Commentary / World

Rescuing Yemen from the grip of extremism

by Mai Yamani

LONDON — Yemen has suddenly joined Afghanistan and Pakistan as a risk to global security. Indeed, it is increasingly seen as a nascent failed state and potential replacement host for al-Qaida.

The attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day by a young Nigerian man trained by al-Qaida in Yemen appeared to open the West’s eyes to the country’s problems. Following that failed attack, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown jointly pushed a conference in London to propose solutions for the previously overlooked crises in Yemen.

But if the conference focuses too narrowly on al-Qaida’s presence in Yemen, it will do more harm than good. Instead, the conference must aim to address broader issues of political and social stability within the country.

Al-Qaida is not the primary danger to Yemen’s security and stability, but Yemen’s geography and political problems are well suited to its activities. A particularly attractive feature is the prevalence of the severe Wahhabi religious dogma, which was exported to Yemen by Saudi Arabia but now provides fertile ground for recruiting disaffected young Yemeni men for assaults on Saudi Arabia.

Yemen’s central problems are two: the ongoing civil war that the government is waging against the Houthi tribe in the country’s north, and the suppression of a secessionist movement in the south. It is the Yemeni government’s inability to find a political solution to these problems that has led the nation to the brink of fragmentation.

So far, Obama and Brown seem unable to fully grasp the fact that Yemen’s problems go well beyond al-Qaida’s presence in the country. As a result, they appear to be playing into Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s hands. Saleh wants to use the London conference as a means to leverage Western backing, particularly military aid, to pursue his wars against the Houthis and the southern secessionists.

Saleh has regularly employed the danger of al-Qaida to obtain additional financial and security support from both the West and Saudi Arabia. For him, the attempted Christmas Day bombing was a gift from heaven. Saleh’s dilemma is that Western aid may now come with increased interference in Yemen’s internal affairs at a time when he wants the world to turn a blind eye to his conduct of the country’s civil wars.

The West and Saleh do not have the same enemy. Al-Qaida is the West’s enemy, while Saleh’s true enemies are the Houthis and the separatists of the south. But if the West is to curtail al-Qaida’s activities in Yemen, it will need to push Saleh into reaching accommodations with both the Houthis and the southerners, and this will undoubtedly mean sharing power with them. Saleh will surely resist such an effort.

Last December, Saleh called for national dialogue, but on his own terms: The Houthis and the southern leaders are to be excluded from the discussions unless they support the Yemeni Constitution that has kept Saleh in power for decades. But Saleh’s hardline approach is failing. More than half of Yemen’s territory is falling out of government control.

The U.S. should not be surprised by any of these developments because American involvement in Yemen is not new. Al-Qaida in Yemen has been targeted since the USS Cole was bombed while in the port of Aden in 2000. Missile strikes by U.S. drones last December in Abein and Shabwa killed a number of al-Qaida members, as well as civilians.

Fighting al-Qaida in Yemen through such means may temporarily reduce terrorism, but it will not end it. The real question is whether the West will address Yemen’s failed political and military strategies, which are the root cause of al-Qaida’s mushrooming presence in the country. Only if Western intervention aims to rescue the Yemeni state from itself will there be any possibility to contain al-Qaida.

And it is not just the Yemeni state that is at fault. Yemen’s neighbors have also played a role. Saudi Arabia exported both its Wahhabism and al-Qaida to Yemen by funding thousands of Islamic schools where fanaticism is taught. Moreover, since the 1991 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been expelling Yemeni workers. Last month alone, 54,000 Yemeni workers were expelled from Saudi Arabia.

Though Yemen is part of the Arabian Peninsula, it was excluded from the Gulf Cooperation Council, primarily because its size — it is the most populous state on the peninsula — would have given it great influence. In fact, the Yemeni population exceeds the population of all six GCC members combined.

Saleh received a strong endorsement from the GCC last December for his domestic wars, and Saudi Arabia has been in direct military confrontation with the Houthis, its army having crossed Yemen’s border. But the GCC members’ failure to open their economies — which are always in need of guest workers — to Yemen’s young men is short-sighted.

The United States and Britain, both patrons of the GCC, must encourage its members to include Yemen if they want to solve its problems. Yemenis are known as skilled laborers. So, instead of exporting religious radicalism to Yemen, importing its manpower could neutralize Yemen’s problems.

Wednesday’s London conference could prove to be either a trap for the West or the beginning of a true effort at the kind of domestic reform that can prevent Yemen from becoming another Afghanistan. If the West buys into Saleh’s depiction of a war against al-Qaida, it will be trapped into supporting him and his failed policies. But if it looks beyond terrorism to the root causes of the problem, and presses Saleh to begin to share power, Yemen need not become another safe haven for terrorists.

Mai Yamani’s most recent book is “Cradle of Islam.” © 2010 Project Syndicate