x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A stable Yemen is not a pie-in-the-sky proposition

The solutions for a stronger Yemen may not be as far-fetched as they sound.

In November of 1990, Yemen voted against a UN resolution authorising the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Instantly, an American representative scuttled around the table and hissed: "That was the most expensive 'no' vote you ever cast." He was right - and the West has been paying the consequences of such short-term political pique ever since.

Many bilateral relationships with Yemen try to address the immediate problems caused partly by that "no": much money and material is funnelled into suppressing al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula. Less thought and fewer funds go towards improving the situation so that neither al Qa'eda nor insurrection will return. The multilateral Friends of Yemen must be the long-view counterpart to these short-term counter-terrorist efforts, and tackle the systemic causes of disillusionment.

As protests sweep across the region, news outlets have characterised the demands of Yemen's street as ending widespread corruption and nepotism, addressing youth unemployment and having fairer political participation. These are not the demands of irredeemable radicals but of a population invested in its country's future.

Since the group's priorities are to assist in democracy and development, the first agenda point for the Friends of Yemen should be for Britain to extend a formal invitation to Yemen to join the Commonwealth of Nations. Bizarrely, Yemen's 1997 attempt to join the organisation - which promotes good governance - was rejected "because it does not meet the entry criteria, which include evidence of good government".

The key therefore would be to design systems that reduce corruption to manageable proportions in the short term, and to inculcate meritocratic attitudes in the long run. One of the easiest ways to reduce nepotism in Yemen would be to shift to an electronic job hiring process in the public sector, in which candidates are screened to meet a specific job description online. This could potentially encourage meritocracy in Yemen's bureaucracy by establishing a civil service commission to oversee a fairer hiring process.

In the longer term, a college of political arts could be established under the auspices of the World Economic Forum. Its mission could be to educate future Yemeni and Arab leaders in democratic ways rather than in the ethnocratic cabals that currently exist. Yemeni "Rotten Boroughs" should soon become as much a thing of the past as they are in the UK.

Alongside the college and under the guidance of the Arab League, there should be a regional electoral commission. Charged with educating electorates and overseeing elections throughout the Middle East, such a transnational body would bring transparency to the murky world that the current protests are shining a light upon. In its transnational nature, it would be difficult for any single political party to stack the commission in its favour - an all-too-frequent complaint.

Youth unemployment in Yemen also remains a perennial problem, and one exacerbated by the growing population and the dwindling water resources. As emigrant Yemeni communities scattered throughout the world can attest, this is not a new issue. Certainly, the Gulf markets beckon, but they have a plethora of unskilled workers from the subcontinent already working. In the short-term, building the Peninsula railway may employ unskilled Yemenis, and the obvious place to start is in peaceful Mahra, which can link into the Omani network at Salalah.

Other low skill employment opportunities might be the establishment of a network of aquaponic farms. These would require some initial investment in both money and water. But in the long-term, such farms are remarkably efficient in their through-life costs and could globally promote Yemeni products. One organisation that has had superb results with similar projects has been the Aga Khan Development Network, which is also experienced in avoiding rapacious "sleeping partners". Instead, it empowers communities to organise and run their own projects.

Broadly, green technology would also suit Yemen's economy. The harsh climate in much of the country makes it ideal for a combination of wind, current, geo-thermal and solar generation project. Such energy producters could power the cyber-economy and the real economy.

Yemenis must also be educated to work machinery, which could offer an alternative labour source to the increasingly expensive Chinese market. Better yet is to have Yemenis leap over industrialisation and into cyber-work. The basic ingredients are within reach: just as Aden sat astride telegraph lines, so the broadband internet cables that link Africa and Asia to Europe lie just off Yemen's shores. Cyber-work will require a high standard of education not only in computer languages, but also in English.

These may sound like pie-in-the sky ideas, but there are already similar projects in Yemen that could be expanded to make room for colleges that train students online. As in the West, such centres would doubtless attract symbiotic companies, perhaps even establishing something like a Silicon Wadi. Online work is particularly suitable for women, since it lends itself to remote and part-time work, while educating women and employing them could encourage sustainable birth rates.

This crisis is too good an opportunity for Yemen to waste.


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