The recent bombings in Yemen are a stark reminder of the dangers facing the US on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is on the verge of becoming—if it has not already—a failed state. While the central government is still nominally in control, there have been numerous challenges to it in recent years. Given the geostrategic importance of Yemen and the threat of any failed state to US national security, it is imperative that US policy makers do not lose sight of this country amidst the ongoing challenges in the region.
Yemen, the historic homeland of the Bin Laden family, is one of the poorest societies on earth and by far the poorest country in the Arab world. The vast majority of the population still lives in rural areas in traditional communities.
At present, Yemen is facing three primary challenges, any of which could potentially bring down the state. The first is the rise of religious extremists who have been perpetrating terrorist attacks in recent years. Yemen recently arrested twelve Islamists in connection with the attacks and their nature is reminiscent of numerous other terrorist attacks in Yemen on tourists as well as the US embassy bombing last year. Using terrorist tactics, these extremists—who are suspected to be affiliated with al-Qaeda—are seeking to expel all foreign influences and bring religious rule to Yemen.
The second challenge is the ongoing war in the northern Sa’ada province. In this case, rebels loyal to members of the al-Houthi clan have been challenging the regime’s rule since the summer of 2004. While the regime declared an end to fighting last July (as it has numerous times in the past), resentment runs high and renewed fighting could break out at any time. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that jihadist groups from other provinces have been congregating in Sa’ada and new fighting could break out at any point.
Third, opposition supporters based in the former South Yemen (P.D.R. Yemen) have been holding massive protests and strikes against the government. The opposition Joint Meetings Party (JMP), which includes the Islamist Islah party and numerous leftist parties, is seeking greater access to power and a more equitable electoral process among other demands. Given that the South seceded in 1994 leading to a civil war won by the North, the threat of a renewed conflict is very real.
Also of note is the recent announcement that parliamentary elections—due to be held next month—would be delayed for two years. The JMP had sought concessions from the regime including significant revisions to the electoral law prior to the elections. However, no changes were agreed upon in time for the scheduled elections leading to an agreement between the regime and the opposition to delay the elections, thereby giving more time to undertake electoral reform.
Given the regime’s insistence on holding elections as scheduled for the previous year and its general disregard for the opposition, it is clear that it fears the opposition has made real gains. Nevertheless, given the regime’s past behavior, it is unclear if the delay will lead to promised reform or is simply a delaying tactic to try to co-opt enough opposition leaders prior to new elections to guarantee the JMP’s official participation. If the regime is in fact pursuing the second strategy, it is likely that popular protests will resurface in the near future given the unmet popular demand for political reform.
In sum, Yemen is facing significant challenges and it is unclear if it has the ability to overcome them. In a state as weak as Yemen, one such challenge might be enough to bring down the state, meaning it faces a significant risk of complete collapse. While there may appear to be more pressing demands for US attention in the region, the potential of state failure in Yemen represents a very significant threat to US national security in the years to come.
As such, it is critical that the US work to strengthen the central government. Yet, simply increasing the regime’s capacity is insufficient. Rather, the US must seek to improve conditions for Yemenis throughout the country. Much of the current resentment is the result of failed development strategies, including the failure of the discovery of oil a decade ago to bring any significant improvements in the quality of life for ordinary people. Additionally, it is important to encourage the government to meet some of the opposition’s demands for political reform to allow Yemenis a greater voice in the system leading to hope for better governance in the future.