x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Yemen's battles have just begun

Analysis International pressure over two insurgencies and deeply rooted extremism has forced the Yemeni president to take action, as he copes with a shattered economy.

DOHA // A groundswell of international pressure has prodded the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to action. Negotiations with the Houthi rebels, with whom his government has been warring for nearly a year, are said to be nearing a breakthrough. And after "open war" was declared on al Qa'eda last week, air strikes on militant strongholds in the north-east mountains reportedly killed Qasim Raymi, a top al Qa'eda commander.

That is only the beginning. "This is a long-term, multifaceted security challenge for the international community but also for the Gulf region," said Steven Wright, an assistant professor of international affairs at Qatar University. He is working on a research paper about Yemeni instability, the Gulf and the response of the international community. Since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was accused of trying to set off a bomb while his Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam neared Detroit, grave concerns about the security situation in Yemen, where the plot was allegedly hatched, have been expressed by international media outlets, security analysts and world leaders.

"You are seeing an increased recognition, from the international community and the GCC, that Yemen is potentially the biggest security challenge in the region," Mr Wright said. Most assessments suggest that Yemen - facing two insurgencies, deeply rooted extremism, dwindling supplies of water and oil and a dreadful economy, among other difficulties - is on the brink of collapse. For Gulf countries, the first danger comes from Yemen's porous borders, as extremists operating within Yemen could move into Oman and Saudi Arabia and cause problems. The second, greater danger concerns energy security - piracy and terrorist attacks on tankers and shipping lanes in the Gulf.

"This is a risk to Gulf countries' main economic lifelines," Mr Wright said. Last week a statement from al Qa'eda in Yemen urged "the citizens of the Arabian Peninsula to face the Crusader's campaign and their agents - by attacking military bases, embassies and intelligence, and the existing fleets in the waters of the Arabian peninsula and the surrounding territory". Still, Mr Wright said, the danger to embassies, major corporations and other foreign interests within Gulf countries is minimal. "The GCC countries have very effective internal security mechanisms."

Another Gulf analyst disagreed. "Of course, the threat is always there," said Riad Kahwaji, director of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. "Al Qa'eda has made that clear - its threat to Gulf countries and western assets here is long-standing." Less clear is how the region and the international community should handle the problem of Yemen. To prevent internal attacks, Mr Khawaji advised Gulf nations to improve their intelligence gathering and co-operation and enhance border control and security systems.

Even more vital is attacking the problem at its roots. "Gulf countries need to be using all their political strength to pressure the Yemeni government to be more engaging politically, with political reforms and national dialogue with all the parties in order to certify national unity," Mr Kahwaji said. GCC countries have in recent years provided tens of millions of dollars in aid to Yemen. After the failed attack in Detroit, the United States doubled its counterterrorism aid, to $140m per year. Yet it has been providing counter-terror assistance to Yemen since the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, to little effect. In 2006, international donors pledged nearly $5bn to turn Yemen around, but a lack of coordination has undermined those efforts.

Mr Wright said he was optimistic about an upcoming aid conference on Yemen scheduled for the end of this month in London. "That's where the solutions are going to be discussed and fleshed out." dlepeska@thenational.ae