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YEMEN: Development Recognised as Crucial for Stability

Mohammed A. Salih

WASHINGTON, Feb 6 2010 (IPS) - Amid growing concerns here over the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a consensus is emerging among U.S. experts that Washington and other donors to Yemen must place at least as much or greater emphasis on promoting sustainable development in the Arab world’s poorest country as on counterterrorism.

“It is essential that Washington take a holistic approach to Yemen,” said Christopher Boucek, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Feb. 3.

“In many cases, development assistance, education and technical cooperation, capacity building, institution strengthening and direct financial assistance can better address the interconnected challenges facing Yemen than can military and security aid,” he said.

International concerns over Yemen’s possible destabilisation – spurred in major part by the attempted Christmas bombing of a U.S. airliner by a Nigerian man who had allegedly been trained in Yemen by AQAP – prompted nearly 70 countries to convene a conference in London in late January to discuss ways of helping Yemen to improve its long-term stability and security.

Although the Yemeni government was hoping for an 11-billion-dollar package of aid from the conference to meet its development needs, the attending nations only promised 5.2 billion dollars. In 2006, Yemen had been pledged another 4.7 billion dollars of aid, but only 415 million dollars of that amount was delivered, according to a top Yemeni official.

Total U.S. aid to Yemen from fiscal years 2008 to 2011 is estimated to be nearly 300 million dollars, according to the U.S. government. Yemen is the poorest Arab country, grappling with a myriad of problems from high poverty rates to weak government authority in parts of the country and dwindling oil and water resources.

As a major donor, the U.S. has expected the Yemeni government to make fighting al Qaeda its top priority. But the government has reportedly concentrated most of its resources and energy in combating other rebels in the country’s northern and southern regions.

In a report released Feb. 4, the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Centre questioned the seriousness of the Yemeni government’s claim to be fighting Al Qaeda. It says that beyond Yemen’s cooperation in hunting down al Qaeda fighters after specific attacks, like the 2000 assault on the Navy destroyer USS Cole and a 2002 attack on the French crude oil tanker SS Limburg, the Yemeni government has had “no intention of abrogating its pre-existing ‘covenant of security’ with the (al Qaeda) mujahedin.”

“In fact the regime purposely calibrated the threat of terrorism in Yemen as a means of ensuring continued U.S. military aid,” stated the report.

Last year, the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al Qaeda merged to create AQAP, which operates out of Yemen.

A major challenge facing military operations against AQAP is the group’s success in interweaving its elements into the tribal fabric of southern Yemen. Learning from the mistakes of al Qaeda branches in Saudi Arabia and Iraq that did not have a strong foothold among the locals, al Qaeda’s homegrown branch in Yemen has cultivated strong ties with the local population in the southern regions of the country, experts say.

There are now fears that military operations, especially heavy-handed tactics, would further push local tribes toward alliance with al Qaeda.

Following the unification of pro-Soviet South Yemen and pro-West North Yemen in 1990, the country has undergone a number of rebellions from disgruntled southerners and its northern Shia population known as Houthis, both of whom complain of government neglect and discrimination.

Saudi Arabia, another major donor, has been concerned for years about al Qaeda activities in neighbouring Yemen. Al Qaeda has launched a number of attacks on Saudi targets, most notably in May 2003 when the group detonated three vehicle bombs inside three western housing compounds in the capital Riyadh.

Saudis are equally apprehensive of the intensified Houthi rebellion in recent months in the border areas between the two countries. With a sizeable Shia population in the country’s oil-rich areas, Saudi Arabia is also concerned about the Houthi rebellion.

Saudis view the Houthi insurgency as an opportunity for Shia Iran to expand its influence in the region, hence prompting the kingdom to take part in the recent fight against the Houthis.

Considering that Houthis are part of the larger Zaydi Shias in northern Yemen, concerns are growing that the continuation of the conflict might alienate more Zaydis from the beleaguered Yemeni government.

Zaydis ruled Yemen for around 1,000 years until they were removed from power by a revolution in 1962.

Now with a rapidly deteriorating situation in Yemen, U.S. authorities stress the need for economic development plans to go hand in hand with security measures. The hope is that a vigorous and sustainable plan of development aid to Yemen will in the long term lay the foundation for stability in a country so close to world energy sources.

“U.S. strategy toward Yemen is two-pronged: one, strengthen the government of Yemen’s ability to promote security and minimise the threat from violent extremists within its borders, and two, mitigate Yemen’s economic crisis and deficiencies in government capacity, provision of services, transparency and adherence to the rule of law,” Jeffrey D. Feltman, an assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, testified to the U.S. Congress Feb. 3.

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