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Yemen on the brink of collapse

FOUR years on from the last London conference on Yemen, the country’s problems have only got worse.

Its government is dealing with a rebellion in the north of the country; growing unrest in the south; and the threat from al-Qaeda’s regional offshoot.
Not to mention dire poverty, a population explosion and dwindling oil and water resources.
Yemen is a failing state that threatens not just to implode but also to explode, exporting instability to the wider region and beyond.
It was of course the failed bomb attempt on a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit on Christmas Day that pushed Yemen higher up the international agenda.
The would-be bomber had spent time in Yemen and the British and US authorities believe that he was radicalised there.
The fear is that if Yemen does collapse then it could provide a haven for Islamist extremists, much like Afghanistan in the years before 9/11.
The magnitude of Yemen’s problems is extraordinary. Consider just a few statistics.
It is the Middle East’s poorest country. In global terms its per capita income is ranked by the World Bank as 166th out of 174 countries.
More than half its people live in poverty and its overwhelmingly young population is growing at an unsustainable 3, 2% per year.
Oil resources are dwindling — its main source of revenue. And water supplies are also a critical problem exacerbating poor agricultural yields and land ownership problems.
One meeting cannot solve Yemen’s multi-faceted crisis.
However the hope was that Wednesday’s London gathering — lasting barely two hours — could set a new course.
Speaking at the end of the meeting, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear that Yemen’s problems could not just be seen through the prism of counter-terrorism.
“Progress against violent extremists and progress towards a better future for the Yemeni people will depend upon fortifying development efforts,” she said.
Clinton stressed that Yemen’s sovereignty would be respected, but underlined that bringing stability to Yemen was now “an urgent US national security priority”.
After the last London meeting on Yemen in 2006, very little of the pledged money actually reached Yemen. Donors were unconvinced that it would actually be put to any useful purpose.
While this was not a pledging conference, there are some grounds to hope that after this meeting, future funds will be put to a useful purpose.
For one thing, the Yemeni government came to the meeting with a 10-point reform plan.
The secretary of state described it as “brutally honest” — a good sign — but Yemen would now be expected to deal with its problems, notably corruption and poor governance.
Asked where this meeting broke new ground, Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who chaired the conference, said there was now a structured and systematic engagement with the country.      
A new grouping — the Friends of Yemen — had been established which would meet regularly, he said.
Miliband echoed many of his US counterpart’s comments, arguing that this was “a genuinely comprehensive approach” and that there was “a clear linkage between economic, social, and security issues and democratic reform”.
For all the hopes of financial support from the IMF, improvements in governance and anti-corruption measures, security is going to remain a critical problem.
Yemen’s small coastguard is to be bolstered and the close intelligence and counter-terrorist relationship with the US is set to continue.
But the clear message from London is that resolving internal violence and fighting al-Qaeda must go hand in hand with domestic reform.
Regional players like Saudi Arabia will have a key role. So too will other Gulf states who plan to hold a new donors’ conference next month.
The new Friends of Yemen grouping will meet in late-March.
The international interest is there, at least for now, but the Yemeni government will have to deliver on its own reform plans if it is to secure the sustained international help that it so badly needs.

Jonathan Marcus is a diplomatic correspondent for BBC News.

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