Yemen: Failure or Democracy [Archives:2005/905/Reportage]

December 22 2005

Jane Novak

Ahmed Al-Rabei recently described the worst case for Yemen as, “an Afghan scenario and a civil war that will spread to the borders of GCC countries.” Al-Rabei, a columnist for Alsharq Alwasat, wrote with great affection for the Yemeni people of his concern for the future of Yemen. Al-Rabei is not alone in his assessment of an uncertain future for Yemen. A variety of international organizations and reports have highlighted increasingly dysfunctional Yemeni institutions and governance.

Transparency International has noted widespread and growing corruption, ranking Yemen near the bottom of the corruption scale. The qualification assessment for the US funded Millennium Challenge Account determined the Yemeni regime has moved backwards from previous assessments. In the 2005 round, Yemen failed all six “ruling justly” indicators. It failed three of the four indicators of “investing in people.” As a result, Yemen did not qualify for substantial US developmental funding. The World Bank recently cut Yemen's funding by 34% due to corruption. Christiaan Poortman, World Bank Vice President, noted at a press conference that the regime's performance indicators fell markedly.

Yemen is ranked eight on the Fund for Peace's “Failed State Index.” The goal of the Fund for Peace (FFP) is the prevention of war, and the Failed State Index analyses states in terms of the potential for state failure, whether from implosion, explosion, or erosion, with the hope of averting violent crisis. Yemen exhibits many symptoms of a failing state. In the FFP analysis, Yemen scored lower (more stable) in terms of social indicators and was ranked higher on economic and political indicators. An analysis of the methodology used by the Fund for Peace reveals how the Yemeni state is increasingly distorted by the concentration of power.

Uneven Development

One of the two standard economic predictors of state failure is “uneven development,” defined as “group based inequality, and/or impoverishment.” Yemen scored high on this criterion.

The 1990 unification of “republican” North Yemen, headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh since 1978, with the formerly Marxist South Yemen brought Yemenis together under one flag. The basis of unification was power sharing between the two former states through a democratic multi-party system held in check by a free press. A brief civil war in 1994 was won by the military domination of Saleh's northern forces. Saleh retained and consolidated his control of the nation during the next ten years.

Today, discriminatory state policies threaten the stability of Yemen. Large numbers of Southerners have been forced into early retirement. Biased hiring practices in the civil services and military have resulted in widespread unemployment in the former South Yemen. A large amount of land and property has been confiscated from rightful owners. With an unequal application of the law, little legal redress is available to the victims. The preponderance of military bases and checkpoints throughout the south and monitoring by security forces give some Southerners a sense of being “a crushed minority.”

Although many natural resources are located in the South, a reduced allocation of public funds leaves the region awash in poverty. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of homeless citizens and citizens whose only resort is begging for sustenance. Those who define the grievances of the Southern minority in the public sphere are labeled by the regime as separatists, traitors, and guilty of treason. The al-Thoury newspaper, mouthpiece of the Socialist party representing many Southerners, has been a repetitive victim of the regime's deployment of the legal system as a tool of repression.

It is worth noting that USAID has reported that half of Yemen's children nationally are physically stunted from chronic malnutrition. There are at least 35,000 street children in Yemen and 326,000 children in the work force, a phenomenon attributed to extreme poverty, as is the increase of child trafficking.

Criminalization of the State

One political indicator in the Fund for Peace's assessment of the potential failure of the Yemeni government is the “criminalization and delegitimization of the state,” defined as massive state corruption and crimes syndicates associated with the elite. Often accompanying this phenomenon, according to the FFP, is resistance to accountability, transparency and representation.

Elite run criminal enterprises in Yemen include wide scale weapons trafficking, diesel smuggling, drug smuggling, and human trafficking.

The Central Organization for Controlling and Audit (COCA) in 2004 documented 68 cases of corruption totaling (YR) billions in the theft of public funds. The COCA report documented corruption by government authorities, the oil and mineral ministry, the electricity ministry, and the ministry for local administration. There were no prosecutions. For the first half of 2005, COCA has listed 55 cases, resulting in financial losses exceeding YR 3 billion, (15 million US). Corruption in governmental agencies has previously been reported exceeding 9 million US annually.

In an encouraging turn of events, the governor of Mahweet, despite strong pressures contrary, decided that eight education officials should be charged for the alleged embezzlement of nine million riyals. This is one of the first corruption prosecutions of high government officials in recent history.

Public funds do not receive a transparent accounting. While oil revenues account for 75% of national income, the proceeds from oil sales are not accounted for publicly. One parliamentarian observed that the 2006 budget estimates oil revenues with a sale price of USD 40, while “the average cost of one barrel is USD 57.” The central authority requested and received a budget increase of 43% in December 2005 for the fiscal year. A parliamentarian said the reason the increase was necessary was “luxurious cars, high per-diem travel allowances, financial awards and aid packages to government officials on the expense of the public.”

