What’s Next for Yemen?

The political situation in Yemen is quickly deteriorating and it took a dramatic turn earlier this week when the President was injured in an attack at the palace mosque. He was flown to Saudi Arabia and at this point it uncertain whether or not he will return to Yemen. The attack was the culmination of months of rival tribes vying for power and intense government opposition. The public has been calling for the president’s resignation and is anxiously awaiting the outcome of this most recent development. The situation is even more pressing since the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is an important ally in the US War on Terror and has allowed the US to use its airspace and to carryout risky drone attacks in the country. However, Yemen is also the home base of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has been identified as the most pressing threat to American national security. The US cannot afford to have Yemen turn into the next Afghanistan; a failed state that is an ideal home base for radicalism and terrorism.

Yemen is strategically important for two reasons. First, there are oil pipelines that crisscross the country and that connect to major pipeline networks in Saudi Arabia. Secondly, it is situated in a geographically significant location. It has access to the Bab el Mandeb (the Gate of Tears), the strait which links the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. A regime change and continued instability have the potential to disrupt the oil supply lines and cut off shipping routes which will then negatively affect the global price of oil. It could also potentially place control of that strategic waterway in the hands of terrorist groups who would use that control to their advantage.

In addition to this threat, Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East with more than half of its population living below the poverty line (The New York Times). Yemen is also believed to be the first country which will run out of water (The New York Times). It faces a separatist movement in the south and a Shiite rebellion in the north. These facts combined with the current political situation have created an atmosphere of desperation and frustration in the country that makes it especially vulnerable to radicalism.

Washington is in a precarious position since the Saleh administration is seen as an essential ally in the region. Unfortunately, the Saleh government has used American money to battle protestors in an attempt to stay in power. Yemeni citizens have a right to renounce the corruption in their country and call for independent elections just as many other countries in the region have done since the Arab Spring began. Washington is urging Saleh to stop down and accept a Gulf State-brokered transition plan which he has already refused there times. John Brennan, the top US national security advisor, is currently in the region trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the violence. He has the challenge of urging the regime change while simultaneously preventing an al-Qaeda takeover and stabilizing the economic aspects of the conflict.

If Saleh resigns, there is no guarantee that the new regime will continue to act as cooperatively vis-à-vis counterterrorism. There is also no guarantee that tribal rivalries will not spur the country into civil war once they commence their struggle to fill the power vacuum. The uncertainty surrounding Yemen’s future means that Washington must take measures to ensure that Yemen does not become the next Afghanistan and increase its support for the AQAP. To achieve this, Washington should continue to pressure the Saleh government to accept the transition plan. It is obvious that the people of Yemen are ready for an end to the corruption and poverty and if Saleh does not step down on his own, Yemen’s citizens may back the AQAP when left with no other choice. The Obama administration should commit to continuing its financial support of the country in an effort to fight radicalism and provide the future regime with an incentive to cooperate in fighting terrorism. Yemen faces a turning point that will have substantial consequences for the US and the Middle East. It is imperative that the outcome does not resemble the one in Afghanistan in 1989 which led to the Taliban’s and Al-Qaeda’s rise to power.

~ Allissa Aronovici