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Yemen's problems are deep but they have solutions

How do you solve a problem like Yemen? Time and a lot of financial investment.

Yemen - Happy Arabia - is distinctly unhappy. The causes of its malaise form a perfect storm of problems, some of commission, others of omission, and most of them structural. Unfortunately, the primary symptoms of this unhappiness are a brooding discontent, which regularly breaks out into a rash of violence. Curing these ills will not be easy, or quick, or cheap - but it is vital.

Conventional wisdom on insurgencies says that the military can hold the ring, but the solution must be political. Yet this "political" element encompasses not merely sufficient access (wasta) to improve one's political lot, but also the interconnected access to economic advancement.

The two Malthusian issues confronting Yemen are rapid resource depletion and a speedily expanding, underemployed population. Various violent symptoms - the Houthi insurrection in the north, the Southern Movement's rebellion, and even the murderous actions of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - pale in significance to these looming domestic threats.

The two resources that are haemorrhaging are oil and water. The former - never copious - is the main foreign exchange earner for Arabia's poorest country. The latter (from biannual monsoon rains) caused Yemen's "Happy" nickname, but is no longer sufficient to support the population. Indeed, with 19 of Yemen's 21 aquifers critically depleted, Sana'a may be the world's first capital to run dry.

At 3.4 per cent, Yemen's population growth is one of the highest globally, and two-thirds of Yemenis under the age of 25. Due to limited resources, few have the education to get what scarce jobs there are domestically, or to go abroad. Such demographic strictures are exacerbated by rural-to-urban migration in search of work. This has concentrated ill-educated, underemployed masses around major towns, where their need to drink, wash and to build houses has increased the strain on aquifers.

Diesel subsidies seemed an obvious way of the Yemeni people benefiting from Yemeni oil. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the subsidies were misguided. Their main beneficiaries are not Yemen's poor (who cannot afford diesel-driven machinery) but rather wealthy water extractors who used subsidised diesel to deplete aquifers, with a major recipient being the domestically consumed cash-crop qat.

Many commentaries on Yemen correctly identify flood-irrigated qat as a problem, and that many Yemenis spend too much cultivating qat rather than food. However, many such criticisms are rooted in moral prejudice against a "narcotic" drug, and these critics' solutions are often facile and unworldly. Calls to replace qat trees with coffee bushes disregard both the slightly different climate each plant requires and the yo-yoing global coffee prices. Similarly, suggestions to farm - and not import - food crops ignore the economies of scale (not to mention the subsidies) offered by America's great plains versus production on narrow terraces tilled by donkey-powered ploughs. Unsurprisingly, the positive aspect of rain-grown qat (that it moves cash from town to countryside) is forgotten, and the negative factor of coffee (middle men exploiting the seasonal dependency of small producers) is finessed away.

The solutions to many of Yemen's current problems lie in its past, for many problems it faces now are recurrent. The most pressing need is employment: the devil makes work for idle hands. While Gulf nations have agreed to re-open their labour markets, they have little need for more unskilled workers, and the educational time-lag will take time to respond. There are, however, many opportunities for construction in Yemen, not least the infrastructure needed for a growing population, as well as the prospect of finally building a railway around the peninsula. The major problem is getting financing.

Aden, a superb natural harbour, and ideally situated on the cusp of Europe, Africa and Asia-bound shipping routes, should be an asset for Yemen. As it was once the entrepot between India and the Mediterranean, so Yemen must realise its transhipment potential again.

Yemenis, like Scotsmen, have always gone abroad to soldier. There are currently a handful of Yemeni UN military observers, but a brigade or two of some of the world's toughest soldiers would steel many peace-keeping operations, as well as offer employment to Yemen's retired soldiers.

The second priority must be secular education. In a post-oil economy with few other resources, a knowledge-based economy offers the most enduring employment potential. Education for girls to secondary level is likely to stabilise the birth-rate to a sustainable level .

The government has already acted to reduce diesel subsidies, which will decrease the outlay of scarce funds and the rate of water depletion. It will increase the price of qat, making it an occasional luxury.

As occurred in Iraq, wider wasta breeds more tolerance for the government and less for extremists. Similarly, as the first fully post-revolutionary generation replaces tribal-based (qabili) patronage systems with meritocracy, many of the gripes that have contributed to internal unrest will fade.

None of this will come cheaply. Yet the alternative - military action - is even more ruinously expensive to the international community; while the "Do Nothing" option is unthinkable: a second failed state bordering what would then truly be the Straits of Lamentation. Yet a nuanced and holistic approach (rather than a solely counter-terrorist one) will see the second most populous state in Arabia stable, democratic, and a smiling example of a successful post-oil economy.

James Spencer is a former infantry officer in the British military. He is currently a strategic analyst focussing on the political, security and trade issues in the Middle East and Africa

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