At the start of a major donor conference for Yemen in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 4 and 5, reports indicate half of Yemen’s twenty-five million people are on the verge of starvation, suffering a growing food crisis and lack of access to basic services. Despite the availability of food in the market, rising prices, lack of income, and a severe water shortage threaten Yemenis’ abilities to feed themselves and their families. These health concerns are not new in Yemen, but violent conflict throughout the country over the past eighteen months has exacerbated health risks, resulting in thousands of internally displaced persons, damaged infrastructure, and exhorbitant fuel costs.
Yemen’s ongoing political transition remains inextricably linked to the country’s humanitarian crisis. The political upheaval that began in 2011 has aggravated Yemen’s humanitarian situation. The government has struggled to provide security and essential services, while Yemeni oil production—and subsequently government revenue—declined as the revolution took hold of the country. Attacks carried out on Yemeni gas pipelines and electricity towers cost the country billions of dollars in construction and lost production, in addition to the added humanitarian impact of electricity outages. At the same time, when former President Ali Abduallah Saleh was removed from power in November 2011, Yemenis presumed an improvement to their quality of life in immediate and tangible ways. These expectations placed tremendous pressure on the new Yemeni government to deliver at a time when it is the least equipped to do so. Meeting these demands represents a litmus test for the transitional government, which must provide results if it hopes to secure legitimacy.
The humanitarian crisis not only means a loss of dignity and suffering for millions of Yemenis, it also has a concrete impact on the political and security environment. Scarcity of water and food resources, widespread poverty, and extreme levels of unemployment in a population where some eighty percent of individuals are under thirty years old have placed new strains on this system. These strains make young Yemenis more likely to be drawn into extremism and violence, threatening stabililty and progress toward a full political transition. In addition, Nadwa al-Dawsari, former director of Partners Yemen, warned in a recent conversation that the humanitarian situation has undercut the efficacy of Yemen’s historically robust system of tribal governance and conflict resolution.
Given the daunting list of challenges, what should the United States and the international community do amid an unstable political and security environment? The Riyadh meeting this week provides a pivotal opportunity for the international community to discuss ways to mitigate the impact of humanitarian and economic conditions on Yemen’s transition process, and the commitments that emerge from this meeting will be re-affirmed at the Friends of Yemen meeting on September 27 in New York, which will convene top-level representation from the world community on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
In previous Yemen donor conferences, a reticence among major donors to commit and deliver pledged funds surfaced due to the lack of clarity about how the funds would be used and a lack of accountability for disbursed money. The Yemeni government has taken this critique seriously and recognizes it must address donor’s legitimate concerns surrounding incompetence and corruption. To its credit, the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation delivered a comprehensive, two-year plan that details a nearly $14 billion Transitional Program for Stabilization and Development (TPSD) which includes specific initiatives to achieve four major goals: addressing macroeconomic stability, fulfilling urgent humanitarian needs, achieving security and the rule of law, and finalizing the peaceful transfer of power. Notwithstanding the need for stronger mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability for international funds, the two-year plan should instill some greater confidence that the government will invest donor dollars in a coherent way according to a government vision that was developed with input from the Yemeni private sector.
Since the last donors’ meeting in the spring, Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi has taken significant political and security decisions that deserve robust and renewed international support. President Hadi removed several members of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s family from key military positions, appointed some promising governors, transferred military units from both Ahmed Ali Saleh and Ali Mohsen to a (presumably) more neutral presidential guard, initiated the National Dialogue process, and delivered a credible two-year economic plan for the transition. While President Hadi has made some tangible progress, the most difficult economic, political, and security challenges lie ahead – crushing unemployment, continued threats from Al Qaeda and Ansar al Sharia, and continued allegiance to the former president among some in the government and military. Without sufficient financial and political support from the United States, the Europeans, the Gulf states, the United Nations, and others, Yemen’s transition is at risk of faltering.
The US government has played an essential role in supporting Yemen, increasing its assistance to Yemen considerably in recent months ($178 million in non-military aid) and becoming the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen. The UN estimates that it needs $591 million to meet current humanitarian needs in Yemen but has received less than half that amount with its emergency appeals. At the upcoming meetings in Riyadh and New York, the United States should continue its leadership by increasing contributions for humanitarian and emergency support and encourage other partners to do the same. The Obama administration should also increase pressure on Gulf states and other allies to fulfill prior pledges made to the Friends of Yemen and to make new contributions based on the two-year transition plan.
During these meetings on the diplomatic front, the US should make it abundantly clear that it will reject any efforts to undermine or derail the transition process through military or political means and reiterate US readiness to invoke sanctions authorized by President Obama’s June 2012 Executive Order against any actors seeking to obstruct Yemen’s transition to an accountable, democratic government. And, to send a strong signal of American support for Yemen’s political transition process, the US should commit to Secretary Clinton’s presence at the Friends of Yemen meeting on September 27 in New York.
The pressure from thousands of internally displaced persons, influx of refugees, and the lack of access to food, water, fuel, and electricity threatens an already precarious situation. Yet despite a period of crisis and uncertainty facing Yemen, Mohammed Qazilbash, the Mercy Corps country director in Yemen, recently noted that “our challenge is to ensure that that hope is maintained and does not turn into hopelessness,” so that the country may continue to progress towards stability and democracy rather than stagnation. By committing itself to greater support in Riyadh and New York, the United States and other regional partners have an opportunity to instill some of that hope.
Danya Greenfield is the Deputy Director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.