Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

How to Help Yemen?

As this week wore on, the Western press continued to churn out articles on Yemen. With the security story largely beaten to death, towards the end of the week newspapers started to turn towards other angles on Yemen -- looking at the country's problems with poverty, its wrecked economy, its corrupt and overly-bureaucratic system of government, its war with the Houthi rebels, and the conflict with the South (in short, many of the topics that in my last post I lamented were being ignored).

One of these articles particularly caught my eye: a NYT piece on the paltry amount of non-military aid the US sends to Yemen and its limited ability to affect conditions in the country. Indeed, the article reaches the conclusion that Yemen is essentially a lost cause.

In fact, this has been the tone of many articles that have discussed Yemen's broader problems and how the West might help the country address them. What can possibly be done in a country with such multifarious and deep-rooted social, political, and economic travails?

This conclusion frustrates me. The problems Yemen faces are indeed deep and difficult to solve; but they are not new. When I visited the country in 2007 all of the same issues were present and had been for many years before. The Houthi war has been going on for 5 years. Secessionist tendencies have existed almost since the day Yemen became unified. The country's economic woes certainly are not fresh news; Yemen's economy has been in trouble ever since the early 90s when Saudi Arabia, enraged over Yemen's support of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, expelled the vast number of Yemeni laborers who had kept their home economy propped up through remittances. The oil reserves have always been known to be small. And the water table has been steadily decreasing, raising eyebrows throughout the development community, for years as well.

Of course, before now the United States and other Western governments had no reason to care about the problems of a small, backwater Arab country. So they left them to fester. And now they are grasping about in desperation looking for a silver bullet that will fix all Yemen's woes and throwing their hands up when one cannot be found.

I think this points to a fundamental flaw with the way the West conducts counter-terrorism and foreign policy strategies. Even despite all the talk over the last decade of preventing extremism from taking hold, US policies are still largely reactive.

Had the aid organizations and Western governments turned more attention to Yemen a decade ago or even earlier, the problems that are currently bemoaned might be much less severe. As the NYT article shows, US aid to Yemen has been paltry, especially when compared to other countries in the region (Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan). Moreover, up until recently, aid organization could operate in Yemen safely, without having to fear attacks or kidnappings. Yemen is no Somalia. When I visited the country, it felt safe and stable and there were a good number of Westerners visiting and working in Sana'a.

There has been a lot of debate among counter-terror experts about whether poverty breeds terrorism. Many members of Al Qaeda actually hail from middle class backgrounds, rather than deep impoverishment. I don't claim to be an expert, but it strikes me from what I have read that in a country like Yemen there is a connection between poverty and extremism. Yemenis who join Al Qaeda do so not only because of their beliefs, but also because of the lack of opportunities available to them.

A smart counter-terror policy would recognize that (in fact would have recognized that a decade ago). It would focus on long-term mitigation and prevention strategies. It would provide more non-military aid to build schools, hospitals, mosques, and roads. It would involve sending technical trainers who can help to develop local capabilities in areas like water conservation and oil exploration. It would involve working through diplomatic channels with US allies in the Gulf to ensure that Yemeni laborers can flow easily across borders to the places where there are jobs. Unfortunately it may be too late for all that now.

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