The Saleh regime and the need for reform [Archives:2008/1125/Local News]

January 28 2008

Dr. Robert D. Burrowes
Yemen's economy and society are in danger of collapsing in as few as several years. The regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has demonstrated clearly since the mid-1990s that it lacked the will and capacity to adopt the major economic and political reforms needed to reverse this descent. Specifically, after a good start from 1995 through 1997, it failed to implement the International Monetary Fund and World Bank package of structural reforms and aid designed to attract the domestic and foreign investment required to replace the remittance economy that had fueled growth in the 1970s and 1980s.

Lack of Will

The evidence for this lack of will and capacity was overwhelming in 2004, as well as in 2006: The Yemeni economy, now so dependent on the state, modest oil revenues and outside donors, has not created enough jobs and income to keep up with the rapid growth in population, with the result that the alarming levels of unemployment, poverty and malnutrition have remained as high or higher than they were a decade ago; the once-promising middle class has been pauperized and has shrunk, and the gap between the rich few and the many poor has grown much wider and more visibly so; and, finally, the education, health and other social service systems are worse than they were, qualitatively and quantitatively, and are now close to being dysfunctional.

For a growing majority of the people, life has become a struggle just to make ends meet and a sense of despair and hopelessness is pervasive and growing. Longer term and more intractable, Yemen's small and finite reserves of oil and water are rapidly being depleted. Aquifers in densely populated regions are being tapped at a rate that far exceeds that of their being recharged, and known oil reserves will probably be exhausted before 2020. As water and oil go down, the population goes up, driven by one of the highest birthrates in the world.

Regime Composition

The evident lack of the will and capacity for reform can be traced to the composition of Yemen's political regime and the nature of its state. The trappings and beginnings of democracy notwithstanding, the ROY is still best described as an oligarchy, an example of rule by the few. Most of the relatively small number of persons and families who get the most of what there is to get)be it political power, economic well-being, good health or high social status)come from the northern highlands of old North Yemen. They have either or both strong tribal and military (or security) connections.

To the military-tribal complex of the late 1960s and 1970s was added a northern commercial-business element after 1980. Political power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of these sheikhs, officers and northern businessmen in the 1980s; this trend accelerated after the war of secession in 1994 eliminated or weakened politicians from the old South Yemen and their Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). These oligarchs rule through their tribal and military or security positions and connections, and these are more important than the offices or titles they have in government or in the president's party, the General People's Congress (GPC).

Late in the same decade in which the current regime crystallized)the 1980s)the Yemeni state became the recipient of oil revenues as well as increased economic aid from abroad. The state quickly, and for the first time, became a principal source of wealth and private gain for the well-placed and fortunate few. As a result, the system has evolved largely into a special variant of oligarchy, a kleptocracy)i.e., government of, by and for the thieves. The occupants of key government posts and offices through which flow revenues and development aid have been able to enrich themselves, usually at the expense of development and other policy goals. They have used their positions in the state “profit centers”)to extract a price for the rendering of services or granting of permission, thereby increasing the cost of government and development. The associates, friends and relatives of occupants of key posts and offices are also enriched in this manner, the reaping of riches being a matter of connection as well as location.


The degree of corruption, not just the fact of it, is key to an understanding of contemporary Yemen. Graft, bribery and other forms of thievery pervade the system at all levels of a steeply sided pyramid of patronage. At the broad base of this pyramid are the hundreds of thousands of employees of the government and the military who are paid extremely low salaries and have to take petty bribes)have to “eat money”)in order to barely make ends meet. Perhaps the most visible measures of this corruption high up the pyramid are the growing number of high-end SUVs and new villas)some virtual castles)on the outskirts of Sanaa, the capital, most of which are owned by high government officials receiving modest salaries.

A nouveau aristocracy of sheikhs, officers and businessmen has been born with its own set of motives and values and its newness is masked by a pervading, unquestioning sense of entitlement. The second generation of this aristocracy is now slipping silently into key positions and is even less doubtful of its entitlement. This small part of the total population is on the take, and without apology; an even smaller part senses that this cannot last much longer, and that they must get as much as they can while the getting is still good. These are the kleptocrats of contemporary Yemen. They regard oil revenues and aid from donors in terms of, first, enrichment of self and associates and, only secondly if at all, in terms of public policy and the public good.

