Until 2009, Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest and perhaps most fragile states, attracted little attention from its Gulf neighbours and the wider world. It took a six-year civil war in the north of the country spilling over the border into Saudi Arabia, and the attempted bombing of a Northwestern Airlines flight over Detriot on 25 December to bring Yemen to the attention of the international diplomatic community, and then only briefly.

A meeting was hastily convened in London in January 2010 to discuss the country’s plight. Attended by diplomatic heavyweights including US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and the UK’s Foreign Secretary David Milliband, along with Yemen’s Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar and Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, it moved to address fears over the rise of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the country.

With Al-Qaeda’s presence growing steadily, Western powers were worried that Yemen’s fragile economy could give rise to more attacks on their shores.

But the solutions offered for the country’s problems at the end of the conference were not new to those familiar with Yemen’s situation.  Better governance, more economic development and more international support were needed, the attendees said.

During a 2006 meeting, also held in London, international donors pledged some $5.7bn in grants and loans to help develop the country’s economy. But the Washington-headquartered World Bank’s in its Spring 2010 economic review for Yemen, said that only $548m of these funds had been dispersed.

Revenue falls

The need for economic reform is more pressing than ever. Since the start of the year, Yemen’s currency has lost 12 per cent of its value.

This follows a torrid 2009,  which saw government oil earnings – 76 per cent of overall export revenues – fall by 55 per cent to $1.96bn, while Sanaa’s war with rebelling Houthi tribesmen in the Sadaa province in the north of the country, was estimated to be costing $10m a day.

According to the World Bank, non-oil growth fell from 4.8 per cent to 4.1 per cent in 2009. This is especially worrying because employment in Yemen is largely supported by the agricultural sector.

Unemployment is believed to be above 20 per cent in Yemen and the World Bank classifies more than 40 per cent of the country’s 22 million people as living in poverty. Little respite from these problems is likely in the coming years, as the country’s population is forecast to grow from 23 million in 2009 to 50 million by 2035.

The government, hamstrung by the aftermath of the war in the north, a strengthening secessionist movement in the south and the rise of Al-Qaeda in the east, also remains one of the most corrupt in the world, according to the Berlin-headquartered Transparency International, which ranked the country 154 out of 180 states in its 2009 Corruption Perceptions index.

Meanwhile, cynicism in the capital runs high over the prospect for further international involvement in the country’s development or indeed the chances for improvement in its governance.

“Look at what has happened with the US and other countries in Yemen before and their attitude to the country since,” says a former European diplomat to the country. “The truth is that economically and in terms of security, it still isn’t that important. And the Yemeni people get that.”

Despite the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole at the Yemeni port of Aden, and an attempted suicide bomb attack on the US embassy in Sanaa, Washington has done relatively little to help the country. It is not just diplomats from other countries that hold this view.

US engagement

“With so many other, more pressing issues in the region to address  [like] Iraq, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yemen is often overlooked by US policymakers,” said Jeremy Sharp, a US government specialist in Middle East affairs during a July 2009 Senate Committee for Foreign Affairs.

“Nevertheless, the above debate over the country’s relevance to US foreign policy in the region exists and, to a large extent, remains unresolved.”

However, Sheikh Mohamed Abulahoum, a member of Yemen’s ruling General People’s Congress party and the head of the powerful Bakhil tribe tells MEED the fault does not lie with other countries, but rather with the country’s own political system. “If we worked hard enough for them, things would be different,” he says. “But Yemen is yet to show it is serious about political reform, financial reform, and electoral reform.”

Even where aid and investment is available to the country, there is too much corruption and not enough real management to turn cash into social and economic initiatives, according to Philip Eliason, an independent Australian consultant and former diplomat, who worked with the Yemeni government between 2008-10.

“The reality is the government and Yemeni institutions cannot handle a high aid vote in a way acceptable to donors,” he told the Australian Institute of International Affairs on 29 April.

With parliamentary elections looming in 2011 and President Ali Abdullah Saleh  due to step down in 2013, the country’s future is very much in its own hands.