As the news cameras of the world pan from Tunis to Cairo to Amman, TV anchors breathlessly speculate where the next democracy movement might take off in the Arab world. But the enthusiasm invariably turns to unease when the images jump to footage of chanting, sign-waving demonstrators in Sanaa, capital of the remote country of Yemen. While Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Islamist opposition were sidelined local groups, mostly useful as foils to convince the West to continue to send military aid, in Yemen the equation is different: Al Qaeda's most active branch is located there. As a result, few in the West have much enthusiasm for democracy in Sanaa, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his security services have ruled northern Yemen since 1978 and all of Yemen since 1990.
Saleh has made a career out of arguing that he alone can govern a challenging country like Yemen, combat the country's surging branch of al Qaeda, and prevent the place from exploding. In interviews, Saleh uses a metaphor for his job that invariably beguiles Western interviewers: Governing Yemen is "like dancing on the heads of snakes." And the West has bought the notion that Saleh is its ideal snake-dancer -- especially since al Qaeda's Yemen branch began stepping up attacks against the West, including a late 2009 attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner. Writing in the New York Times on Feb. 5, for example, journalist Victoria Clark made the case for Saleh's competency -- in contrast to Yemen's pro-democracy demonstrators: "Mr. Saleh continues to excel at the business of ruling Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country, a task which he has often unflatteringly likened to 'dancing on the heads of snakes.'" (Clark is the author of a book on Yemen titled, as you might guess, Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes.)
When it comes to Saleh and his regime, however, Clark -- like many Western observers -- confuses "ruling" with "staying in power." Saleh may be maintaining his own presidency, but he has done little to maintain the well-being of his country, which is collapsing. Saleh has taken the most fertile country in the Arab world -- one that should have had enough oil to pay for decades of economic development -- and turned it into a near desert with personal health statistics worse than in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Saleh and his military-based regime are steering the country into a demographic and political minefield, and it's already far beyond their ken to steer out of it. An overnight transition to democracy may not be the answer; but the continued Saleh rule is the opposite of a solution to Yemen's many problems and only makes it more likely that crises -- security-related, economic, political, or all three -- will strike in the future.
The most immediate problem for Saleh is money. Oil exports, which account for more than 60 percent of government revenues, are forecast by the World Bank to run out in as few as six years. Government revenue from oil has already fallen by about half since 2008, and Western diplomats report Yemeni officials slashing all but non-security items in the budget.
Saleh depends on patronage payments and favors to the country's elites to stay in power. And he has no qualms about totally draining the country's resources to do so, as noted in a 2006 USAID corruption study, which finds, among other things, that only 40 percent of tax revenues ever reach the country's treasury. Social spending takes a hit too: Yemen spends the least on public health of any government in the Middle East, and half of even that meager amount is stolen or otherwise wasted, the World Health Organization estimates.
The government's lack of interest in its people is reflected in some of the worst malnutrition and child mortality statistics in the world. Forty percent of the country's people live below the poverty line, meaning that they can't afford to stay fed. Half of the country's children are stunted from malnutrition. More than in any country I've visited, Yemen's endemic hunger makes it easy to tell the haves from the have-nots: Saleh's top men tend to be burly and barrel-chested, while the Yemeni men I met in the streets of Sanaa overwhelmingly seemed to be my height or shorter (I'm 5 foot, 3 inches tall).
The result of the tough conditions is that Yemenis have resorted to an old survival strategy: having lots of babies. Lots and lots of babies. Already, about three-fourths of the country's people are under 30, according to figures compiled by the U.N. Development Program and the Middle East Youth Initiative, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government. (The Middle East and North Africa currently have the highest percentage of people under 30 in the world; Yemen's rate is even higher than the regional averages.) Even as the youth boom has peaked in most of the region, it's still surging in Yemen. Within about the next 20 years, Yemen's overall population of 23 million is slated to double, according to the U.N. Development Program, and the percentage of young people is slated to grow, according to the U.S.-based nonprofit Population Reference Bureau.