Arrested Statehood

Yemen also suffers from what might be described as arrested statehood, a legacy of the recent political history of North Yemen. The Hamid al-Din imamate, in place from the early twentieth century until the 1962 Revolution, did not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in its territory, whether for the purpose of maintaining internal order and providing defense or for the purpose of realizing other goals; nor did the imamate have instruments of coercion)army and police)that were subservient to it and readily available for use in its pursuit of order, defense and other goals.

In this regard, the old description of the Hashid and Bakil tribal confederations as “the wings of the imamate” is suggestive. The major tribes and their leaders conceived of themselves, and were conceived by others, as outside and not in or under the imamate, not subject to or “subjects” of it. They often acted accordingly, and were able to use their armed tribesmen sometimes to support and protect the imamate and sometimes to contain or oppose it in defense of their perceived tribal interests.

North Yemen's first-generation modernists were prevented by events after the 1962 Revolution from creating the modern state to which they aspired. The several-year civil war between the republicans and the royalists in the 1960s diverted the modernists from the task of state building, and the reconciliation that ended it in 1970 determined that the republic would be a conservative one. It would preserve much of the traditional order, political as well as socio-cultural; in particular, it would assure a prominent role for the tribal leaders and the tribal system. The Saleh regime that came to power in 1978, crystallized over the 1980s, and continues to govern Yemen reflects this history. As a result, the ROY today in vital ways is still more like the old imamate than like a modern state. Even in 2006, the state is severely limited in terms of what it has the power and authority to do and where it can do it.

This arrested statehood is both cause and effect of the predominantly tribal-military regime that remains firmly in place today. It suited and helped make possible the maintenance of this group in power for a quarter-century. In turn, this group has used its power to oppose and minimize further efforts at state building, especially those that require the reining in of rampant corruption and incompetence.

Restructuring the regime

Given these salient features of Yemeni politics and the Yemeni state, it seems that the coalition of groups that comprises the regime has to be quickly reoriented, reconstituted or replaced in order to increase its will and capacity to effect the socioeconomic reforms that were so urgently needed. The goal has to be a ruling coalition more able, if only for the sake of survival, to act in terms of its enlightened self-interest. Perhaps the regime as currently constituted could not be reoriented or replaced by one means or another. If so, then regime elements resolutely opposed to the needed reforms would have to be deleted somehow from the coalition and opposition elements that are credible partners would have to be added to the regime in order to broaden its base and maintain its political viability.

It seems that if the regime was not quickly reoriented, reconstituted or replaced, then Yemen is at risk of imminent political collapse. Unable to deliver on the wants and needs of most of the people, support and legitimacy are already declining steeply. Underway for nearly a decade, this process had accelerated over the past few years. As a result, the fragile Yemeni state is already a failing state)and it risked becoming a failed state in the next several years. If the state did fail, then the country could quickly slide into anarchy (Somalia) or civil war (Lebanon). Under these circumstances, Yemen could become an arena in which transnational revolutionary Islam becomes a serious contender for power, as was the Taliban in Afghanistan beginning in 1994.

Dr. Burrowes is adjunct professor (retired) at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. He is the author of “Yemen: Political Economy and the Effort against Terrorism,” in Robert I. Rotberg, (ed.), Battling Terrorism in the Horn of Africa (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press/World Peace Foundation, 2005); “The Famous Forty and Their Companions: North Yemen's First-generation Modernists and Educational Emigrants,” The Middle East Journal (Winter 2005); Historical Dictionary of Yemen, the Scarecrow Press, Inc (September 1995); “The Other Side of the Red Sea and a Little More: The Horn of Africa and the Two Yemens,” in David A. Korn, Steven R. Dorr and Neysa M. Slater, (eds.), The Horn of Africa and Arabia (Washington, DC: Defense Academic Research Support Program, December 1990), and; The Yemen Arab Republic: The Politics of Development, 1962-1986 (Boulder, CO., 1987).