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Los problemas de Yemen son los de la región

Could Yemen's multiple challenges spill over into neighbouring countries? How prepared are these countries to deal with them? David Hughes looks at the threat of a domino effect in the region.

© REUTERS/K. Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi

Unlike the problems faced in the past, Yemen’s contemporary challenges are numerous and interconnected, potentially overwhelming the state’s limited capacities.

Yemen suffers from a confluence of near-crises: in times of leadership transition, it finds itself in economic, demographic and domestic security turmoil. Its oil reserves are set to disappear within the next 5 – 10 years along with government resources. Without any post-oil plans, the government will face greater challenges in managing a country with such worrying demographic prospects.

The country's geographic dispersion and the difficult terrain heavily impair the government’s outreach – with a rapidly expanding poor population, the pressure on already thin resources and on the provision of goods and services are bound to become untenable.

The same could be said for water: uncontrolled extractions, imperfect legal regimes and unequal decentralisation plans mean that Sanaa could potentially be the first capital city to run out of water.

For domestic security, the country is riddled with regional tensions that have led to an ongoing civil war in the north and secessionist movements in the south. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) miliants have also established their headquarters there and are creating a comfortable nest in the under-governed areas. Soon enough, one of these challenges could effectively become a crisis, which might spark a domino effect with regards to the other challenges.

The main reason why Yemen is such a difficult case to deal with is because most of its problems have considerable regional repercussions. Regional actors should increase their involvement, helping Yemen tackle these challenges and de-escalate regional tensions.

© REUTERS/Reuters TV

Video grab of Saudi Army vehicles burning during clashes with Houthi rebels in the border area between Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Soft security issues:

In terms of resources, Yemen could become a burden for neighbouring countries. Yemen is already very rapidly running out of water and oil but if it were to go on artificial life support, the strains on Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries might become too large to stomach, considering the increase in energy demands from emerging powers.

As oil represents 75% of government income, this means that Saudi Arabia will not just bail out the Yemeni budget year-in, year-out as it currently does. It might have to fund increasing portions of it. With few other credible alternatives explored, the GCC countries will surely also have to chip in to keep Yemen afloat lest its problems become the region’s problems. Neighbours will not want a failed state on its borders where terrorist groups may breed in harmony as this would increase regional insecurity and instability.

Water shortages might also spark tensions and resource wars in an already unstable area. The fact that 80% of conflicts in Yemen come down to water is troubling. Looking to the African continent, water wars between Ethiopia and Eritrea or strong tensions between Egypt and Sudan could replicate across the red sea on the Arabian peninsula.

On demographics, Yemen’s population growth rate hovers around 3.4% and 2/3rds of the population is under 24. In the next 20 years, the country’s population will double to more than 40 million. In 30 years, it will reach 60 million.

The consequences of Yemen collapsing are dire: a failing Yemen would entail half of the 23 million population seeking asylum in Saudi Arabia. This becomes a significant problem for neighbouring countries because of the state of Yemen’s labour market. As it is incapable of accommodating for these numbers, the unemployed Yemenis look to neighbouring countries for opportunities.

The Al Houthi conflict taking place in the northern province has been raging for approximately 6 years

Further, the country benefits from exporting its workers as it alleviates the economic and social burdens in Yemen: one migrant worker can support six or seven Yemenis at home. After oil, remittances are the number one source of hard currency for Yemen. The problem though is that foreign labourers in the 6 GCC countries represent 51% of the total GCC population.

Despite the benefits that they bring, an influx of new workers from a booming, poor and unskilled Yemeni workforce would not be the most welcome. Apprehension surrounds new influxes as they are seen as security threats and obstacles hampering the GCC counties’ efforts to foster inclusive and harmonious development.

© REUTERS/Reuters TV

Video grab shows Houthi rebels driving a seized Saudi border patrol pick-up in the border area between Saudi Arabia and Yemen

Hard security dilemmas:

Yemen is a country with very similar numbers of Sunni and Shia Muslims. From a religious point of view, a key consideration is the increasing risk of regional escalation with the involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Saada civil war. The Al Houthi conflict taking place in its northern province has been raging for approximately 6 years. A truce was agreed in February 2010. It remains fragile in part because clashes between Shia rebels and local religious rivals weaken the ceasefire.

Throughout the conflict, President Saleh has accused the Iranian government of militarily, financially and politically supporting the Shia uprising in Saada. Although the latter might be a possibility, no concrete and verifiable evidence supports the first two allegations. For its own political purpose, Iran has played this game allowing others to exaggerate its regional power and military reach. When Saudi Arabia started to echo Yemeni complaints of Iranian intervention, it condemned joint Yemeni – Saudi action.

Although it is true that the Al Houthi movement cannot fund the insurgency with pomegranates and grapes, many argue that the Yemeni government is accusing Iran to extract precious resources from the US and Saudi Arabia to fund its military repression in Saada. Saleh knows how sensitive these two countries are to Iran’s growing regional power and may have been playing on these fears to help secure his regime.

