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International money and military aid has poured in, but little of it goes to improve the country.
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.”