Yemen on the Brink

By Abdulwahab Alkebsi & Christopher Boucek

Yemen's stability and security situation is rapidly deteriorating, and its potential implosion will have a dramatic impact on neighboring states, the region and the international community. Central to the issue is the creeping and destructive plague of corruption.

Yemen is rarely in the news unless linked to events such as last week's attack on British diplomats, the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009 or the just past 10-year anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole. These dramatic - but infrequent - events obscure the more obvious and in some ways more important story of Yemen.

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The country faces an astonishing confluence of unprecedented challenges: violent extremism, economic collapse, a looming water shortage and a growing secessionist movement. Any one of these challenges, if left unaddressed, could overwhelm any government. Unless appropriate steps are taken, Yemen risks becoming a failed state and a training ground for terrorism - and its problems could quickly envelop the entire region.

Economic growth in Yemen stagnates because of corruption, which wastes vital resources, time, and human capabilities. The many conflicts in Yemen are not solely based on tribal or religious issues, but rather a lack of development and neglect. Adding to that, a looming economic crisis threatens to destabilize the state. The government's ability to provide basic services is thwarted at every turn: petroleum reserves are running out with few options for a sustainable post-oil economy; limited water resources are consumed faster than they can be replenished; and the rapidly expanding population suffers from endemic poverty and places an increasing burden on the country.

Underlying these challenges is rampant corruption, amid allegations that almost 30 percent of government revenue is never deposited in government accounts. Historically, the central government has faced fierce resistance in expanding its authority and presence, as the Yemeni people associate it with corruption, cronyism, nepotism and thwarted economic and social opportunities. To address the serious and continuing problem of government graft, the country will need to institute transparent taxation, sweeping judicial reforms to establish fair prosecutions and greater public access to information.

Addressing corruption is not only about going after the biggest offenders or the grandest schemes, but rather it must address systemic abuses in all institutions. Combating corruption must be a central part of any strategy to reduce instability and improve the everyday lives of Yemeni citizens.

In addition to the damage corruption causes in the political and social fabric of Yemeni society, it takes an enormous toll on economic growth and development. When corruption occurs in agencies where identification cards and passports are issued, Yemenis are prevented from working in the Gulf countries and sending remittances back home because there is no confidence in the authenticity of these documents. Foreign businesses avoid investing in Yemen if they have no assurance that documentation is valid and legal, contracts cannot be enforced, and there is no rule of law to adjudicate land disputes. On the domestic side, bribes demanded from Yemeni small business-owners waste resources that could otherwise be spent to expand business activity and create new jobs.

During the recent meeting to prepare for the Friends of Yemen ministerial meeting in February 2011, participants committed to addressing political, economic and governance reforms. This is a pivotal moment to advance momentum for real reform and focus on fighting against corruption. Such initiatives should include simplifying economic regulations and eliminating contradictions between laws, reforming and simplifying the tax system, clearly defining the authorities of civil servants by specifying their duties by law, ensuring enforcement of contracts and property rights, and enhancing the rule of law to protect individual rights and rights of the business community.

As a step in the right direction, the government of Yemen has taken the initiative to use new awareness-raising tools such as a recently-produced film on corruption in Yemen to educate state employees about the economic impact of corruption, bribery and forgery. Further efforts like this one, on a sustained and intensive basis, are needed to make a significant impact.

Work with local partners and government agencies is essential to challenge the perception that corruption is an inevitable part of Yemeni daily life and to spark dialogue on policy reform that will reduce opportunities for corruption. The government of Yemen understands the issue can no longer be ignored and is willing to engage in developing strategies to fight corruption. The international community has an important role to play in leveraging its influence to press the Yemeni government for serious reform to increase accountability. Partnership between international allies, the government of Yemen and civil society is necessary to make real progress in combating corruption and to advance Yemen's development.

Abdulwahab Alkebsi is the regional director for the Africa and the Middle East and North Africa for the Center for International Private Enterprise. Christopher Boucek, Ph.D, is an associate in the Carnegie Middle East program.

 

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