Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 11/2009

Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral

Christopher Boucek

September 2009

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Yemen faces a great and growing number of challenges that endanger its political future and threaten its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula. War, terrorism, a deepening secessionist movement, and interconnected economic and demographic trends have the potential to overwhelm the Yemeni government, jeopardizing domestic stability and security across the region. Yemen’s oil—the source of over 75 percent of its income—is quickly running out, and the country has no apparent way to transition to a post-oil economy. The dire economic situation makes it increasingly difficult for the government to deliver the funds needed to hold the country together. Yemen remains the poorest country in the Arab world, and in the next two decades, its population is expected to double to over 40 million. This rapidly expanding and increasingly impoverished population will place unbearable pressures on the government. The ongoing civil war in Saada against Shi’i Zaidi rebels, a revitalized secessionist movement in the South, and a resurgent al-Qaeda all endanger the Yemeni state. While none of these challenges has yet turned critical, they will all converge on the eve of the presidential election in 2013, about the time when Yemen will need to address a pending political leadership transition. Amid internal political dramas, porous borders, a heavily armed population, a rapidly falling water table, and a history of weak or nonexistent central government control, unless Yemen’s authorities take dramatic steps today, the country faces a very bleak future. Any single event—or more likely a confluence of worst-case events beyond the ability of the state to control—could lead to a further erosion of central government authority in Yemen and destabilization of the region. A major humanitarian crisis, triggered perhaps by severe famine or crop failure, could result in a large refugee emergency in which the government would be unable to provide even rudimentary relief services. A balance-of-payments crisis in which the regime could no longer afford to placate the urban areas that receive government services would be disastrous. An inability of a post-Saleh president to balance Yemen’s competing interests and stakeholders could create a power vacuum, with separate regions possibly growing more autonomous and independent from the central government in Sanaa. Yemen has always survived crises in the past, but these complex and interwoven challenges are unprecedented in both degree and kind. While the country has few realistic solutions to its problems today, its options will be even fewer and worse in the future. And while Yemen cannot fully address any of these issues, it can surely lessen their impact on regional security. For both Yemen and the United States, the cost of inaction has simply grown too great.