Middle East Notes and Comment: Yemen Matters
April 24, 2018
Yemen Matters: The United States should be looking for smart ways to do more to address Yemen’s crisis, and it should do so now.
Learning Curve: As Morocco navigates a growing immigrant population from sub-Saharan Africa, its classrooms are becoming laboratories for integration strategies.
Event Highlights: The Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen: The CSIS Middle East Program hosted an event in partnership with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda on pathways to address the drivers of Yemen’s humanitarian emergency.
In the Media: Commentary by program scholars on U.S. responses to developments in Syria as well as the Qatar crisis.
Yemen MattersBy Jon B. Alterman
Many Americans want to wash their hands of the Middle East, and Yemen—poor, violent, and torn apart by proxies—would seem like a good place to start. Yet, further U.S. disengagement from Yemen would be a serious mistake. In fact, the United States should be looking for smart ways to do more, and it should do so now.
Yemen has been largely poor for all of living memory. Despite pockets of wealth, most Yemenis have lived isolated and hardscrabble rural existences for centuries. When protests swept the Arab world in 2011, Yemenis’ annual per capita income was the lowest of any Arab state—about $1,300. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was pushed from office after 33 years, and Yemenis were cautiously optimistic that conditions would improve.
Yet, spoilers emerged among those who had held power and those who aspired to it. Soon the transitional government was battling not just the Houthis, a tribally-grounded group in the northern outreaches of Yemen that had been battling Saleh since 2004, but also Saleh and many of his forces, who joined forces with their former Houthi enemies. Several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that had helped to ease Saleh from power came to the aid of the transitional government, but the government quickly lost control of the capital to the insurgents. Iran saw an opportunity to torment the GCC, which it resented for its wealth and close U.S. ties, and it quietly began to send nominal support to the Houthis. As the Saudis strove to repel Houthi advances, they sought and won U.S. military support in refueling, targeting, and logistics. Groups aligned with al Qaeda and the Islamic State group formed and re-formed in conflict-riven areas, making shifting sets of deals with tribal leaders and often drawing direct U.S. military action. Bombs fell, warlords consolidated control, and Yemenis suffered.
Three years on, Yemen remains locked in conflict. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of Yemenis require some sort of urgent humanitarian assistance. Diarrheal diseases are common, diphtheria is spreading, much of the electrical grid has been destroyed, and access to food and clean water is sporadic in many areas.
To some, Yemen is a microcosm of the entire Middle East: long-nurtured hatreds rising to the surface, mixing with an innate brutality and extremism, and fueled by proxy warfare. Rather than wade in, the instinct is to quarantine the conflict and wait for it to burn itself out.
The conflict, however, cannot be quarantined. Yemen lies astride the Bab al-Mandeb, an important shipping lane on the Red Sea that leads to the Suez Canal. Most Asian shipments to Europe pass through it, as do millions of barrels of oil per day.
Terrorism has also seeped out of Yemen, not only when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to attack a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb concealed in his underwear, but also when individuals in Yemen tried to ship bombs concealed in printer cartridge containers in 2010. The terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 2015 had connections to Yemen, and the list goes on. Even when it is relatively disconnected from the world, Yemen is connected enough that terrorists can take advantage of ungoverned space to plan and launch spectacular attacks against the United States and its allies.
Perhaps even more important, Yemen has become a trap for U.S. allies and a playground for U.S. adversaries. Saudi Arabia reportedly spends $5 billion a month on operations in Yemen, while drawing harsh criticism for its seemingly indiscriminate targeting and indifference to human suffering. Iran probably spends less than one percent of that amount supporting the Houthis, taunting the GCC states and reminding them of Iran’s regional power. By most accounts, the Houthis are increasingly rapacious and brutal, which may be a sign of growing desperation.
Yemen’s challenges are difficult, but they are not intractable. The GCC states seem to have internalized that they cannot bomb their way to victory in Yemen, and they recently pledged massive support to UN humanitarian operations—signaling that they will no longer seek to use aid as a political tool. The Houthis seem increasingly hard pressed to manage the areas they control, especially since Saleh defected from (and was then killed by) the Houthi alliance in late 2017. The resultant loss of Saleh-aligned technocrats has hit the Houthis hard. A new and energetic UN envoy has stepped in with an ambitious push to start a broad political dialogue, and a new UN humanitarian coordinator has arrived and enjoys credibility with the main antagonists to the conflict. Some simple things—such as preemptively chlorinating water supplies and replacing damaged sewer bends—can make a large difference quickly, and restoring functioning markets and opening up the flow of supplies will relieve populations and diminish the power of warlords.
