Mural art in Sana'a, Yemen in May 2014

How to Pull Yemen Back From the Edge

Yemen needs international support to overcome serious political and economic hurdles.

Mural art in Sana'a, Yemen in May 2014

Mural art in Sana'a, Yemen.

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SANAA, YEMEN – Building a nation after an Arab Spring-like revolution isn’t easy, especially when corruption is rampant, the population is starving and the country is running out of water. Yet that is exactly what Yemen is trying to do and in just a few years. Seem impossible? Perhaps. But citizens in Sanaa, the capital city, are insisting that they have no other choice. If the new constitution isn’t drafted by the end of this year, approved by a referendum and followed up by presidential and parliamentary elections, the country may very easily descend into widespread conflict.

If the international community wants to prevent the kind of Arab Spring fallout witnessed in Syria and Egypt, then we must rally on Yemen’s behalf, and quickly, before the year 2014 expires. It’s that kind of urgent.

When I visited Yemen this month, my meetings with parliamentarians and those in the private sector, sheikhs and civil society, media and academia, government officials, the international development community, and others all pointed to a comprehensive set of obstacles that must be addressed immediately and which require meaningful international support on the ground. The conversation cannot take place solely in London, where the “Friends of Yemen” discussed last week the distribution of funds and assessed political progress, but on the ground in Yemen as well.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

No matter how resilient Yemen may be (and without question the people of this country have endured worse), my short time there bore witness to this once-in-a-decade (or century) opportunity to positively impact a country and set its trajectory towards political and economic progress. In order to do so, several fronts must be tackled.

On the political front, the state of Yemen is now struggling to stand up after being undermined by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who weakened political institutions and power, strengthened the tribes and created an antagonistic culture towards the private sector. The immunity deal for Saleh and his supporters set an incredibly problematic precedent for transitional justice, and clauses in the existing constitution – such as Article 65 – allow those in the quasi-handpicked parliament to extend their term, which they’ve done for the last five years, without re-election.

As one progressive parliamentarian told me last week, this is merely a photo of democracy, nothing more. While the national dialogue deserves credit for bringing every party (including mainstream moderate and more extreme Islamic parties) to the table in an impressive show of the balance of power, everything now depends on the constitution and elections being managed properly and promptly. Unless some kind of decentralized federalism materializes, with strong political provincial representation at the local level, public distrust in Sanaa political elites will continue.

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On the security front, the country is saturated with weapons, with millions of assault weapons in the hands of countrymen and civilians. This makes for a combustible situation. A rich history of military spending and training (including U.S. training for Saleh’s special forces, skills that were used in 2011 against revolutionary protesters) has done little for sustaining state security. Generals and soldiers have little allegiance to the state, but rather answer to tribal and factional leaderships, making a cohesive response to any security threat more difficult. Furthermore, according to accounts there, some generals have been keener to profit off their position by providing security to the oil companies in the east rather than provide security for the people.

The police are not much better off. In at least half the country, there are no police whatsoever. In these locations, people often depend on a Yemeni tradition of reconciliation that deals with crime by acknowledging guilt, offering payment, but not pursuing punishment or prosecution. The police that do exist in the urban areas are often illiterate, older, underpaid, undertrained and under-resourced. Watching them patrol the streets of Sanaa last week, after multiple cases of attempted kidnappings of Russian and German nationals, it is clear that the police are no match for the kind of violent crime that is increasing. The more desperate attempts at keeping the peace, like banning tens of thousands of motorcycles because they’re often the vehicles of choice to carry out assassinations, are already deemed ineffective.

Beyond military and police, there are other security threats that must be addressed, including the mounting water wars and America’s increasingly reckless response to al-Qaida. Both issues are causing more violence and are creating adopters of violent strategies, but shockingly little attention is focused here.

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On the economic front, the government is struggling to provide services for a burgeoning population of 25 million people. Yemen has the second highest rate of malnutrition in the world, the highest rate of poverty and illiteracy in the Arab World, and a youth bulge that is overwhelmingly unemployed. According to one successful businessman, there are no economic minds in the government. Between a lack of economic acuity and corruption, there is simply no money left in the bank. Roughly two-thirds of existing funds are spent on government salaries and fuel subsidies, with very little spent on infrastructure, jobs or social services. The system is completely unsustainable.

Yemen’s $13 billion budget and $36 billion gross domestic product could be much higher. The government desperately needs revenue, and a higher sales tax (which currently only collects a paltry 5 percent of the GDP) offers an easy mechanism. The business community is also ready and willing to partner on domestic power projects, but the government refuses to collaborate, despite persistent public frustration over power outages. The government has yet to enact a public-private partnerships law, as most countries have, and has failed to consider codes of conduct or provide the business community with the necessary and dependable regulations and rules that are consistent across the country, irrespective of region.

Despite all of this, Yemen’s nation-building road ahead need not be dire, provided the international community is willing to roll up its sleeves and get to work on the ground and with the people. Politically, that includes forcing the old guard’s hand to ensure transparency, inclusiveness and delivery of basic services. This is a must. Militarily, that means downsizing and disciplining the troops, while transitioning to more appropriate policing and law enforcement capacities. Economically, that requires ramping up job creation through myriad infrastructure projects. The world cannot continue to watch Yemen from a 30,000-foot perspective, or from drones in the sky, or from behind the compound wall.