For years, Yemen-watchers have warned that the country is on the brink of disaster. Its wily longtime dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, held the country together despite civil war, a separatist rebellion in the north, complex tribal politics, and the spread of al-Qaeda. A year of unrelenting street protests and clashes between rival groups finally pushed Saleh from office in February, and his successor, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, now has the unenviable task of trying to manage the unmanageable. Over the past year, an al-Qaeda affiliate called Ansar al-Shari’a has taken over territory in impoverished areas in the south of the country, forming several Taliban-style “Islamic emirates.” Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for last week’s horrific suicide bombing which killed nearly a hundred soldiers.
Not surprisingly, Yemen’s economy is a mess. Oil revenues have sustained it for the past two decades, accounting for about three-quarters of state revenue, but Saleh did little in the way of investing in the infrastructure or institutions required for a post-oil future. With high rates of illiteracy and maternal mortality, Yemen falls at the bottom of every human development measure for the region. 75 percent of its population is under age 30, and it has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, but Yemen is hard-pressed to meet the needs of its large youth population. At its present fertility rate, nearly 500,000 new teachers and 16,000 new doctors are required by 2050 just to meet the needs of its growing population at current (low) levels of service. But now the oil is running out—by some estimates, Yemen’s oil production could fall to zero by 2017.
Not only is Yemen running out of oil, it is also running out of food and water. According to humanitarian groups, half of Yemen’s population is hungry and in some places, one-third of the children are severely malnourished. Currently, there are over half a million internally displaced persons in Yemen; and according to the UN, about 267,000 children are facing life-threatening levels of malnutrition. Yemen’s food scarcity issues will only get worse due to lack of water. Last year, the chair of the Yemeni environment and water protection agency predicted that the capital, Sanaa, would run out of water within six years. More than 90 percent of Yemen’s water resources go to agriculture, but 40 percent of those resources go to growing qat, a mild narcotic that is also water-intensive. Across the country, farmers have abandoned growing food in favor of the inedible but higher-paying qat.
The United States looks at Yemen through a security lens, stepping up drone attacks against al-Qaeda, training military forces, and dismantling al-Qaeda propaganda on Yemeni websites in a hacking operation. But these types of tactical responses to security threats hardly get at the root causes of instability. After a seven year absence, USAID returned to Yemen in 2003, initiating several large projects aimed at improving education, health, and economic livelihoods, but the lack of security makes its work there extremely difficult.
The potential for Yemen’s troubles to spill over the border into the rest of the Arabian Peninsula is not lost on its rich northern neighbors. Last week, the Friends of Yemen, a group of 27 countries in addition to international organizations, met in Saudi Arabia, where they ultimately agreed to donate $4 billion to support various projects in Yemen. Saudi Arabia accounted for the bulk of the donations, pledging $3.25 billion. The aid aims to address Yemen’s areas of need, which range from urgent humanitarian relief to support for its military operations against al-Qaeda to longer-term development funding. However, the exact allocation of funds remains unclear, in part because Saudi Arabia did not specify what projects it will support. Riyadh’s tendency, like Washington’s, will be to orient its assistance toward security operations. But Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States ignore Yemen’s longer-term development needs at their peril. As bad as it is today, the situation in Yemen has the potential to get much worse.