The recent attacks on western targets in Yemen show the need to fight the terrorist threat there, but America’s Iraq experience is stifling efforts to help the Arab world’s poorest countryby Alice Fordham / October 8, 2010 / Leave a comment
Ali Saleh, Yemen’s ruler of 30 years: a corrupt “big man” whom the west is propping up
In late September, ministers and diplomats gathered in New York to discuss assistance for the Arab world’s poorest country, Yemen. Fighting the terrorist threat within this fragile state has become an urgent priority for America and its allies. But this time, bruised by mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are taking a rather different approach. In Iraq, instability was deemed a price worth paying for democracy; in Yemen, democracy must now be sacrificed for stability. In one country, a powerful but corrupt “big man” had to be removed; in the other, such a figure will have to be propped up.
The watchword during the Iraq campaign was “votes at all costs.” In Yemen, by contrast, there is no such US-led drive for elections and the US military has reportedly proposed investing more than $1bn in Yemen’s security forces over the next five years. But what are they investing in? Yemen’s government may technically be democratically elected, but most analysts say it wields no power. Influence lies with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cronies, vastly rich men, much of whose money is said to come from siphoning oil revenues, while a third of Yemen’s population starves. Saleh once said that ruling Yemen was like “dancing on the heads of snakes,” keeping the various conflicting factions—tribes, secessionists, Islamists, the elite—subdued with a mixture of money and force. This has kept him in power for over 30 years, and many believe that losing him would plunge the country into chaos. Yet this system is only capable of maintaining the status quo, not enacting reforms. Without reform, Yemen—with its nosediving economy, dwindling oil reserves, demographic explosion and conflicts with northern rebels and southern secessionists—is only a few steps away from chaos.
Moves to make Yemen more democratic are stalled. Parliamentary elections set for April 2009 were postponed for two years to allow dialogue between the ruling party and opposition, and it now looks likely they will be further delayed. While average Yemenis probably care less about voting than about security and not starving to death, a moribund political system will simply perpetuate the corrupt, inert presidential rule.
In Iraq, attempts to create democracy still exact a heavy price. Seven months after the election, the parties are yet to form a coalition. Leaders from Ankara to Riyadh…