Aid to Yemen: money well spent?

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Yemen’s new profile on the international radar screen as an imperiled state — and potential sanctuary for Al Qaeda — has recently brought it more money and military support from allies like the United States and Saudi Arabia.

These benefits are intended to help President Ali Abdullah Saleh better cope with his many internal problems, which are threatening to turn Yemen into a failed national enterprise.

But given Saleh’s track record, and the complexity of Yemen’s problems, it is not certain that Yemen’s benefactors will get what they are seeking: more rapid, corruption-free economic development, political compromise with Yemeni rebels and a sustained offensive against the local Al Qaeda franchise, which trained the man who attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

Washington’s renewed focus on Yemen was underscored two weeks ago when the Pentagon approved $150 million for training and equipping Yemen’s armed forces this year.

This is more than double last year’s $67 million funding and does not include the increased covert U.S. military and intelligence aid that is helping Yemen disrupt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the network there is known.

The United States also attended a conference in Riyadh last weekend that brought together Western and Arab Gulf countries, as well as international financial institutions, to discuss how to speed up billions of dollars in development aid pledged to Yemen three years ago.

In November 2006, the international community promised $5.5 billion in aid to Yemen, the Gulf region’s poorest state, for the years 2007-2010. Of that amount, $3.7 billion came from wealthy Gulf states.

But up to now, only 58 percent of the promised $5.5 billion has been released to Yemeni authorities to use. Even more disturbing to donors: Only 10 to 20 percent of the money has actually been put to use on aid projects by Yemen.

These bottlenecks in aid disbursal were discussed at the Riyadh donors’ conference, which was held under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a grouping of six Gulf nations.
The major problem, said Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, the GCC’s director general of international economic relations, is that Yemen has very limited technical and management expertise for handling such large amounts of foreign aid. Donors are also concerned about widespread corruption in Saleh’s government.

Aluwaisheg said that there now is greater willingness on the part of donors to tackle Yemen’s limited capacities, perhaps by funding outside experts to implement specific projects. “There is a recognition of the urgency of the situation in Yemen,” he said.

Even as the international donor community was meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz hosted a Yemeni delegation to sign several economic agreements totaling $115 million to finance projects in hospital construction, electricity, education and sanitary drainage.

Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Yemen and is fearful of its neighbor’s disintegration, has repeatedly stated its support for Saleh. Besides development assistance, Riyadh spends millions more each year to bolster Yemen’s military and security forces and buy political influence among the country’s tribal leaders.

Saudi concerns about Yemen’s internal problems were heightened recently when Yemeni rebels fighting the government in the northern part of the country seized territory inside the kingdom last November. Saudi Arabia responded with a military offensive that only ended earlier this month, after more than 110 Saudi soldiers had been killed.

Yemen’s immense economic problems include dwindling water tables, decreasing oil production and a worrisome budget deficit that stands at 9 percent of its GDP. Unemployment is at least 35 percent and a third of Yemen’s 23 million people live in poverty.

Meanwhile, the government is also hosting an estimated 800,000 refugees from countries in the Horn of Africa. And Yemen’s navy and fishing industry are being affected by rampant piracy in nearby international waters.

Saleh’s government is widely seen as incompetent and corrupt. In power for more than three decades, he has used patronage, his security forces and tribal networks to concentrate authority in himself.

Still, he faces major challenges to his rule that are draining resources away from economic development. The rebellion in the north recently ended in a fragile cease-fire. But Saleh’s government has given no assurances that it is ready to assuage the grievances of the rebels that led to the six-year-long rebellion in the first place. Those complaints revolve around the lack of government funds for the north, and political and religious discrimination by Saleh’s government.

In addition, an estimated 180,000 to 250,000 persons displaced by the conflict now need urgent assistance.

Meanwhile, a simmering secessionist movement in the south has been gaining steam. Even as international donors were meeting in Riyadh, Yemenis took to the streets in south Yemen demanding independence.

All of Yemen’s problems have been there for years. But the international community was not focused on them until Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) started grabbing the world’s attention.

In August, an AQAP member nearly killed Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister when he blew himself up while seated next to the Saudi official. In November, AQAP members praised as a “hero” the U.S. Army psychiatrist who shot dead 13 at Ft. Hood in Texas. And in December, a Nigerian trained by AQAP tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with nearly 300 people aboard on Christmas Day.

Pumped up by increased U.S. intelligence and military support since last year, Saleh has shown stiffer resolve to go after AQAP in recent months than he did previously.

But given his vacillating relationship with Al Qaeda-like groups in years past — at times employing them to fight other political enemies, at times seeking to eliminate them — there is reason to be skeptical about the longevity of his most recent stance towards AQAP.

Meanwhile, some observers believe that attempting to solve Yemen’s multiple internal problems with, and through, Saleh is an effort doomed to fail.

Kristian Ulrichsen, Kuwait research fellow at the London School of Economics, wrote in an email that “simply channelling additional support to an already corrupt and deeply problematic governing structure does nothing to address the roots of the government's lack of legitimacy and the opposition it faces from within Yemen.”