Yemen's next steps

Some important conclusions came from the international conference on Yemen but it's not enough

Yesterday's conference on Yemen made some important signals of intent for tackling the country's fragility and insecurity. However the the need for domestic reform, the complexity of Yemen's role in regional security and the need for investment in Yemen's transition to a post-oil economy remain understated.

Agreeing on: '...respect for [Yemen's] sovereignty and independence, and commitment to non-interference in Yemen's internal affairs' was an important initial step. Visible foreign interference would have merely exacerbated existing tensions, especially in light of comments from the Council of Clerics, an influential body amongst the mosaic of tribal and religious leaders through which President Ali Abdullah Saleh governs by proxy.

Aside from opposing military intervention, including covert attacks, the group has come down hard upon yesterday's London conference. The clerics identified the event as "aggression against Yemenis" aimed at paving the way for foreign occupation of the country. A member of the Council of Clerics, Sheikh Saleh Salabani, claimed that US strikes would "drive the populace into the arms of al-Qaeda. We might not love al-Qaeda, but it is for our government to get rid of them and not anyone else."

While direct intervention has been discounted, indeed it was unlikely given Obama's domestic economic and political context, covert cooperation between the American and Yemeni intelligence services will continue. Being seen to fight Al Qaeda is a domestic imperative for Obama, as since the attempted bomb attack Yemen is perceived by the U.S. public as a threat to the heartland of America. However, any assistance provided to combat Al Qaeda needs to ensure that the separate conflicts in the north, with the marginalised Houthis, and the south, with southern separatists, are not conflated by Saleh under a narrative of counter-terrorism.

Domestic reform

The conference shied away from openly criticising Saleh's government. Despite calling for reform in-line with IMF prescriptions, there was no mention of last year's parliamentary elections, which have been delayed until April 2011 ostensibly due to issues of national security. The conference also fails to mention the presidential election in 2006, in which Saleh won 77 per cent of the vote. The EU's analysis of the election concluded that despite positive steps towards democratic procedures it had not been fairly administered due to the use of state resources, the prevention of female participation, overt favouritism from state media, the incarceration of opposition supporters and concerns over the counting process. This was overlooked by Tim Torlot, the British ambassador to Yemen.

The uprisings by the Houthis and southern separatists, although rooted in older disputes and with their own specific grievances, are both responses to their respective economic and political marginalisation. To bring stability to Yemen, issues of accountability and representation need to be incorporated into the demands and pressure placed on Saleh.

Regional inclusion

The conference agreed that "...economic and social reform by the government of Yemen was key to long term stability and prosperity." To this end a crucial step was made by the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) Secretary General, who agreed to host a meeting in Riyadh on February 27-28 for Yemen's regional neighbours and international partners.

Despite Yemen's status as the most populous country in the Arabian peninsula, the GCC has shown no sign of investing the amounts needed to develop and support Yemen's economy. Meanwhile, they continually deny Yemen membership due to the fact that the country's relatively large population, which exceeds the combined population of all six GGC members, would give it unwanted influence and undermine Saudi Arabia's leadership.

Mai Yamani, an author and commentator on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, has claimed that the GCC members' failure to open their economies, which always require migrant labour, to Yemen's young men is short-sighted and has a potentially deleterious impact on regional security. Those who have visited Sana'a say it serves as testament to the skill of Yemeni labourers. However, since the First Gulf War in 1991 Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have routinely expelled Yemeni workers. In December 2009, Saudi Arabia expelled 54,000 Yemeni workers.

Yamani has called for America and the UK, as patrons of the GCC, to encourage the Gulf states to include Yemen in the GCC. A solution to Yemen's numerous problems is dependent on its inclusion. In reference to the dissemination of Saudi Arabia's severe Wahabbi doctrine, Yamani states: "...instead of exporting religious radicalism to Yemen, importing its manpower could neutralize Yemen's problems."

The post-oil transition

The GCC together with the international community have a crucial role to play in restoring Yemen's economy. Traditionally reliant on oil, the supplies are drying up. Production peaked in 2002 at 460,000 b/d, but has fallen to the current rate of 300,000-350,000 b/d. It is hard to overstate the significance of Yemen's oil sector. The World Bank estimates that oil accounts for 90 per cent of export earnings and 75 per cent of government revenue. They predict that state revenues from hydrocarbon sales will plummet sharply during 2009-10, reaching zero by 2017.

As such, investment and economic support needs to be strategically targeted at those sectors of the economy that can play a role in Yemen's transition to a post-oil economy. Projects need to reinvest in the country's agriculture and undermine the dominance of Qat, which has a deleterious impact on both the water table and the populations' mental health.

Piracy and the Gulf of Aden

Future revenue from oil is reliant on establishing new offshore sites in order to improve output levels, however piracy risks in the Gulf of Aden have stunted international investment. This problem has also disrupted the development of Yemen's nascent liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector, which came on-line in October 2009.

Yemen is not merely a victim of piracy - weapons and money are easily passed across the Gulf of Aden, supporting militancy and piracy in the region. Moreover, Yemen acts as a conduit for international arms smuggling, notably for weapons destined for Somalia, and is crucial to improving security in the region. The conference failed to address these matters, which is a significant oversight given the ability of piracy networks across the Gulf to disrupt the stability of global oil supplies.

The conference has made important signals of intent but it is not enough. It understates the need to look at Yemen and horn of Africa holistically and how insecurity is exacerbated by Saleh's methods of governance. A lot may reside on the meeting in Riyadh.