Deterioration of Public Services

A second political indicator of possible state collapse is “progressive deterioration of public services,” in essential areas like security, health, sanitation, transportation, and education services. In a typical failing state, the FFP notes, state mechanisms “narrow” to function only in areas that serve the ruling elites (security forces, presidential staff, central bank, diplomatic service, customs and collection agencies.)

An analysis of Yemen 2006 budget shows the regimes priority is neither development nor services, but military spending, an area dominated by Saleh's relatives. In the budget for 2006, the electric sector is allocated YR 27 billion, which constitutes a decrease of almost 60% from last year's budget, although electricity is not yet available in most rural areas and the urban population faces rolling black outs.

The increase in funds for education in the 2006 budget barely covers new enrollment. The 2006 budget makes no allocation for the one million children not in school or for the upgrading of schools. (Some schools in reality are tents or shacks.) First grade enrollment was 56% in 2003. Yemen has the highest rate of illiteracy in the Middle East at 51%, which includes 74% of women.

Defense and security spending, already comprising a large portion of public funding, is increased in the 2006 budget more than 50% from last year. Military expenditures for 2005 were four times the amount spent on health care. Yemen is at the bottom of all Arab countries in health spending and has only 2 medical doctors for every 10,000 Yemeni citizens. In rural areas, infant mortality is over 8%.

In addition to the deficiency in the basic services of medical care and education, the Yemeni public suffers health consequences from the lack of clean water and sanitation systems. A parliamentary report noted that 55,000 children die each year from water related diseases. An Environmental Protection Agency report indicated sewage service is available to half of urban dwellers and 17% of rural dwellers. In rural areas, where the majority of the population resides, 75% or more do not have ready access to clean water.

Terrorizing the Opposition

A third standard political symptom of a failing state is when state supported security forces “terrorize political opponents, suspected 'enemies,' or civilians seen to be sympathetic to the opposition.” The Fund for Peace ranks Yemen high on this criterion as well.

Gulf States News noted in its December newsletter that the Political Security Organization, which reports directly to President Saleh, “has long carried out direct actions, including the harassment of journalists and political opponents.” 2005 has seen a marked increase in the number of attacks on non-governmental journalists, drawing strong protests from numerous journalist and human rights organizations and some governments. Yemeni journalists have been kidnapped, stabbed, beaten, threatened, and hauled into court in unprecedented numbers. Journalists report their cell phones have been stolen and the numbers run in an apparent attempt to discover their sources.

The population of Yemen's prison system includes children, hostages, regime critics and their relatives. Some citizens are imprisoned without charges, or held in prison for longer than their sentence requires. Women prisoners are reported to face degrading treatment. One of the regime's retribution tactics is kidnapping younger siblings of opponents including human rights workers, journalists, and minority advocates. Recent regime kidnapping victims range in age from 12 to14. Several reports indicate that Yemen's political security prisons use torture techniques that affect the nervous system of prisoners, causing paralysis or palsy.

The judiciary, headed by President Saleh, also acts as a tool of terror. Fuad al-Shahari wrote in a letter to Amnesty International, “I never expected that I will be tortured, witnesses will be threatened and the documents will be forged.” His execution, ordered by a commercial court, was carried out in November. The trial and death sentence of Yahya al-Dailami is viewed by much of Yemeni civil society as politically motivated. Amnesty International has labeled al-Dailami a prisoner of conscience and recently appealed to President Saleh to release him unconditionally.

Gulf State News has noted the regime's use of “some irregular units of former jihadists” which indicates “a return to Yemen's predilection for the use of Salafyist proxies.” Previously used by Saleh in the 1994 civil war against Southern Socialists, who were fatwa-ed and described as apostates, these irregular forces have been deployed recently against a band of Zaidi (Shiite) “rebels” and against the wider Zaidi civilian population in the northern Sa'ada region of Yemen. The al-Shoura newspaper, a prominent defender of civilians in Saada, has been prohibited from publishing and a clone newspaper issues in its place.

A Factionalized Elite

A fourth political predictor of a failed state is what the FFP calls “the emergence of a factionalized elite,” or the “fragmentation of ruling elites and state institutions along group lines.”

The structure of the elite in Yemen has President Saleh at its head. Power and privilege descends through his immediate family. The leadership of the military and security forces is in the hands of the close relatives of President Saleh including his son, his nephew, and other relatives and extreme loyalists. Elite designation also spreads from Saleh through members of his tribe. (It is equally worthwhile to highlight that Yemeni tribes are an important sector of the community, have an inherent democratic component, and valuable tribal institutions are modernizing, as noted in the Yemen Times.) In addition to privilege flowing down from Saleh through members of his family, his tribe, and the military, Saleh is also head of the ruling party, the General People Conference, where patronage is traded for loyalty. Unsurprisingly, the GPC nominated Saleh as its presidential candidate, despite his public pledge to the nation not to run for re-election in order to permit “young blood” into the political system.

