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.”