A Saudi Perspective on Yemen

A minaret in Sana'a
A minaret in Sana'a Photo: Ai@ce/flickr

On 3 June – only days after he vowed not to step down or make further concessions – Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was seriously wounded in an attack on the presidential palace and flown to Riyadh for medical treatment. If he does not return by early August, the constitution provides for fresh elections to be held. To a considerable extent, therefore, Yemen’s fate now lies in the hands of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis, within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council, have tried to broker a transition plan in Yemen before – to no avail. With Saleh now under Saudi authority and no longer on the political scene, their room for maneuver behind the scenes has greatly increased. Sure — cutting a deal between an increasingly fragmented opposition and an embattled administration remains extremely difficult. But Saudi Arabia has every reason to throw its weight behind negotiations for a peaceful power transition.

Yemen’s AQAP Dilemma

Counterterrorism Yemen-style, photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo/flickr

Since the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) crisis erupted in Yemen, the country has suddenly been thrown into the international spotlight. While numerous think tanks and experts have been warning for years of the critical challenges that Yemen faced (the southern secession movement, the Houthi rebellion, AQAP) most governments only really started to take note after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set his pants on fire and tried to bring down Northwest Airlines flight 253 in what was dubbed the “Christmas Day plot” in 2009.

The international attention given to Yemen has, not surprisingly, since then focused on the terrorism threat. In President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s calculations AQAP was long seen as a nuisance, not as a substantial threat to his presidency or the unity of the country. The southern secession movement and the Houthi rebellion in the North were perceived as far more dangerous and potentially consequential, particularly for President Saleh.

After the attack on USS Cole  in 2000 and again after the incident involving Umar Abdulmutallab the US has made it abundantly clear that it expects President Saleh to reign in AQAP. Development aid flows as well as military assistance have been closely tied to Yemen’s cooperation with regards to fighting al-Qaida.

US aid flows have been varying greatly in the last decade, depending on the current threat perception. In 2000 Yemen got a relatively meager $400,000 in food aid from the US. In 2001, after the attack on the USS Cole, the US administration deliberated an aid and loan forgiveness package of around $400 million. In 2006, when the terrorism threat was thought to be over, the US cut aid again to $18.7 million. Since then US aid to Yemen has steadily increased every year, reaching $58.4 million in 2010. This is a threefold increase in only four years. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) the administration has requested a staggering $106.6 million for 2011.

Going Down the Afghan Road

Look familiar? Picture of a Yemeni refugee camp, courtesy of IRIN Photos/flickr

A new and worrying trend has taken hold in Yemen. According to a report by Amnesty International, the Yemeni government is increasingly sacrificing its human rights policies in order to preserve what they claim is their national security. Challenged by growing calls for secession in the south, periodic conflicts with the rebel Houthi movement in the north, and the regular appearance of al-Qaida throughout the country, the ruling elite is habitually resorting to repressive and illegal methods. An unknown number of Yemenis have disappeared; some have been tortured; and some have been condemned to death or long prison terms after unfair trials before specialized criminal courts. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, these measures actually only antagonized the Yemeni people, thereby preparing the ground for further extremism.

In part, the new Yemeni policies come as a reaction to intense pressure from governments in the US, Europe and the Gulf, which fear Yemen could break apart or even turn into a failed state. They especially dread the possibility of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) linking up with al-Shabab in Somalia, leaving the strategic Horn of Africa under the influence of Islamist militants and jeopardizing the safe transport of commodities to and from the Gulf and the Red Sea region. These external pressures, combined with domestic challenges to the legitimacy of the government, have prompted the Yemeni government to hit back with all the force it could muster.

CSS News

Energy in Europe and Terrorism in Yemen

CSS Analysis no 69 and 70
CSS Analysis no 69 and 70

Our colleagues at the Center for Security Studies have recently published two new policy briefs.

Mathew Hulbert looks at European energy policy and the interconnected goals of availability, affordability, and sustainability. He argues that Europe needs to re-level the low carbon technology playing field to properly realign global emission concerns and security of supply in the future. Also check ISN resources on European energy policy.

Roland Popp examines Western governments’ counterterrorism strategy in Yemen. He emphasizes the need to take the resolution of Yemen’s economic and social problems as a starting point. The ISN Digital Library offers further resources on Yemen.


The Power of Photography: A Journey through Southeast Asia, Afghanistan and Yemen

Screenshot of Foreign Policy photo essay
Screenshot of Foreign Policy photo essay

Not only do pictures say a thousand words, they provide insights to worlds, lives and people behind the headlines, news stories and carefully researched in-depth articles. Words can never quite convey the reality of life in conflict zones or after natural disasters.

I found the following photo essays to provide just such insight. They are beautiful as photographs, but also as pictorial narratives that we as visually wired creatures can appreciate, analyze and use in the formation of a more comprehensive picture of world events and places.

The first one is a harrowing and touching photo essay on the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in Southeast Asia, put together by Alan Taylor of the Boston Globe.

The second and third collection provide insights into two of the most talked about conflict zones in the world, Afghanistan and Yemen. These photo essays by Foreign Policy show life behind the headlines, often normal and ordinary; historically rich and sometimes stunningly beautiful.