Resolving issues in Yemen will take years. A new UN Security Council resolution will be needed that is more closely tailored to the current political landscape, and spoilers will need to be kept at bay. Not only is southern secession an enduring political challenge, but the conflict has also empowered a range of malign actors whose expectations will need to be managed.
What this calls for is not some kind of neo-colonial effort where the United States tries to fix Yemen, as it tried to fix Iraq after decades of Saddam Hussein’s brutality, nor does it call for billions of U.S. aid dollars. What Yemen needs instead is U.S. leadership among like-minded Western allies, GCC partners, and in the UN system. It needs the United States to help forge consensus on promoting a new national dialogue, allowing access to food and medicine, and reconstituting the economy.
No other country can focus attention like the United States, and every country involved in Yemen wants something from the United States. The U.S. government can be a catalyst for change, and the problem may now be ripe for improvement. Ameliorating conditions in Yemen would advance a wide variety of U.S. interests and warrants much more attention than it has gotten.
Learning CurveBy Margo Balboni
In Rabat, two students with French-accented Arabic acted out a storied episode in national history: the 1975 march of hundreds of thousands of citizens to “reclaim” the Western Sahara from Spain. Yet that march is outdistanced by the journeys these students had made—from Cameroon and the Congo—to find themselves on the frontlines of Morocco’s immigration debates. As the kingdom navigates a growing immigrant population, its classrooms are becoming laboratories for integration strategies.
Millions of North Africans have emigrated to Europe for decades, especially to Spain and France. Now, a host of factors have made North Africa a growing destination for migrants, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa. Morocco has gone farthest to integrate newcomers, and it is looking to the education system to weave them into social and economic life.
As the government prepared to “regularize” the status of 25,000 mainly sub-Saharan migrants in 2014, it opened public schools to their children. Officials counted 6,200 enrolled in late 2017. With a Moroccan school population in the millions, the African migrants remain a small minority. In some districts, however, African students are a quite visible presence.
Authorities are working through ways to acculturate young immigrants— designing curricula on Moroccan culture and teaching students Morocco’s many languages: French, formal Arabic, the country’s distinctive spoken Arabic, and even occasionally the Berber Tamazight language.
But educating immigrant children reminds some Moroccans of the ways in which many of their compatriots remained isolated generations after arriving in Europe. An active debate is underway for how to learn the lessons of Moroccan emigrants in Europe when teaching lessons to young African immigrants in Morocco.
This article is part of the CSIS Middle East Program series Mezze: Assorted Stories from the Middle East.
Event Highlights: The Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen
The CSIS Middle East Program hosted an event in partnership with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda on “Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis” on April 5, 2018. International Rescue Committee (IRC) President and CEO David Miliband delivered remarks arguing that Yemen’s humanitarian emergency is both a product and a potential driver of political instability. A subsequent panel analyzed the context for Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and the consequences of its persistence. The participants were Barbara Bodine, director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Peter Salisbury, senior consulting fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, and Abdulrahman al-Eryani, a Yemeni international economist and development specialist. Speakers discussed ways to chart a constructive path forward and warned that the consequences of allowing Yemen to deteriorate would be far-reaching and long-lasting. Get key insights as well as the full event video and transcripts HERE.
In the Media
“The most important thing for a secretary of state is to be perceived as speaking for the president.” Jon Alterman in Bloomberg on questions surrounding Mike Pompeo’s appointment to the chief diplomatic post, 4/23/18.
“Having a desired effect requires not just a strike but a strategy and follow-up and a goal, and I’m not sure all of those pieces have been lined up yet.” Jon Alterman to Fox News on the U.S. response to the chemical attack in Syria, 4/11/18.
Consulting with allies is not President Trump’s “first instinct.” Jon Alterman in The Financial Times on Trump’s move to coordinate a response to the Syria chemical weapons attack, 4/10/18.
“This is precisely the kind of thing where you need a process to make decisions, and this administration has a really hard time with processes.” Jon Alterman in The New York Times on U.S. Qatar policy, 4/9/18.
Given the Syrian opposition groups’ battlefield losses, Saudi Arabia’s and Qatar’s “ability to shape the outcome of the [Syrian] conflict is severely diminished.” Will Todman in Daily Sabah, 4/3/18.