A confluence of looming challenges—rapidly disappearing oil reserves, diminishing water supplies, and a booming, undereducated, and underemployed population—threaten to overwhelm the Yemeni government. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Christopher Boucek warned that while growing Islamic extremism in Yemen is alarming, in the longer term it is the country’s domestic challenges that threaten to bring Yemen to its knees, with potentially destabilizing consequences for the region.
Yemen’s Domestic Challenges:
- Oil: Barring any major new discoveries, energy experts estimate that Yemen’s reserves will be entirely depleted within the next ten years. There are few viable options for a sustainable post-oil economy.
- Water: Shortages are acute throughout the country and Sanaa risks becoming the first capital city in the world to run out of water.
- Qat: A significant amount of Yemen’s water consumption is devoted to the irrigation of qat, a semi-narcotic plant habitually chewed by an estimated 75 percent of Yemeni men. Additionally, so much land is being used for qat cultivation that the country is now a net food importer.
- Unemployment: Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world. The faltering economy and poorly educated workforce have pushed unemployment to 35 percent, on par with the Great Depression in the United States.
- Education: The Yemeni government has been unable to provide adequate education or other public services for the rapidly expanding population. More than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 24 and illiteracy stands at over 50 percent.
U.S. Policy Recommendations:
- Financial Assistance: Provide increased financial assistance to Yemen—not just increased security aid. Such assistance would help prevent state failure, as well as offset the difficult economic choices that need to be made in Yemen as it prepares to transition to a post-oil economy.
- Water Regulation: Help enact a legal regime to govern the use and distribution of groundwater in Yemen. Current rules allow anyone who wants water in Yemen (and can afford to do so) to dig a well, further depleting already limited supplies.
- Agriculture: Encourage the importation of qat from East Africa and help Yemeni farmers transition to growing cereals and other foodstuffs as a way to both curtail water usage and improve nutrition.
- Local Capacity: Support and fund local capacity-building efforts, such as teacher training courses, micro-finance enterprises, and exchange programs for judges, members of parliament, journalists, government workers, and academics to help fill voids left by the limited capacity of the Yemeni state.
- Donor Coordination: Coordinate closely with other donor states to maximize the overall impact of foreign aid.