Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral

Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral
If the Yemeni central government cannot fully control its territory, violent extremists will have a space to regroup and launch new attacks. Yemen's problems potentially threaten the region and the international community.
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A confluence of looming challenges—economic ruin, an emerging water shortage, violent extremism, and a growing secessionist movement—threaten to overwhelm the Yemeni government, provide a breeding ground for terrorists, and destabilize the region. Yemen has survived past crises but the current risks are unprecedented in their scope and interconnectivity, warns a new paper by Christopher Boucek.

Key Conclusions:

  • There are increasing indications that al-Qaeda is regrouping in Yemen. Recent counterterrorism measures in Saudi Arabia have forced extremists to seek refuge elsewhere, with a steady flow relocating to Yemen’s under-governed areas.
  • The ceding of authority by the weak central government to local government has proved counterproductive by limiting control over volatile under-governed territories.
  • The security situation is rapidly deteriorating. Fighting with Shi’i rebels in north Yemen has strained the army, and Yemen is unable to protect its coast from the recent surge in piracy.
  • The poorest in the Arab world, with unemployment at 35 percent, Yemen’s economy has been severely effected by the dramatic fall in oil prices and has few sustainable post-oil, economic options.
  • Yemen is running out of water. Rising domestic consumption, poor water management, corruption, the absence of resource governance, and wasteful irrigation techniques are creating frequent and widespread shortages.
  • Yemen’s lack of food and water is complicated by the population’s dependence on qat, a quick-cash crop that requires heavy irrigation to thrive. Farmers devote so much land to qat production that Yemen is now a net food importer.


  • Yemen must build local capacity in law enforcement and its legal and judicial systems by enacting counterterrorism legislation, passing terror finance laws, improving police training, and professionalizing the prison service.
  • The Gulf states should make Yemen’s membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council contingent on tough steps, including progress on curbing government subsidies, addressing corruption, and enacting measures to curtail security concerns.
  • U.S. aid to Yemen is disproportionately small given its importance to U.S. national security. Development assistance, education and technical cooperation, capacity building, institution strengthening, and direct financial assistance can better address the interconnected challenges facing Yemen than military and security aid.

Boucek concludes:

“If left unaddressed, Yemen’s problems could potentially destabilize Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. The inability of the Yemeni central government to fully control its territory will create space for violent extremists to regroup and launch attacks against domestic and international targets. The international community must be realistic about the limitations of intervention in Yemen. In the near term, however, inaction is not an option.”


End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


Terrorism Out of Weak States

In Fact



of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.


of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.


charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.


thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.


of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.


trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.


of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.


of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.


of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.


of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.


U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.


of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.


million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.


of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.


of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.


of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.


of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.


of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.


of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.


million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3


now needs urgent assistance.


political parties

contested India’s last national elections.


of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.


of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.


of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.


of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.


billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.


billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.


increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.


billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.


of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.



were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

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