The attempted Christmas-day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner alerted everyone to the danger posed by terrorist cells training in Yemen. This country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula needs urgent international support, because a failed state on the border of Saudi Arabia – the world’s largest oil producer – would have enormous consequences for the global economy and the war on terrorism.
The international conference about Yemen held in London last week reminded me of one of Saudi King Abdullah’s favorite quotes from the Koran: “Truly never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.”
That statement sums up his approach to what we in the West call nation-building. As Yemen slides toward a failed state through a combination of bad governance, suspected Iranian support for Houthi separatists, unchecked Al Qaeda proselytizing and recruitment, a secessionist movement in the south, and 35 percent unemployment, the United States should consider asking King Abdullah to offer his vision of nation-building to save the Yemeni state.
But in seeking to contain the security threat, Washington must not repeat the errors of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US focused excessively on solving immediate security problems without addressing the larger context of the terrorist threat.
The right course in Yemen is to build good governance and economic development. And the right person to lead that strategic effort is Abdullah. If President Obama wants to avoid the Afghanistanization of Yemen, he should reach out to the Saudi monarch.
Such a partnership could bring stability to Yemen on many levels.
First, Al Qaeda’s strategy of proselytizing and recruitment can be checked with a sustained, Saudi-supervised, and well-funded rehabilitation program for jihadists. Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program has been fairly successful – and it can be replicated in Yemen.
Two sons of the king – Prince Miteb and Prince Abdulaziz – say that their father is fully committed to using the Koran to pacify extremist militants. The US and Saudi Arabia can fund a program to offer financial incentives to former jihadists to help them readjust into society.
Second, we must stay one step ahead of Al Qaeda recruiters by keeping young unemployed Yemenis active. This is another Saudi strategy that Abdullah insists can contain extremism. Building sporting facilities attached to rehabilitation centers throughout Yemen with Saudi-American cooperation would be a good start. Yemeni youth could be paid to help build these centers and in fact, a Virginia-based company has the patented technology to erect these buildings within 24 hours on site.
Third, we must recognize that Yemen’s economic development is one of the surest ways to undermine Al Qaeda in the Arabaian Peninsula. As a student of history, Abdullah points to the post-World War II Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe as an example of what is needed to stabilize Yemen.
With a sovereign wealth fund close to $1 trillion dollars, Saudi Arabia has the capital to match American funding and technology that can make a significant difference in Yemen.
Of immediate concern should be Yemen’s dwindling water supply. Only 46 percent of rural Yemenis have access to adequate water. The building of desalination plants can reverse this problem and lead to economic development. A nascent tourist industry can then be developed along Yemen’s coast – creating jobs and providing a steady stream of revenue for the central government.
Fourth, although Yemen’s modest oil reserves peaked in 2001 and have been dwindling, natural gas is abundant and can become a source of export earnings. A Saudi-American legal and commercial team of experts can assist Yemen with the negotiation of contracts for export of natural gas to gas-deficient Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, Yemen’s location is strategically advantageous to all liquid natural gas markets, both in the Asia-Pacific basin and on either side of the Atlantic. As Yemen becomes more stable, foreign oil companies would then be willing to consider the substantial capital investment needed to fully develop the country’s natural gas reserves.
Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton recently pledged to enhance US aid to Yemen, which currently stands at $121 million over three years. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has pledged $1.25 billion in assistance. Working together, Washington and Riyadh can make their money work harder.
The success of a Saudi-American partnership to save Yemen from imploding and becoming a haven for terrorists depends on cooperation from Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Here too, Abdullah – not Mr. Obama – holds the key. The Saudi king maintains strong ties with the Yemeni president. Indeed, Abdullah is widely viewed as a regional elder statesman who does not hesitate to speak bluntly to his colleagues. Mr. Saleh needs an ally like that now more than ever, one who will speak the truth, who cares about Yemen’s future, and who will back those words with actions.
S. Rob Sobhani, the president and founder of Caspian Energy Consulting, is author of the upcoming book “King Abdullah: A Leader of Consequence.”