At a time when so many workers will be entering the job market, employment will be scarce. Because Yemen's revenues have gone toward enriching the elite rather than developing the country, at least 90 percent of jobs are in agriculture and herding. But because the government was never interested in the mundane chores of governing, the unregulated drilling of water wells for the highly profitable drug khat, a mildly buzz-inducing leaf that is chewed, has surged. As a result, Yemen is predicted to run out of water in as few as 20 years. Experts warn that this potent mixture will provoke, at a minimum, a food and employment crisis.
Ever shortsighted, however, Saleh has just kept on spending. After protests broke out in Yemen over the last several weeks, the president responded by promising to cut taxes, increase subsidies, and increase salaries. All will only worsen the government's economic crisis. Saleh has already had the presses at the country's central banks churn out newly printed money to keep the government afloat.
But then, Saleh always has billed his strong suit as providing security, not providing public services. And the United States sees its overriding concern in Yemen as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, not infant mortality rates. Formed by the 2009 union of the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al Qaeda, the Yemen-based group has since proved the most aggressive branch of the terrorist network in the world. It has attacked Yemen's own security forces and recruited volunteers for repeated attempts on targets of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and others.
Even with al Qaeda in Yemen, however, Saleh and his regime have created the problem, rather than controlled it.
Unlike most Arab governments, Saleh's government welcomed back al Qaeda fighters and other returning jihadists from the Afghan war against the Soviets. Saleh allowed al Qaeda fighters to make their homes in Yemen in what Gregory Johnsen, an expert on al Qaeda in Yemen, calls a "tacit non-aggression pact": Al Qaeda members and leaders could stay in Yemen as long as they didn't attack Yemeni targets, a deal that stuck until the last decade. Saleh's security forces also recruited members of the terrorist group and other jihadists for military campaigns against both northern and southern dissidents in Yemen. He teased U.S. diplomats as late as 2007 with accounts of his latest personal conversations with Jamal al-Badawi, the architect of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
After al Qaeda fighters in Yemen concocted a near-successful plot to blow up a U.S. passenger jet in December 2009, Barack Obama's administration tried to pressure Saleh into cracking down. Saleh's military has since staged splashy raids on a couple of strongholds of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Saleh's government has accepted a doubling of U.S. aid in the name of fighting al Qaeda. But the regime has failed to kill or capture a single al Qaeda leader in the last two years. And WikiLeaked diplomatic cables recount U.S. diplomats sputtering protests after Saleh apparently diverted U.S. military aid intended for the fight against al Qaeda toward his domestic campaign against northern rebels, who have no connection to the terrorist group.
If anything, al Qaeda's surge in Yemen has been a boon for Saleh, bringing in billions of dollars in international aid -- just as oil revenues are running out. Saleh's administration has shown every intention of milking U.S. security worries over al Qaeda for all they are worth. His regime has been quick to amplify Western concerns that any popular challenge to his regime might provide an opening for al Qaeda. In a Feb. 8 interview about the protests in Yemen, CNN asked Yemen Prime Minister Ali Mujawar: "Is there a level of concern here that the more political turmoil there is, the more that a group like al Qaeda could benefit from that?"
"Absolutely," the prime minister answered. "Everything is possible. Honestly, everything is possible."
Saleh has long held power by keeping Yemenis on edge, by keeping allies and rivals uncertain, and by impressing his supporters with the dangers he is keeping at bay. He's doing the same now with the United States and al Qaeda. But it's hard to imagine a country where it's more vital that the United States move to stave off chaos now, by pushing for the kind of broad-based, accountable, and representative political system that would provide true stability.
It would be wise to start right now. Regardless of claims of snake-dancing prowess, Saleh isn't the only man who can govern Yemen, and he's far from the best. The country has technocrats and tribal and business leaders who could prove viable candidates for democratic competition. The United States could condition aid to actual political opening, so that civil and political participation, now co-opted by Saleh's patronage systems, bring forward Yemen's more capable leaders to face the troubles ahead. Because the only certainty about Saleh is that he'll bring Yemen even more.