A Few Good Yemen: When Everything That Can Go Wrong in a Middle Eastern Country, Does

Corinne Graff
Corinne Graff Former Brookings Expert, Senior Policy Scholar - United States Institute of Peace

December 31, 2009

Yemen, home of the fabled Queen of Sheba and ancient cradle of civilization… What does it have to do with the 21st Century? Well, pretty much everything.

Roughly the size of Texas, this arid country reaps few benefits from its location on the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula. Far from it. In 2009, Yemen endured nearly every hardship imaginable.

Dwindling oil reserves. A precariously low water supply. Incessant conflict, stoked by meddling archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. An ongoing refugee crisis and humanitarian emergency. Piracy. Rising hunger, and the threat of another food crisis.

Yemen’s experiences speak volumes. Its fate could well foreshadow that of the broader Middle East, as oil supplies ebb while climate change accelerates desertification. In 2009,Yemen ranked as one of three countries hardest hit by extreme weather.

Yemen’s woes also portend new security challenges across the developing world. Having lingered on the margins of the global economy, countries with the world’s poorest billion people like Yemen can’t pay government workers, secure their borders, provide basic public services, or jump start their economies.

One result: extremists can now operate more freely and idle youths heed their call to arms, as recent evidence demonstrates. Lethal terrorist attacks are increasing in poor countries, where more often, they target the U.S.

Yemen is no exception. This year, al Qaeda established a new hub there. United States intelligence czar Dennis Blair and President Obama both warned Yemen is re-emerging as a jihadist battleground. The country’s plight reverberated across the globe on November 5 when a U.S. Army psychiatrist killed 13 people at Fort Hood. The suspect had had repeated contacts with a radical imam in Yemen.

Is an alternative future conceivable for Yemen? Sure, and the call in U.S. Congress for increased support for development and peace in Yemen is a tiny first step in the right direction. But as 2009 turns into 2010, we’d do well to keep taking more steps.

Read the full exchange between participants » (external link)