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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Yemen: Background and U.S. Relations

Jeremy M. Sharp
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs

Unrest in the Arab world has amplified existing political tension in Yemen. Sustained mass protests and President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s attempts to preempt a broad crisis with concessions have concentrated U.S. and international attention on the daunting array of political and development challenges facing Yemen. President Saleh now faces senior level defections from his regime and his departure may be imminent. Congress and U.S. policymakers may be concerned with prospects for stabilizing Yemen and establishing strong bilateral relations with future Yemeni leaders.

With limited natural resources, a crippling illiteracy rate, and high population growth, some observers believe Yemen is 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 112
th Congress are left to grapple with the consequences of Yemeni instability.

Over the past several fiscal years, Congress has appropriated an average of $20 million to $25 million annually for Yemen 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. For FY2012, the Administration has requested $115.6 million in State Department/USAID-administered economic and military aid.

As President Obama and the 112
th Congress reassess U.S. policy toward the Arab world, the opportunity for improved U.S.-Yemeni ties exists, though tensions persist over counterterrorism cooperation and the political uncertainty prevailing in Yemen may raise questions about the nature and intentions of Yemen’s government if serious political change occurs. 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.

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: May 4, 2011
Number of Pages: 52
Order Number: RL34170
Price: $29.95

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