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.

Map: Yemen

Map of Yemen
Map of Yemen showing current governorate boundaries and former North/South boundary.

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.”