global maritime and energy security: an estimated 3.3 million barrels of oil pass through the Gulf of Aden each day from the GCC states to consumer markets in Europe and North America.

Yemeni insecurity internationalised

Two events late in 2009 internationalised Yemeni insecurity and demonstrated the growing complexity of threats in today’s interconnected world. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted Christmas Day attack dominated world headlines and took American intelligence and security agencies by surprise. They had expected any terrorist attack on the US homeland to originate in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands rather than Yemen, and did not believe Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula capable of such an extended operation.

Yet, just six weeks beforehand, the long reach of Yemeni-based terror first made its presence felt after the US citizen Anwar Al Awlaqi was implicated in the radicalisation of the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan, with whom he had corresponded before the massacre that killed thirteen soldiers on 5 November. Subsequent investigation into Awlaqi’s alleged role in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula indicated that he also met with Abdulmutallab while living in Yemen. The information linking Awlaqi to a nexus of international terrorism contributed to President Obama’s unprecedented decision to authorise his targeted killing as a military enemy of the US in April 2010. Awlaqi was added to the US Government’s list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists in July 2010 and has also been implicated in the latest attempted attack.

The combination of these spokes of terror radiating outward from Yemen and the geo-commercial importance of the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf of Aden sea lanes magnifies the geopolitical significance of this regional instability. It can plausibly be argued that this presents at least as great a challenge as the ongoing military campaign in Afghanistan, a landlocked country in central Asia of only marginal importance to the global economy. A frequent justification of western involvement in Afghanistan is that this is necessary to safeguard their internal security from possible future terrorist attacks. Looked at in cold geo-strategic terms, though, it is Yemeni instability that has exhibited a genuinely trans-national and far-reaching threat over the past year. This is not to recommend international military intervention in Yemen, far from it, but merely to emphasise the gravity of its crisis of governance and breakdown of security.

Support for Saleh

Western support for Saleh’s embattled regime, which increased after the Christmas Day attempt and is set to do the same following the latest security incident, risks widening still further the centrifugal processes undermining governance and political authority in Yemen. Already the regime faces a combination of military conflict to its rule in Sa’dah and a concerted social movement in the south that began in 2007 as a protest against southern marginalisation but has since morphed into a burgeoning secessionist movement. As Yemen’s economic base has contracted and the problems from imminent resource depletion become imminent, the regime has fallen back on its tribal-based supporters and exacerbated the sense that it no longer is capable of ruling in any other than its own narrow interest. In this scenario, channelling security and financial assistance to a bankrupt regime may provide it with the external support and newly-found ‘rent’ to prolong it in power, without dealing with the underlying erosion of its legitimacy. Military assistance carries its own difficulties, as attested by Congressional anger that US-supplied personnel carriers, ammunition, weapons and night vision devices intended for use in the anti-terror fight against AQAP have instead been used against the Houthi in northern Yemen.

This notwithstanding, international concern for the systemic and interconnected crises facing Yemen set in motion a strategic reassessment of the range of responses from GCC member-states. Hitherto, regional policy had largely followed a policy of attempted containment in line with the notion that the GCC – which in addition to Saudi Arabia includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – was ‘an island of stability in a sea of instability.’ The reassessment marked the beginning of a new phase of sustained international engagement between Yemen and its regional partners, who worried that unless they adopted a new and comprehensive approach their own relative stability would be threatened.

Towards a post-oil era

As difficult as it may be to contain a terrorist build-up within Yemen, a failure to do so would carry worrying implications for the GCC states themselves. Although the post-oil transition is a distant concern for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, they do need to overhaul entrenched subsidisation and redistributive mechanisms that come with fabulous oil wealth and then to grow a productive economic sector. Meanwhile, Bahrain and Omani oil reserves are projected to run out within twenty years barring unexpected new discoveries. The rulers in both countries urgently face the need to renew the bases of their legitimacy to overcome the drawdown of the oil wealth that has, in effect, purchased social order in these states.

Transitioning toward a post-oil era in all GCC states will involve painful socio-political decisions and the dismantling of decades of patterns of behaviour that depended so heavily on income from a single resource. From the GCC perspective, Yemen is the canary in the coal mine – a danger sign of what can go wrong when a country fails to develop political legitimacy and build a sustainable, productive non-oil economy. The challenges to government authority in southern and northern Yemen plainly demonstrate how existing socio-economic discontent and regional marginalisation can fracture and fragment societal cohesion. Similar fissures and unequal patterns of access to resources exist in the GCC states and could become transmitters of conflict in the future.

In the final analysis, Yemen’s regional partners would do well to work alongside the international community in a sustained process of engagement that addresses the totality of Yemen’s problems rather than focusing exclusively on the counter-terrorist dimension. A nuanced and collective policy framework offers the best chance of repairing state-society relations and enabling the re-extension of legitimate governmental authority.

Yemen’s enduring significance will become apparent in the medium- to longer-term when the GCC states undergo their own transition to a post-oil era. The key question will be whether they can manage the processes of change in a more orderly and consensual manner than Yemen has. The inconvenient truth facing GCC policy makers is that they face similar systemic and structural obstacles to reform, and while they enjoy greater material resources to buttress the transition, their dependence on oil has both been longer lasting and deeper rooted.

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