Yemen: Europe?s next challenge

Terrorists plots and embassy shut-downs: Yemen received a lot of media attention over the New Year period. But now action, including by the EU, must replace the headlines

As 2010 begins, a number of foreign policy issues are already vying for top-level attention. But one is bound to be taken much more seriously in 2010 than last year: Yemen. Unrest in the south, a rebellion in the north, a new generation of al-Qaeda operatives and a youthful, unemployed population set to double by 2025 means the country will have to move from the speechwriters’ repertoire to the policy-makers’ in-tray.

Yemen received renewed attention over the New Year’s holiday as it transpired that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian terrorist who tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit, trained at a Yemeni al-Qaeda camp. Over the weekend, the US, Britain and Spain took the unusual step of closing their embassies for fear or a terrorist attack.

Why Yemen? 

The link between Yemen and al-Qaeda is close. The Bin Ladens hail from the village of al-Rubat in the Hadramaut region. The al-Qaeda chief’s fourth wife is Yemeni and he has often referred to the importance of the country, noting the Prophet Muhammad’s regard for Yemen because of its quick adoption of Islam after the faith’s establishment. But the links go further.

Yemen was second only to Saudi Arabia as a source of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen fighters. Thousands of Yemenis trained in al-Qaeda’s camps and President Saleh subsequently recruited these veterans in the war against southern Yemen. This trend continued after the civil war, with Bosnian and Chechen veterans — and, recently, Iraqi insurgents — being integrated into the Yemeni army. Today, Yemeni prisoners make up one of the largest national contingents of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

But the al-Qaeda link is only one of a number of reasons Yemen will occupy policy-makers in 2010. A longstanding conflict in northern Yemen between the government and a rebel group, known as the Houthis after their leader’s clan, drew in Saudi Arabia last month when the rebels seized a sliver of Saudi territory, prompting Riyadh to launch a cross-border military strike. Saudi Arabia’s intervention, in turn, prompted talk of Iranian support for the rebels. What is clear is that this year’s fighting has been some of the fiercest since the conflict erupted in June 2004 when government forces sought to arrest the rebel leader, Husayn Badr al-Din al-Huthi.

In addition, the Yemeni government is now also facing increased unrest in the south. The Yemen Arab Republic (north) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (south) unified in 1990, to form the Republic of Yemen. But the unitary state was threatened when civil war broke out in 1994, with southern leaders calling for secession. Thousands were killed in fierce fighting which ended with the defeat of the southern leaders represented mainly by the Yemeni Socialist Party. Since then, two key issues have kept southern grievances alive – land grabs by powerful officials from the north following the civil war, and the exclusion of southern officials from top government jobs.

If that was not bad enough, Yemen faces a long-term economic crisis. Its respectable 3.9 percent average annual growth from 2000-2007 has been primarily due to an increase in oil production and prices, while revenues have yet to be invested in employment-generating, non-extractive sectors.

It will take considerable effort to help address this multifaceted challenge, not least because of the sometimes difficult relationship between the West and the Yemeni government. Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is usually described as pro-Western, but the truth is more complex. Yemen’s political leadership has since the mid-1990s followed a delicate balancing act to maintain power, and sought to co-opt tribal factions by bringing them into government and involving them in the democratic process while expanding the president’s personal and familial control over state structures and resources.

Breaking with powerful figures, even those connected to al-Qaeda, is therefore balanced with other interests. When the U.S asked the Yemeni president to hand-over Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, who figures on the UN’s terrorist list, he refused. Sheikh Zindani was Rector of al-Imam University, and a key opposition party figure – therefore untouchable. On other occasions it has been the US, which has balked at taking action, dictated by commercial links that exist between the U.S and Yemen; it was Hunt Oil, a Texan-based company and long-time Republican backer, which originally discovered oil in Yemen, in 1984 and remains an investor in a large Yemeni LNG project.

What should Europe do?

European governments and the EU ought still to be in a good position to help Yemen address its many problems. European support for the country has increased steadily over the years. In the last six years, the EU donated more than € 144 million with the largest share going towards economic development. European foreign ministers have also been seized of Yemen’s problems for longer than the mainstream media; in October, they expressed “deep concern” over the deteriorating situation. Finally, key EU governments have long since operated bilateral assistance programmes to support the Yemeni police and coast guards.

Yet despite this, Europe’s support to Yemen looks like the kind of pre-Lisbon offerings that EU leaders have been keen to move away from: it is mainly technocratic, developmental with the security-related programmes undertaken bilaterally by EU governments. It will be key to build on this assistance in the next six months, so that the range of the EU’s instruments — diplomatic, political, security and developmental — can be brought to bear on the crisis.

Though the EU has upgraded the chief of its delegation to a fully-fledged ambassador, it may opportune for Lady Catherine Ashton to appoint a senior EU envoy to the Gulf Region — or tap an EU foreign minister, like Germany’s Guido Westerwelle — who could consult with the different parties and draft a new programme of EU assistance.

An early task for a European envoy will be to push for greater involvement of the GCC in Yemen’s stabilisation. The Gulf states have mediated in Lebanon’s conflict and negotiated with the Taliban, but have been reluctant to engage themselves in Yemen. Yet their involvement will be important to help bring the various Yemeni parties – the Government, the Opposition, the Southern secessionists and the Huthi rebels – into some kind peace-like process. Results may not be obtained for years, but it will nonetheless pay for the EU to show early engagement and to consult the local and regional parties at a senior level.

Though there is likely to be limited appetite for an official CSDP mission, an innovative programme of assistance that includes out-of-country training for Yemeni officials, as conducted by EUJUST LEX in Iraq, and the co-location of trainers in key ministries, such as undertaken by the EU in Bosnia-Herzegovina, would complement the mooted US increase in counter-terrorism assistance.

Such an assistance programme could be unveiled at summit of the European leaders and Gulf state Heads of Governments, with support for Yemen at the top of the agenda. Depending on the willingness of the other Gulf states to engage (and Yemen’s acceptance of their engagement) it may even be possible to explore a joint EU-GCC project based in Sana’a, for example on border, or maritime security.

Yemen’s multiple conflicts may not yet be “ripe” for resolution, as many of the local and regional actors seem reluctant to accept that force is unlikely to work in their favour. Even when they are ready to talk, for example about holding elections or decentralisation from the Sanaa government to the north and south, it will be because regional players exert influence on and in Yemen. But the potential for collapse and the considerable presence of al-Qaeda means the EU cannot waste time. Based on its on-going development assistance, the EU, led by High Representative Catherine Ashton, and an EU envoy, should engage local and regional leaders, and develop a multi-pronged programme of assistance. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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