The BBC are reporting that over 10,000 people have taken to the streets in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. After days of smaller protests, increasing numbers are now openly demanding change after years of suffering under President Saleh’s corrupt and repressive government. Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world with over half of its citizens living in poverty. This figure continues to rise as population levels increase and natural resources dwindle. To add insult to injury, the outside world knows little of the country, usually characterizing it as little more than a terrorist stronghold.
Since this will certainly be a place to watch over the coming days, a little bit of background on Yemen’s strategic relationship with the US is in order. Not particularly insightful, but still useful in order to gage the international response when it comes.
As with Egypt, concerns for stability have played a key role in America’s attitudes towards Yemen. In this case, it is the fear of terrorism that has come to define the two countries’ relationship. Unsurprisingly this is the Yemen that has come to dominate headlines: attracting the international spotlight back in 2009 after the discovery that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had moved their operational base to the nationʼs largely unregulated tribal regions, commentators continue to compare these areas to militant strongholds elsewhere in the region, and it is through these optics that our media views the country.
Up until now, the US have tended to support the regime predominantly through military aid, large chunks of which are regularly syphoned off to reinforce efforts to quash domestic opposition. US officials continue to express concerns over accounting for this funding, citing Saleh’s belief that the two internal rebellions it is facing – one in the north and one in the south – pose a greater security threat than AQAP. In practice, however, little has been done to combat this and despite moves over the last 6 months towards a more development-focused strategy, the imbalance in funding continues.
This is not to say that the US failed to push for political reform. Repeated pronouncements on the need for a more open democratic process have indeed been forthcoming, but until now, Washington has been too easily satisfied by cosmetic reforms in place of real political change. Today, Yemen does hold multi-party elections and allows a relatively high level of freedom of expression when compared to other countries in the region. But both of these concessions represent ways in which regime to tighten its control over the country, channelling dissent and co-opting potential opposition. The Obama administration has been unwilling to push Saleh harder over the issue of genuine reform, clearly concerned at what might happen if Saleh, a key ally in the War on Terror, were to lose his already weak grip over a country where the the scars from a difficult unification process have yet to heal. Mindful of the context in which their country has attracted US attention, the president and his inner circle have therefore continued to reuse the American rhetoric of democracy and counterterrorism in order to secure funding and maintain their position at the top.
Given all this, expect strategic concerns to dominate the Obama administration’s reaction to the Sana’a protests. Whilst they may well provide Washington with the impetus to reevaluate their strategy towards Yemen and the wider region, placing greater emphasis on economic and social development, it is unlikely that policymakers will sit back and watch Saleh’s government fall.