Intelligence or Intervention the Challenges of Yemen


Intelligence or Intervention the Challenges of Yemen

Stefan Wolff
Professor of International Security, POLSIS

“Once again, Yemen has hit the international news headlines, consolidating a widespread public perception that this highly fragile state on the south-western tip of the Arabian peninsula has evolved into a new hotbed for international terrorism, another Afghanistan of sorts. After some smaller incidents in the 1990s, Yemen came to notoriety with the attack on the USS Cole almost exactly ten years ago, killing 17 US sailors. Last year, on Christmas Day a Nigerian-born, Yemen-trained terrorist tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. And now, another plot originating from Yemen, this time against commercial freight airliners, has been foiled.

For the West tackling terror is in encouraging states to crack down on the proliferation of radical groups. So where does this leave Yemen?

The parallel between Yemen and Afghanistan is not entirely accurate, but it is not too far-fetched either and helps put in context the very complex challenge that Yemen has posed for some time. In some ways, Yemen is better off than Afghanistan: there is still a semblance of a state in Yemen, with the Friends of Yemen a concerted international stabilisation effort is under way, including, crucially, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The Western footprint in the country is also still small enough not to have been a major catalyst of recruitment to al-Qaeda In other words, an Afghanistan-style scenario with massive military intervention can still be prevented. In other ways, however, Yemen is worse off than Afghanistan. While Saudi Arabia has a moderately stabilising influence, Yemen’s other significant neighbour is Somalia, a country without an effective government for close to two decades. The efforts of the Friends of Yemen are well-intentioned and multilateral, but they lack a coherent message.

The challenges that Yemen and its international partners face are formidable. They fall into four broad categories: economic decline, social division, political instability, and terrorist violence. They are not just Yemen’s problems in either their causes or consequences. But they are fundamentally linked to the capacity of the Yemeni state to perform four essential tasks and to do so almost simultaneously:

1. To establish and consolidate security and stability across the whole country 

2. To improve the quality and inclusiveness of its political institutions 

3. To generate sustainable economic growth on the back of economic reform and job creation 

4. To address social inequality and exclusion

How can Yemeni state capacity be increased such that the state can rise to this challenge? Three key factors stand out: leadership, international engagement, and policy delivery.

Policy delivery provides the substance for local and international action. This requires a comprehensive approach and we constantly need to ask ourselves whether policies can be realistically delivered and by whom, and if so whether they will have the desired impact.

The second factor — international engagement — is important for a number, and fairly obvious, reasons: financial and other material resources, expertise and technical support, political and diplomatic leverage. Crucially, international engagement needs to be sustained and well-resourced and to be sensitive to needs of people in the country.

The third factor is local leadership. We need to be conscious of the fact that no degree of context sensitivity or comprehensiveness of international engagement and no level, however high, of policy innovation and ingenuity can replace local leadership.

Local leadership requires that not only the government of Yemen is called upon to rise to the challenges of creating a secure, politically stable, socially inclusive and economically viable country, but that business and civil society, opposition forces and tribal leaders do exactly the same. It will above all depend on the quality and courage, determination and skill of their leadership to achieve this.

The next meeting of the Friends of Yemen in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in February 2011 will perhaps be the last opportunity to pull Yemen back from the brink, and the few months until then provide a rapidly closing window of opportunity prevent a further deterioration of the situation."