Saleh loyalists dominate the business arena in both criminal and legal enterprises and the political arena including the ruling party, the ministries, the parliament, the diplomatic corps, and the official media. Some civil society organizations are actually an extension of the state, although others are not. The leadership of some opposition parties has been co-opted by the regime either willingly through bribery or unwillingly though threats, while other opposition leaders remain steadfast at any cost in their determination to fulfill their representative obligations.

On a positive note, authentic judicial reforms have been made by Justice Minister al-Jaifri despite interference from powerful individuals and systematic under funding. Some members of Parliament, including members of the ruling party, have begun demanding transparency and accountability from the government, criticizing the 2006 budget before its approval by Saleh loyalists who dominate the body.

According to the Fund for Peace, accompanying the emergence of a factionalized elite is often “the rise of nationalistic political rhetoric.” This explains the Yemeni regime's predilection for name calling, insults, fear mongering, and alarmist statements that abound in the state owned news papers, the nation's government run TV station, and President Saleh's speeches. It is typical behavior displayed by failing states.


As Mr. al-Rabei wrote of Yemen, “the reality remains that the worst possible outcome will be disastrous for everyone.” To pull Yemen back from the brink of disaster, “worry is not enough,” al-Rabei writes. The situation is so grave that he believes immediate direct action is warranted. “Persian Gulf countries should adopt a plan similar to the Marshall Plan with regards to Yemen,” Mr. al-Rabei suggests.

As the root cause of the Yemeni crisis is the extreme concentration of executive power, any economic solution must be preceded by the decentralization of political power. “Sanaa needs to realize that no one can be more Yemeni than the Yemenis themselves,” al-Rabei notes. And Yemenis have taken the lead in devising a political and economic reform program.

The Joint Opposition Meeting Parties- the Yemeni Islah Party, the Yemeni Socialist Party, the Nasserite Popular Unionist Organization, the Arab Socialist Nationalist Baath Party, the Popular Forces Union, and the Haq Party- have drafted a workable reform platform, the centerpiece of which calls for the nation's conversion to a Parliamentary system and the empowerment of local governing bodies. Seating power in multiple elected and accountable representatives is a textbook solution and may be the most expedient remedy to address the advanced decay of the Yemeni state. The reform plan goes on to tackle economic and developmental issues. The cause for optimism is the consensus of the ideologically diverse opposition parties to work together for the betterment of the nation.

Predictably, the government labeled the reform plan treasonous. The official government daily, al-Thoura, said those who devised the strategy were guilty of a conspiracy as severe as the separatist conspiracy of the 1994 civil war and that they were terrorizing the population with falsehoods.

Yemenis for 15 years have had a national consensus favoring democracy, a multi-party system, equal rights, and unity. President Ali Saleh has deployed these terms as the foundation of the legitimacy of his regime. As the country trends toward instability, the popular expectation of growing self governance and a range of protected civil liberties has come face to face with a bewildering descent into authoritarianism, chaos, and poverty.

A sense of normalcy has been overcome by a continuing scramble whereby the disenfranchised Yemeni society tries to fill in for the non-existent Yemeni government. Throughout Yemen, teachers are working without pay, women give birth relying on female neighbors, individuals are responsible for their own security and water, and starving people are fed by the extremely poor. The strong and community oriented nature of the Yemeni national character is the greatest bulwark opposing anarchy in Yemen.

Yemen may be on the verge of state failure or it may be on the verge of an authentic, self constructed democracy. One critical factor is whether a broad public consensus and peaceful political mobilization can be achieved in the context of elite domination of the mass media.

Another critical factor is elite reaction should a widespread consensus for change emerge. Over 50 people, including children, died at the hands of security forces during the nationwide, leaderless July protests. The regime blamed “saboteurs in military uniforms” for the violence. Currently the regime is escalating the level of violence against journalists, who deploy only intellect and a pen. Amnesty International has noted the regime's targeting of civilians in the Sa'ada region. The jails are full of prisoners of conscience and identity. As Mr. al-Rabei stated, sisterly and friendly nations have a peaceful and important role to play in supporting the development of Yemen.

Another scenario centers on a peaceful transition of power from the entrenched elite in the 2006 presidential elections. In this scenario, an opposition or non-elite candidate faces extreme disadvantages including the biased election law and electoral budget. But the momentum of a rapidly failing state coupled with rising public dissatisfaction means that a change is coming to Yemen, in one form or another.

Jane Novak ([email protected]) is an American journalist and political analyst.