The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW

Military

The Conflicts in Yemen and U.S. National Security


The Conflicts in Yemen and U.S. National Security - Cover

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill.

January 2011

120 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Yemen is not currently a failed state, but it is experiencing huge political and economic problems that can have a direct impact on U.S. interests in the region. It has a rapidly expanding population with a resource base that is limited and already leaves much of the current population in poverty. The government obtains around a third of its budget revenue from sales of its limited and declining oil stocks, which most economists state will be exhausted by 2017. Yemen also has critical water shortages and a variety of interrelated security problems. In Sa’ada province in Yemen’s northern mountainous region, there has been an intermittent rebellion by Houthi tribesmen (now experiencing a cease-fire) who accuse the government of discrimination and other actions against their Zaydi Shi’ite religious sect. In southern Yemen, a powerful independence movement has developed which is mostly nonviolent but is increasingly angry and confrontational. More recently, Yemen has emerged as one of the most important theaters for the struggle against al-Qaeda. Yemen is among the worst places on earth to cede to al-Qaeda in this struggle, but it is also an especially distrustful and wary nation in its relationship with Western nations and particularly the United States. All of these problems are difficult to address because the central government has only limited capacity to extend its influence into tribal areas beyond the capital and major cities. The United States must therefore do what it can to support peaceful resolutions of Yemen’s problems with the Houthis and Southern Movement while continuing to assist the government’s struggle against al-Qaeda forces in Yemen. It must further pursue these policies in ways that avoid provoking a backlash among the Yemeni population which will not tolerate significant numbers of U.S. combat troops in Yemen.

Summary

Yemen is not currently a failed state, but it is experiencing huge political and economic problems that can have a direct impact on U.S. interests in the region. It has a rapidly expanding population with a resource base that is limited and already leaves much of the current population in poverty. The government obtains around a third of its budget revenue from sales of its limited and declining oil stocks, which most economists state will be exhausted by 2017. Yemen has critical water shortages aggravated by the use of extensive amounts of water and agricultural land for production of the shrub qat, which is chewed for stimulant and other effects but has no nutritional value. All of these problems are especially difficult to address because the central government has only limited capacity to extend its influence into tribal areas beyond the capital and major cities. Adding to these difficulties, Yemen is also facing a variety of interrelated national security problems that have strained the limited resources of the government, military, and security forces. In Sa’ada province in Yemen’s northern mountainous region, there has been an intermittent rebellion by Houthi tribesmen who accuse the government of discrimination and other actions against their Zaydi Shi’ite religious sect. In southern Yemen, a powerful independence movement has developed which is mostly nonviolent but is also deeply angry and increasingly confrontational.

A key country that must be considered in formulating Yemen policy is Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is Yemen’s chief aid donor and often considers itself to have a special relationship with Yemen that affords it an elevated and privileged role in providing external guidance to Sana’a. Some observers suggest that Saudi Arabia views this role as so important that challenging Saudi interests in Yemen is sometimes viewed as equally offensive as interfering in Saudi domestic politics. Riyadh has become especially sensitive about Yemen issues in recent years and even intervened militarily on the side of the Yemeni government in the most recent phase of the Houthi war in Sa’ada province. The Saudis are also deeply involved with Yemen in the struggle against al-Qaeda due in part to a 2009 merger of the Saudi and Yemeni branches of this organization. The merger occurred following the decision of Saudi al-Qaeda members to flee to Yemen to rebuild their battered organization. Saudi Arabia’s special relationship with Yemen can both help and hinder U.S. objectives for that country.

Additionally, Yemen’s government has waged a struggle against al-Qaeda with vacillating levels of intensity since at least 2001 when its leadership chose to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism concerns in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, strikes. More recently, Yemen has emerged as one of the most important theaters for the struggle against al-Qaeda, as many members of this organization attempt to regroup and reorganize themselves in Yemen after suffering crippling setbacks in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The loss of Yemen to al-Qaeda would be particularly damaging to Western interests due to its strategic location and a population which is expected to exceed half of that of the entire Arabian Peninsula within the next 20 years. Moreover, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), headquartered in Yemen, appears to be strengthening and showing signs of transitioning from a terrorist group with limited capabilities to an emerging insurgent movement.

Yemen is also an especially distrustful and wary nation in its relationship with Western nations, and particularly the United States. Most Yemenis are fiercely protective of their country’s independence from outside influence, especially from countries that they believe do not always have the best interests of the Arab World in mind. While Yemen’s government is coming to understand the dangers it faces from al-Qaeda, the struggle against this organization is not always popular among the Yemeni public, and any large-scale U.S. military presence in the country could easily ignite these passions and destabilize the regime. Under such circumstances, it is important to help Yemen, but to do so in ways that are not viewed as intrusive or dominating by a population that does not always identify with U.S. concerns about international terrorism. In recent years, U.S. policymakers have managed to maintain this balance, but the complexities of Yemeni domestic politics will continue to require subtlety and nimbleness in U.S.-Yemeni security relations.


Access Full Report [PDF]: The Conflicts in Yemen and U.S. National Security



NEWSLETTER
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list