The country's president is happy to take foreign aid with few strings attached while doing little to quell support for al-Qaida
Source: The Guardian, By Brian Whitaker, 20/09/2010
The international Friends of Yemen group, set up last January to help tackle the country's "many urgent problems" is due to hold its first official meeting in New York on Friday. About 30 countries are involved, including Arab states, various European countries, the US and China, together with the IMF, World Bank and the Arab League.
Nobody doubts that Yemen is in a mess. Not only is it a hotbed of al-Qaida activity, its economy is in a dire state and its government, besides being riddled with corruption, is struggling to exert control over large parts of the country. The question is what can be done about this.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in charge in Sanaa since 1978, would like as much aid as possible to prop up his regime, with minimal strings attached. The Friends of Yemen, on the other hand, fearful of money being squandered, is looking for signs that Saleh is trying to put his house in order and is seeking to link aid to performance.
As part of this monitoring and cajoling process, Friday's meeting will receive reports from two working groups: one on Yemen's economy and governance, the other on justice and the rule of law.
In the past, Saleh has generally played the aid game to his advantage by dealing separately with a variety of donors who did not present a united front. The Friends of Yemen is hoping to put a stop to that, according to an official who is intimately involved, by establishing a common dialogue with the Yemeni authorities and a more orderly aid process.
Though Saleh's eyes are set on his regime's survival rather than on Yemen's long-term development, he has little choice but to go along with this – at least for the time being.
He has, for instance, accepted a domestically unpopular IMF reform package, which includes a 10% sales tax and cuts in fuel subsidies. While fuel subsidies are meant to benefit the poor, in Yemen they tend to benefit the rich. They have become a major drain on national resources because of the way
some prominent Yemenis purchase the fuel at subsidised prices and then export it at a profit.
Economic reforms may be unpalatable but they are less problematic for the regime than political reforms (which are also on the Friends' watch list). On the political front, Saleh has established a national dialogue with opposition parties. In principle, this is a positive development though it remains to be seen whether it will amount to anything more than window-dressing.
The initial impetus for creating the Friends of Yemen came from a series of terrorist incidents last year, all of which had a Yemeni al-Qaida connection – most notably the attempt to blow up an airliner over Detroit – and security is still a large part of its focus.
The US Central Command has proposed a $1.2bn package of military aid for Yemen, spread over six years, which includes both equipment and training. But US officials are divided over this, with some arguing that Saleh could use the weapons against his own enemies, making the country more unstable, rather than less.
Targeted killing of al-Qaida militants (apparently with US assistance) has often been counterproductive. Last December, strikes aimed at al-Qaida accidentally killed 42 innocent civilians – for which the government later had to apologise. Another strike, in May, killed the deputy governor of Marib province by mistake. Mishandled anti-terrorism measures can be worse than none at all, stirring up popular resentment against the authorities and driving people into the hands of the militants.
Another problem is that Saleh has very little incentive to defeat al-Qaida once and for all; without the threat from the militants, international interest in Yemen would decline – and with it, the supply of aid.
One result is that the regime talks up the threat to some extent – for example by exaggerating links between al-Qaida and the separatist Southern Movement when a more fruitful approach would be to drive a wedge between them: addressing the southerners' grievances seriously (and those of other disaffected groups) would help to undermine al-Qaida's local support.
While the Friends of Yemen does seem to recognise that military/security efforts alone are not going to finish off al-Qaida, Saleh hasn't shown much interest in tackling the underlying causes of militancy that feed it – and it's doubtful whether his regime really has the capacity to do so.
Meanwhile, ordinary Yemenis face even more basic problems. The country has the third highest malnutrition rate in the world and is among the 10 countries with the highest rates of food insecurity, according to the World Bank. Around 7.5 million people – almost a third of the population – don't have enough to eat.