A second spectacular Al Qaeda attack on Yemeni government security buildings
in less than a month is a worrisome sign that the terrorist group may be trying to take advantage of a country splitting at the seams. U.S. officials are concerned
that Yemen, like neighboring Somalia
, may become a failed state due to a myriad of challenges, including a separatist movement in the south
, tensions over government corruption charges, competition for dwindling natural resources, and one of the fastest growing populations in the world
Wells Running Dry
Water shortages have become commonplace in Yemen. Last year, the Sunday Times reported that Yemen could become the first modern state to run out of water, “providing a taste of the conflict and mass movement of populations that may spread across the world if population growth outstrips natural resources.”
Earlier this year, government forces came to blows with locals over a disputed water well license in the south. Twenty homes were damaged and two people were killed during the resulting eight day stand-off, according to Reuters.
The heavily populated highlands, home to the capital city of Sanaa, face particularly staggering scarcity. Wells serving the two million people in the capital must now stretch 2,600 – 3,200 feet below the surface to reach an aquifer and many have simply dried up, according to reports.
Yemeni Water and Environment Minister Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani told a Reuters reporter that the country’s burgeoning water crisis is “almost inevitable because of the geography and climate of Yemen, coupled with uncontrolled population growth and very low capacity for managing resources.”
Nineteen of Yemen’s 21 aquifers are being drained faster than they can recover, due to diesel subsidies that encourage excessive pumping, loose government enforcement of existing drilling laws, and growing population demand. Qat farmers in particular represent an excessive portion of water consumption; growing the popular narcotic accounts for 37 percent of agricultural water consumption. Meanwhile, according to a study by the World Food Programme this year, 32.1 percent of the population is food insecure and the country has become reliant on imported wheat.
Yemen’s other wells – the oil variety – have long been the country’s sole source of significant income. According to ASPO, oil has historically represented 70-75 percent of the government’s revenue. But recent exploration efforts have failed to uncover significant additions to Yemen’s reserves, and as a result oil exports have declined 56 percent since 2001. The steep decline has pushed Yemeni authorities to look to other natural resources, such as rare minerals and natural gas, but the infrastructure to support such projects will take significant time and money to develop.
The Fastest Growing Population in the Middle East
Despite the country’s limited resources, Yemen’s population of 22.8 million people is growing faster than any other country in the Middle East. According to projections from the Population Reference Bureau, by 2050, Yemen’s burgeoning population is expected to rival that of Spain.
Fully 45 percent of the current population is under the age of 15 – a troubling ratio that is expected to grow in the near future. The charts from the U.S. Census Bureau embedded below illustrate the dramatic growth of the country’s youth bulge from 1995 through 2030.
A poor record on women’s rights and a highly rural, traditional society contribute to these rapid growth scenarios. According to Population Action International’s Elizabeth Leahy Madsen, only 41 percent of Yemeni women are literate and their total fertility rate is well over the global average. A recent survey from Social Watch ranking education, economic, and political empowerment rated Yemen last in the world in gender equity. Yemeni scholar Sultana Al-Jeham pointed out during her Wilson Center presentation, “Yemeni Women: Challenges and Little Hope,” that there is only one woman in a national parliament of 301 members and that ambitious political women routinely face systematic marginalization.
A contributing factor is that 70 percent of Yemen’s population live outside of cities – far more than any other country in the region – making access to education and healthcare difficult, especially in the large swaths of land not controlled by the government.
External migration from war-torn east Africa adds to Yemen’s demographic strains. According to IRIN, approximately 700,000 Somali refugees currently reside in country, and that number may grow as the situation in Somalia continues to escalate. Within Yemen’s own borders, another 320,000 internally displaced people have fled conflict-ridden areas, further disrupting the country’s internal dynamics.
Corruption and Rebellion
Competition over resources, perceived corruption, and Al Qaeda activity have put considerable pressure on the Saleh regime in Sanaa. The government faces serious dissidence in both the north and the south, and the Los Angeles Times reports that talk of rebellion is both widespread and loud:
Much of southern and eastern Yemen are almost entirely beyond the central government’s control. Many Yemeni soldiers say they won’t wear their uniforms outside the southern port city of Aden for fear of being killed. In recent months, officials have been attacked after trying to raise the Yemeni flag over government offices in the south.USAID rates Yemen’s effective governance amongst the lowest in the world (below the 25th percentile), reflecting Sanaa’s poor control and high levels of corruption. Some reports claim that up to a third of Yemen’s 100,000-man army is made up of “ghost soldiers” who do not actually exist but whose commanders collect their salaries and equipment to sell on the open market.
The West and Al Qaeda
In testimony before Congress earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman called on the Yemeni government to take a comprehensive approach to “address the security, political, and economic challenges that it faces,” including its natural resource and demographic challenges.
The Yemeni government is poised to receive $150 million in bilateral military assistance from the United States. But some experts are critical of that approach: Dr. Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center told UN Dispatch that, “you are not going to solve the terrorist problem in Yemen by killing terrorists,” calling instead for investing in economic development.
USAID has budgeted $67 million for development assistance, economic support, and training programs in Yemen for FY 2010 and has requested $106 million for FY 2011 (although about a third is designated for foreign military financing).
While Yemen’s Al Qaeda presence continues to captivate Western governments, it is the country’s other problems – resource scarcity, corruption, and demographic issues – that make it vulnerable to begin with and arguably represent the greater threat to its long-term stability. The United States and other developed countries should address these cascading problems in constructive ways, before the country devolves into a more dangerous state like Somalia or Afghanistan. In keeping with the tenets of the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy, an exercise in American soft power in Yemen might pay great dividends in hard power gains.
Sources: Association for the Study of Peak Oil – USA, Central Intelligence Agency, Congressional Research Service, Guardian, IRIN, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Population Action International, Population Reference Bureau, ReliefWeb, Reuters, Social Watch, Sunday Times, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of State, UN Dispatch, USA Today, USAID, World Food Programme.
Photo Credit: “Yemen pol 2002” via Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the U.S. Federal Government and “Yemen youth bulge animation” arranged by Schuyler Null using images courtesy of the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base.