On May 18, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center held a policy discussion with Faris Al-Sanabani, publisher of Yemen Observer and Yemen Today, Barak Barfi, visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, and Stephen Seche, U.S. ambassador to Yemen. The panel explored the range of challenges Yemen faces, from the fragile peace with Houthi rebels and the threat of al Qaeda to economic opportunities for a rapidly growing population. The event was moderated by Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
Al-Sanabani launched the discussion by laying out the most urgent problems facing Yemen, naming al Qaeda, explosive population growth, piracy, widespread qat use, and the limits of oil revenue. The Yemeni government is well aware of these obstacles, but the Yemeni people do not feel it is doing enough to confront them. Al-Sanabani applauded the government’s national reform vision for 2025 and cited innovative projects spearheaded by younger generations of Yemenis in the civil service—including improving Yemen’s image abroad, increasing Yemeni workers’ absorption into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and strengthening the rule of law—but pointed to the challenges of effective implementation.
Ambassador Seche emphasized that it would be misleading to view Yemen through the lens of terrorism, noting that many of Yemen’s problems require political solutions, not military ones. He cited Yemen’s central challenge as the profound lack of political and economic development, which extremist groups, in turn, use to their advantage. In this way, economic development and security are closely intertwined: a Yemen that is secure from terrorist activity and extremism creates a situation for positive engagement on business, healthcare, and education. Addressing citizens’ economic needs, Seche argued, would renew their confidence in the government’s abilities and drain support from extremists. He acknowledged that the Saleh administration’s political will may be lacking given the delicate balance of challenges it faces, from vis-à-vis the growing religious conservatism, separatism in the South, tribal politics, al Qaeda, and economic insecurity. Seche noted that the GCC must maintain active involvement in Yemen and that the consensus and coordination of the international community is vital.
Barfi then argued that Yemen, over centuries, has repeatedly defied expectations of political disintegration and economic collapse. He credited the country’s more recent perseverance to the “shrewd political astuteness” of President Saleh, who, he said, remains firmly in control. He made the case that Yemen’s problems are not nearly as dire as often assumed: the southern secessionists are not well-organized or mobilized around the same set of issues; most Yemenis do not feel the effects of the Houthi rebellion which enjoys little backing from politicians or religious groups; and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a small movement that is not as deadly as affiliates elsewhere. Meanwhile, Barfi argued that the Yemeni economy is showing signs of strength, including real GDP growth of 3.5 percent in 2009. Over the coming year, 40 new oil wells will be built and more oil is likely to be discovered, while liquefied natural gas is expected to generate between $30 and 50 billion over the next 20 years. Echoing Seche, Barfi contended that the GCC must play a larger role in Yemen and that the Saudis “need to strengthen the country, not see it as a threat.” Barfi concluded by suggesting that as long as Saleh is in power, Yemen will be stable.
Following the panel remarks, a lively question and answer session covered a range of issues including the different ways Yemen could cooperate with the GCC, how to enhance Yemen’s reputation abroad, the social reach of extremism, the widespread use of qat, and the prevalence of corruption.
On GCC-Yemen cooperation, al-Sanabani said the GCC could help Yemen attract investors, create industrial zones within the country, as well as allocate a certain percentage for Yemeni products in their markets. In terms of perceptions of Yemen, Seche contended that Yemen’s image will improve if the reality improves. Commenting on the dangers of extremism, Barfi held that less than ten percent of Yemenis support al Qaeda; after the attempted Christmas day bombing, Americans are probably more familiar with the names of senior al Qaeda figures than Yemenis.
With regard to the prevalence of qat-chewing throughout Yemen, Al-Sanabani argued that it is more a recreational activity than a national addiction and that when Yemenis are instructed not to chew at the workplace, they refrain. Ambassador Seche, commenting on corruption, noted that the pervasive culture of corruption undermines trust in authorities and pushes people to seek alternative avenues to conduct their affairs; this, in turn, reinforces corruption. Ambassador Seche underscored that the Yemeni people need to know that the international community stands in solidarity with them and called for a better balance between security assistance and development assistance. Barfi added that the problem in the relationship is that the United States is only interested in Yemen when there is a security threat and that it needs to make a more comprehensive, longer term commitment to the country.