While Iran’s involvement remains a matter of speculation, Saudi Arabia’s is much more real. Indeed, it has numerous reasons for concern: Iran’s growing clout in the region; the development of a Shia movement in Yemen; the import of a Shia –Sunni civil war into Saudi Arabia; and wider border instabilities.

Yemen allegedly received $10 million per month in 2007 from Saudi Arabia during the war. The Saudis also intervened physically in November 2009 with extensive air and naval power. Saudi Arabia has even lost over 100 troops and border forces, with 5 being held by rebel forces. With Saudi military operations failing to defeat the insurgents on the Yemeni border, this might encourage Iran to be more proactive in Saada to pressurise the Saudis. Consequently, while this affair is originally local, many experts accept a regional narrative.

In addition, al Qaida is regrouping into a regional franchise, AQAP, with a durable organisational infrastructure that can survive the loss of key commanders This reflects the group’s growing ambitions in terms of the scope of their activities. The under-governed areas of Yemen are becoming a springboard for attacks in Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa and even in the US.

For example, in April 2008, Saudi Arabia intercepted 35 suicide vests coming into the country; hideouts along the border were discovered; in August 2009 the Saudi assistant Interior Minister Prince Mohammed was nearly killed; in October 2009, two Saudi nationals coming from Yemen and going to Saudi Arabia were killed after a shootout at the border crossing (1 was an ex-Guantanamo detainee); or in December 2009, there was the failed Christmas Day Northwest Airlines flight 253 to Detroit bombing.

In 2010, terrorist activities have been sustained at levels similar to those in 2009. The reintegration of Guantanamo returnees poses here important questions: how do we gauge this risk? Not all detainees pose the same threat and predicting which ones will return and take up arms is an impossible task. Can we reintegrate them into society? The 2002 Committee for Religious Dialogue was criticised by the US for the lack of follow-up, external social support and reintegration assistance. Can the Saudi model be effectively imported? Can these detainees follow the Saudi programme to make sure they don’t re-engage in activities that will threaten the country, the region and other continents? This is a big issue as in 2009, one third of the remaining Guantanamo 255 detainees were from Yemen.

The return of fighters from Iraq may have the same effect as the transfer of Guantanamo detainees: it may give AQAP an influx of new, experienced and dedicated members with a profound antipathy toward Shi’as and Muslim governments cooperating with the US. Outside Yemen, the return of fighters might also induce sectarian tensions in the region with Iran.

Violence against the Shi’as and Iraqi security forces may well push Iran to increase its protection of its religious brothers in the area. It already supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and has extended its influence to Iraq through its military support to local militias. This involvement could encourage GCC countries like Saudi Arabia to sponsor in return Sunni insurgents in their proxy war with Iran. The Saudis fear Iranian support to aggrieved Shi’as in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province. Returnees from Iraq will therefore very likely spark anti-Shia rhetoric.

The region has also become a transit point for guns, drugs and other illegal products from East Africa to the Gulf region

In terms of maritime security, porous borders and the lack of government capacities have left the coasts of Yemen vulnerable to piracy and smuggling. The waters around Yemen have become infested with pirates that threaten the vital international shipping lanes of the Bab Al Mandab strait.

Despite international aid to build up the Yemeni coast guard after the 2000 USS Cole bombing, huge oil tankers and other merchant ships are still vulnerable. The immensity of the shoreline combined with the limited number of patrol officers and vessels means that many of the attacks cannot be prevented. Although recorded attacksdecreased recently, they are still costly.

The robust anti-piracy measures adopted by merchant navy fleets and the 1600 specially trained soldiers pledged by Saleh are still not enough. The Yemeni government alone lost $150 million in security expenses, experienced increased insurance premiums and incurred about $200 million in lost fishing and other revenue. The losses for other regional and international actors are also considerable.

The region has also become a transit point for guns, drugs and other illegal products from East Africa to the Gulf region. Saudi authorities report a continual influx of drugs and illegal workers. Weapons are even more problematic as they are used in attacks within these neighbouring countries: explosive devices were used in the 2003 Riyadh bombings and assault rifles were imported for the 2004 attack on the US Consulate in Jiddah.

A regional approach to solve regional problems

Knowing that Yemen’s problems are not confined to its borders, a regional approach should be employed.

NATO should only monitor the situation from a distance but encourage, through various consultation mechanisms, its partners in the middle east to adopt a proactive approach.

The GCC and Saudi Arabia in particular should be the natural leaders of efforts in Yemen due its geographic proximity, its strong financial situation and cultural and historical ties. As attempts so far have been below par, NATO countries could use their ties with these countries to act on Yemen and wave the integration or closer association carrot.

Traditionally, GCC members have opposed accession to additional states. Kuwait in particular still resents Saleh’s support for Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. At present, Yemen has an observer status in several committees but many doubt that full membership will ever be granted to Yemen. Yet, the GCC needs to assist Yemen and help it to not slip into the failed state category, lest its instability contaminates GCC members.

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