James Dorsey, a freelance journalist, recently published an article on Foreign Affairs' website that may just be the best piece of analysis on Yemen I have read thus far. It does a beautiful job capturing why Yemen is such a problem-ridden state and why it will be so difficult for anyone (including the Yemeni government) to solve its interconnected problems. He addresses some of the biggest questions that have been aired since the Christmas Day bomb attempt of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Why has Al Qaeda gained a foothold in Yemen? Why is Yemen so difficult to rule? And what can the US (or the West) do about it?
He points out that one of the principal reasons AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) has been able to settle in Yemen is because it provides social services to local villagers. The Yemeni government's presence beyond core sectors of the country is so minimal that critical services -- like education, healthcare, and security -- are entirely ignored. Locals are happy to extend their support to any group that can fill this void. This notion of legitimacy coming from social service provision is not a new one, and has been used to describe political dynamics in other parts of the Middle East, as well as Latin America, South Asia, and Africa. There is compelling evidence that any group -- state or non-state -- will gain grassroots political favor through the extension of services; in fact, the phenomenon is so common in the developing world that 'non-state social welfare provision' has become something of an academic sub-field. Within the Middle East, experts have mostly studied how providing social services can be a key part of the political strategies of certain Islamist groups -- Hamas, Hezbullah, and the Egyptian MB, being the most prominent examples. It is therefore unsurprising to hear that Al Qaeda's Yemen branch has adopted much the same tactic, with equal success.
This point dovetails nicely with Dorsey's second key insight, which is that a security-dominated approach to Yemen is likely to bear little fruit for the West. Al Qaeda has been successful in Yemen, in part, because it provides key services that the government fails to offer. Foreign aid, both in the form of funding and training, can help the Yemeni government extend its social service capabilities further afield. By usurping Al Qaeda's role as a provider and protector, the government can win back the favor of the population and erode Al Qaeda's popularity and legitimacy. Of course, there is the issue of Yemen's current government being so corrupt and bureaucratic that it struggles to accept large amounts of aid. But, as Dorsey points out, the West has few better options but to try.
A final important argument that he makes is that the West is much better off relying on other state actors, particularly Saudi Arabia and others in the GCC, to help implement reform in Yemen. The Saudi government has influence both with Yemen's government and with many of its tribes and could be a powerful agent of positive change if it signed onto a series of reform initiatives. Many of Yemen's greatest security, political, social, and economic problems could be better addressed with Saudi support. Moreover, Saudis are trusted in Yemen to a far greater extent than Western workers and do not operate with the automatic handicap of being seen as a foreign occupier or agents of neo-colonialism.
An interesting idea highlighted within this argument is the suggestion that the GCC bring Yemen into its fold. To my knowledge, this is not a possibility that has been seriously discussed, probably because the Gulf countries would never give it real consideration. Yemen is far too poor, divided, and corrupt for the other Gulf states to consider letting it into what they consider to be an elite club. Moreover, as the GCC considers the possibility of further economic integration (possibly a single currency union), letting Yemen in would complicate matters even further. But what could work is providing Yemen with a reasonable path toward GCC membership. This strategy has proven remarkably successful in Europe, where the European Union has laid out a series of stringent development hurdles that must be cleared in order for candidate countries to gain membership (in fact, this article points out how much better this strategy has been than the foreign aid approach that the US has used with its Caribbean neighbors...and is likely to use with Yemen). In Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the Union in 2007, massive political and economic reform efforts were undertaken to prepare for membership. Yemen has openly expressed its desire to join the GCC. If the Council provided a credible path toward Yemeni membership, entailing a series of stringent criteria that would first have to be met, Yemen's government might be coaxed into making some of the tough decisions necessary to avert further decay.
No effort at domestic transformation in Yemen will be successful without the full backing of the Yemeni government. A path to GCC membership may be the best idea yet aired to cajole the government into coming fully on board.