7th APRIL 2015 - Vol.XXXVIII No.018

Case for preventive security...

As representatives of governments from across the world gather in London for the international conference on Somalia, it is worth reminding ourselves that in dealing with civil conflicts and failed states, prevention is better than cure. Had conferences like this been convened in the 1980s, it could have fostered the political compromises and economic progress needed to avoid more than two decades of poverty, lawlessness and war. While dealing with the Somalia of today, the international community should also think of ways to prevent the Somalias of tomorrow.

We don't need to look far to find a suitable candidate for this kind of preventive security. On the opposite side of the Gulf of Aden from Somalia lies Yemen, a country faced with political division, insecurity and underdevelopment.

The situation remains extremely fragile more than a year after president Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced from office following widespread protests. A six-month-long National Dialogue was launched in March to resolve differences, but sections of the opposition are boycotting the process. Protests for independence are being held in the south.

Behind this crisis is a country facing enormous long-term structural problems. Poverty is rife with unemployment running at around 40 per cent. A majority of Yemenis lack access to clean water and about a third of the population lack adequate food. More than 90pc of the country's food supply has to be imported, leaving it vulnerable to fluctuations in global commodity prices.

These problems are going to be compounded by two additional factors in the years ahead. First, oil production - which accounts for 75pc of government revenues and 90pc of export earnings - is in decline and without new sources of growth the country may not be able to meet the cost of essential food imports.

Second, the population of Yemen is projected to double to more than 50 million by the middle of the century. More than two-fifths of Yemenis are now under the age of 15. With depleting resources and expanding needs, the need for a fundamental change of direction could hardly be clearer.

Unless the international community is able to help the country meet these challenges, the risk of conflict and fragmentation will rise as different groups and regions seek to pursue their own unilateral solutions. The Yemeni government already faces multiple challenges to its authority in the form of secessionist demands in the south, tribal rebellion in the north and the violent activities of Al Qaeda. A further weakening of government authority would invite a complete breakdown of order - which will even threaten the security of the region.

Sustained international engagement is therefore crucial. The Friends of Yemen initiative - launched with the support of the UK and the GCC countries - has done a lot to galvanise financial support and diplomatic attention. But the $8bn pledged by donors is less than half the figure the government says it needs to prevent economic deterioration. Also, only a fifth of that money has been provided so far.

Meanwhile, only 2pc of the UN's $716m humanitarian appeal for Yemen has been funded. These amount to significant shortfalls in the levels of resources required to meet the country's immediate needs.

The priority western leaders give to counter-terrorism and political reform in framing their policy towards Yemen is understandable. But security and good governance will be impossible without a strategy for creating prosperity and opportunity for all Yemenis.

The country has dropped to 160th in the UN's human development index. Yet, if it is going to avoid a major crisis, it needs to find ways of harnessing the energies of its youth and turning the demographic challenge into an opportunity for growth. That can't be achieved without huge social investments over a long period of time - resources and patience that will only come with outside help.

The problems of Yemen are too big to be solved through a series of crisis interventions and they are too big for the world to ignore.

Diplomatic priorities are often shaped by the most immediate crises of the moment. But the Somalia conference reminds us of what happens when short-termism inhibits the development of policies needed to prevent state failure. We must not allow that to become the fate of Yemen. (The author is the longest-serving Omani commander (now retired) of the Royal Air Force of Oman, vice-chairman of the National Bank of Oman, and a member of Brookings Institution's International Advisory Council)

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