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Yemen: Security and the collapsing state

Yemen special forces in training -  Jan 2010
Yemeni security forces are receiving funding and training from abroad

Rising concerns about terrorism emanating from Yemen prompted UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to host a conference on the issue in London.

But, as Ginny Hill, an expert in Yemeni politics, political economy and security argues, the country is in crisis on many fronts and heavy-handed security measures may well be counterproductive.

The London meeting on Wednesday is essentially a response to the claim by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group based in Yemen, that it was responsible for the attempt to blow up an American airliner in the skies over Detroit on Christmas Day.

The threat from Yemen prompted last week's decision to stop direct flights from Yemen to the UK, and is believed to have played a part in the decision to upgrade the threat of international terrorism in the UK to severe.

Yemeni public opinion is hostile to US policy in the Middle East and President Ali Abdullah Saleh's alliance with the West on counterterrorism since 9/11 has generated widespread resentment in the country.

Many Yemenis are now worried that heavy-handed Western insistence on counterterrorism objectives will backfire, increasing support for al-Qaeda affiliates.

One popular Yemeni sheikh proclaimed that delegates attending the London meeting were planning the invasion of Yemen.

But US President Barack Obama has ruled out sending US troops to Yemen and Pentagon military planners have decided to keep a light footprint in this strategic Arabian Peninsula state.

'Enormous pressure'

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, with dwindling oil reserves, a growing population and a weak, incomplete central government.

Since 2006, Yemen's donors have pledged nearly $5bn in development aid but only a fraction of the money has been spent.

KEY BACKGROUND
Map of Yemen

Yemen's government is unlikely to receive additional pledges until ministers demonstrate renewed commitment to reform and tackle corruption.

Yemen's previous record on governance reforms is poor but one Yemeni official involved in preparations for the London meeting said: "We are under enormous pressure now."

The sense of urgency that underpins the current debate about Yemen's future stems from the fact that Yemen is a collapsing state.

Oil revenues are falling, as oil production turns downward and there is currently little inward investment to support a sustainable economic base.

Terrorist networks are likely to grow as the state collapses, so an effective counterterrorism strategy requires a long-term commitment to development, good governance and state building.

Fragile state

Yemeni civil society organisations are calling on the organisers of the London conference to take a comprehensive approach to the country's current challenges.

They are calling for commitments to tackle poverty, support freedom of speech and protect human rights.

Yemeni opposition groups also want Mr Brown to insist on measures to reduce internal political tensions in this fragile state.

They want the Yemeni president to launch a national dialogue that addresses the grievances of grassroots southern separatists and brings an end to the six-year civil war in the northern province of Saada.

The government claims that Saada rebels, southern secessionists and al-Qaeda affiliates belong to an "axis of evil" but local analysts warn Yemeni officials are conflating domestic dissent with terrorism in order to justify repressive measures.

In recent weeks, the Yemeni military claims to have killed AQAP's deputy commander, Said al-Shihri, and military commander, Qasim al-Raymi, but the jihadi organisation says both men are still alive.

Tackling terrorism in Yemen requires an ambitious, holistic strategy, combined with an acute instinct for the interplay of local political issues.

Success depends on a united front among Western powers, support from Yemen's neighbours and committed partners in Yemen.

Ginny Hill is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London, where she runs the Yemen Forum.



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