WASHINGTON, March 11—Western policy makers are scrambling to respond decisively to Yemen’s instability after the failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S. passenger jet was tied to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But there are limits to how much foreign intervention can accomplish—Yemen’s political system needs to become less centralized and more inclusive, concludes a new paper by Sarah Phillips.

Key Conclusions:

  • Although it is feared that Yemen’s collapse could usher in a Taliban-style regime and create a haven for al-Qaeda, the regime’s failure would not necessarily be a win for the militants. Al-Qaeda arguably benefits more from Yemen’s weak state.
  • Even though there are areas in Yemen that lack formal state control, this does not mean that they are ungoverned—there are local mechanisms that maintain a level of order. Al-Qaeda is trying to present itself as an alternative to the regime, but as it grows stronger and seeks control of more territory, it risks competing with local tribes.
  • Al-Qaeda’s goal of establishing an international caliphate, propensity for extreme violence against civilians, and hard-line religious ideology conflict with local norms and weaken al-Qaeda’s appeal to the Yemeni people, including the tribes.

Policy Implications:

  • Western policy makers need to consider the intricacies of Yemen’s domestic politics before responding. Military intervention, like the U.S.-assisted air strikes in December, is likely to further entrench al-Qaeda in the country by inflaming public grievances.
  • Merely increasing development assistance risks reinforcing a regime that is poorly equipped and poorly motivated to effectively distribute aid.

“The establishment of a more stable political settlement is a domestic endeavor, and Westerners’ chances of encouraging a more inclusive political system are questionable,” writes Phillips. “In the long term, only a fundamental restructuring of the political system to become much more inclusive will lead to stability.”



  • Yemen: On the Brink is a new four-part Carnegie series that takes an in-depth look at the daunting challenges facing the country—now a near-perfect haven for al-Qaeda—and recommends how the international community should respond to the civil war in the north, secessionist movement in the south, rapidly dwindling resources, rampant poverty, and a weak and corrupt government. The series follows the groundbreaking September 2009 paper Yemen: Avoiding a Downward Spiral, which detailed the confluence of crises confronting the troubled state.
  • Sarah Phillips lectures at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. She lived and worked in Yemen for nearly four years and specializes in Middle Eastern politics and the politics of state-building. Her recent book Yemen’s Democracy Experiment in Regional Perspective (2008) was published by Palgrave Macmillan. Small sections of this paper were published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy in “Al-Qa’ida, Tribes and Instability in Yemen” (with Rodger Shanahan), 2009.
  • The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, socio-political, and strategic interests in the Arab world to provide analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region.

  • The Carnegie Middle East Center based in Beirut, Lebanon, aims to better inform the process of political change in the Middle East.
  • Carnegie's Arab Reform Bulletin offers a monthly analysis of political and economic developments in Arab countries.