Yemen: Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution

28th April 2010 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

Yemen recently received a spot in the limelight thanks to the ‘underwear bomber,' a Nigerian national who attempted to blow up a plane bound for the US on Christmas Day and who allegedly received training from Al-Qaeda elements in Yemen. Despite the fact that Yemen has been facing a myriad of challenges for some time now, the country rarely received media attention prior to the failed terrorist attack on the US airliner. People soon caught up though, and the recent confrontations between the Yemeni army and Houthi rebels in the mountainous north of the country - the sixth round of fighting since 2004 - helped to further advertise the country, which is also facing a secessionist movement in the south as well as an oil-based economy in trouble due to Yemen's failure to diversify it.

Whilst much is now said about Yemen's current numerous security problems, less is known about the implications of these challenges for Africa, especially the region of the Horn of Africa (and how in turn challenges in the Horn have impacted on Yemen). Yemen is often analysed from a Middle Eastern or Arab perspective only, whilst its geographical proximity to the Horn of Africa requires the country to be taken into consideration when discussing issues such as migration, piracy, the fight against terrorism and other issues related to security in that region. Yemen is separated from the Horn by the Red Sea but the country's closest point to the Horn, which is with Eritrea, sees a less than 100 kilometre distance between the two countries.

In addition to its geographical proximity to the Horn, Yemen has strong historical ties to the region. The Horn and Yemen have witnessed centuries of cultural exchanges between their peoples as well as strong commercial relations. Yemenis have since long immigrated to countries in the Horn, especially Ethiopia and Djibouti, and vice versa. In more recent times, Yemen was involved in a two-day war with Eritrea over the Hanish Islands, an issue that was resolved by arbitration in 1998. However, Yemen has also played the role of peacemaker in the Horn region, with mediation attempts by President Saleh between Eritrea and Sudan in 1994 and the warring Somali factions more recently. In turn, Yemen was assisted by Eritrean President Afwerki when tensions increased following the unification of North and South Yemen. At present, the countries of Djibouti and Somalia interact with Yemen as members of the League of Arab States and in 2002 Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan initiated the Sana'a Forum for Cooperation. The Forum was later joined by Somalia and Djibouti which has created some apprehension on the part of Eritrea, which remains the odd one out.

In present times, several issues illustrate the importance of the inclusion of Yemen when considering security issues in the Horn. The aforementioned migration has continued, although currently Yemen is more often a recipient than a sender of immigrants. The total number of African immigrants (mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia) in Yemen is estimated at more than 700 000, which increases the pressure on Yemen that has a population of about 23 million, said to double in the next 20 years, of which more than 30 per cent is unemployed. Besides ordinary refugees, elements of various armed opposition movements in the Horn also find their way to Yemen. The Islamic Courts Union, for instance, reportedly regrouped in Yemen after their defeat by Somali government and Ethiopian forces at the end of 2006. In turn, Eritrea reportedly recently welcomed a Houthi rebel leader who required medical attention. Claims that Eritrea is also providing arms to the Houthi rebels cannot possibly be discussed here.

Talking about arms, however, it should be noted that the proliferation of weapons is another crucial threat to security in the Horn. The ready availability of arms in the Horn is well-known. In the case of Yemen, IRIN reported in 2006 that the country faces the circulation of almost 17 million firearms. Arms from the Horn make up a significant amount of goods smuggled into Saudi Arabia via Yemen whilst the Horn in turn receives its fair share of weapons from Yemen. For instance, the Crisis Group reported in mid-2009 that numerous Yemeni army leaders would have requested additional weaponry to fight the Houthi rebels, of which only a few were used for that purpose and many found their way to Somali and other markets in the region.

Piracy is obviously another key issue. Notwithstanding the root causes of piracy, it has become an extremely lucrative business and any attempts to deal with the situation would be in vain if Yemen is not considered, where sympathy for the pirates among certain parts of the population reportedly runs deep. The Yemeni government is said to exercise little control over certain areas in the country, including some parts along its long coastal line, perfect additional operating bases for piracy entrepreneurs.

Last but not least: terrorism is high on the agenda of those looking at the Horn and Yemen. With concerns that Yemen will soon join the list of failed states, terrorism is believed (albeit mistakenly) to become more of a problem in the near future. Key actors are likely to respond by beefing up support for Yemeni security forces, although the country was already designated a ‘front-line state' in the ‘War on Terror' and received significant military financing with little positive results. In actual fact, Yemen is probably the prime example of a country where the ‘War on Terror' completely distorted existing conflict management processes. Nonetheless, opinions on the possibility of already exciting links between Al-Qaeda elements in Somalia and Al-Qaeda elements in Yemen differ significantly but most would agree it is definitely something to monitor.

In sum, Yemen is more a part of the Horn than often acknowledged and policy-makers should reconsider limiting one's Horn of Africa mandate to the conventional members of that region. Unless initiatives aimed at fostering cooperation amongst the Horn countries take Yemen into consideration, at least with regards to some of the security issues, we can expect the Horn's road to stability to be even longer


Written by: Jamila El Abdellaoui, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Addis Ababa Office