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Monday, November 15, 2010

Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations

Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

With limited natural resources, a crippling illiteracy rate, and high population growth, Yemen faces an array of daunting development challenges that some observers believe make it at risk for becoming a failed state. In 2009, Yemen ranked 140 out of 182 countries on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, a score comparable to the poorest sub- Saharan African countries. Over 43% of the population of nearly 24 million people lives below the poverty line, and per capita GDP is estimated to be between $650 and $800. Yemen is largely dependent on external aid from Persian Gulf countries, Western donors, and international financial institutions, though its per capita share of assistance is below the global average.

As the country’s population rapidly rises, resources dwindle, terrorist groups take root in the outlying provinces, and a southern secessionist movement grows, the Obama Administration and the 111
th Congress are left to grapple with the consequences of Yemeni instability. Traditionally, U.S.-Yemeni relations have been tepid, as the lack of strong military-to-military partnership, trade relations, and cross cultural exchanges has hindered the development of close bilateral ties. During the early years of the Bush Administration, relations improved under the rubric of the war against Al Qaeda, though Yemen’s lax policy toward wanted terrorists and U.S. concerns about governance and corruption have stalled large-scale U.S. support.

Over the past several fiscal years, Yemen has received on average between $20 million and $25 million annually in total U.S. foreign aid. In FY2010, Yemen is receiving $58.4 million in aid. The Defense Department also is providing Yemen’s security forces with $150 million worth of training and equipment for FY2010. For FY2011, the Obama Administration requested $106 million in U.S. economic and military assistance to Yemen.

As President Obama and the 111
th Congress reassess U.S. policy toward the Arab world, the opportunity for improved U.S.-Yemeni ties is strong, though tensions persist over counterterrorism cooperation. In recent years, the broader U.S. foreign policy community has not adequately focused on Yemen, its challenges, and their potential consequences for U.S. foreign policy interests beyond the realm of counterterrorism.

The failed bomb attack against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 once again highlighted the potential for terrorism emanating from Yemen, a potential that periodically emerges to threaten U.S. interests both at home and abroad. Whether terrorist groups in Yemen, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have a long-term ability to threaten U.S. homeland security may determine the extent of U.S. resources committed to counterterrorism and stabilization efforts there. Some believe these groups lack such capability and fear the United States might overreact; others assert that Yemen is gradually becoming a failed state and safe haven for Al Qaeda operatives and as such should be considered an active theater for U.S. counterterrorism operations. Given Yemen’s contentious political climate and its myriad development challenges, most long-time Yemen watchers suggest that security problems emanating from Yemen may persist in spite of increased U.S. or international efforts to combat them.

Date of Report: November 1, 2010
Number of Pages: 41
Order Number: RL34170
Price: $29.95

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