YEMEN: Yemen’s lessons for Iraq
Jonathan Schanzer «View Bio

The media in Yemen has reported that thousands of Iraqi exiles who fled Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime for Yemen more than a decade ago are thinking of returning home.

Many Iraqis have been encouraged by reports of a recovering economy and new infrastructure. However, returnees will also notice several stark similarities between their old homeland and Yemen. Although Yemen is not a model to which Iraq should aspire, Sanaa does have experience in dealing with challenges similar to those currently facing Iraq.

The Iraqi government that will take over after June 30 is not expected to be strong. Given the influence of Iraq’s primordial social structure, the first few years of self-governance will likely be characterized by weak central authority. In particular, tribal and ethnic factors will dominate Iraqi politics.

Despite similar social and cultural conditions in Yemen, however, the relatively weak central government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been able to function, unbound by strict regional, sectarian, or tribal lines. Although it cannot be called a democracy, the political system is representative – a model of the ‘primordial federalism.’ That is one of the most basic forms of government in the region.

As former US ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine has said, “By maintaining a balanced and informally representative cabinet, Yemen has avoided the sectarian or ethnic divisions that have sundered other governments in the region, and has given Yemenis a shared interest in the survival of the state.”

In its first few years of self-governance, the new Iraq may need to conduct its politics in a similar fashion. Since Saddam’s fall and the subsequent power vacuum, Iraqis have relied on the most basic authority structures – family, clan, and tribe. Local patriarchs are often the primary power brokers, particularly in rural areas. The longer instability plagues Iraq, the more entrenched their power will become. Hence, when the Iraqi Governing Council yields power to an Iraqi president, the new leader will likely have to negotiate with local authorities to earn a mandate.

Although it is weak, Yemen’s government is not unsuccessful. Likewise, the forthcoming Iraqi government will be able to function even if it is initially operating in a primordial system. Its effectiveness will depend on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to learn how to play tribal politics until the central government gains strength.

In Yemen, the governorates of Marib, Shibwa, and Jawf form an area that is rife with kidnappings, terrorism, and attacks on oil installations – similar to the so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’ in Iraq.

Due to the central authority’s limited control in this part of Yemen, the region is susceptible to nefarious outside influences, including Saudi Wahhabis and Al Qaeda militants. Yemen’s porous borders add to its security problems.

In Iraq, US officials say that the most problematic areas of the Iraqi insurgency are Falluja, Ramadi, and other spots within the Sunni Triangle, where extremism and terrorism are most prevalent. Security authorities are also struggling to prevent the infiltration of Iraq’s porous borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran by foreign fighters and Al Qaeda militants.

Yemen has not experienced a terrorist attack since the October 2002 bombing of the French tanker Limburg. Prior to that, Al Qaeda elements had successfully attacked the US warship USS Cole – and local targets like hotels, liquor stores, and courts.

But since the Limburg, Yemen has deported hundreds of illegal immigrants and suspected terrorists, monitored mosques and Islamic organizations, stepped up border controls, and launched a domestic PR campaign warning the public of terrorism’s cost to the economy. Its security force has been trained by the United States, while still maintaining its strong national and Arab identity. Effective Yemeni-CIA cooperation in November 2002 resulted in the killing of six Al Qaeda operatives by a Hellfire missile, launched from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. US special forces have likewise supported Yemeni forces in operations against Al Qaeda fighters in the Hattat region. Yemen’s military has established strong security ties with the United States, while maintaining the trust of a general public that is still suspicious of US policies in the region. The Iraqi military and security forces could do well to learn from Yemen’s lessons. Much has been said about the potential fallout between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq. Animosity has festered since the 1920s when the British occupied the nascent country, and under Saddam when the minority Sunnis ruled over the Shia. The challenge will be to allow greater Shia political participation while not alienating the Sunnis, who lost power with Saddam’s fall.

The unification of North Yemen, in which Shia were dominant, with South Yemen’s almost entirely Sunni population, in 1990 dramatically shifted the religious balance. However, there was little inter-Muslim strife.

Indeed, Yemenis are relatively oblivious to Shia-Sunni enmity, and Sanaa has de-emphasized religious differences, while focusing on a common Yemeni identity.

Although there are no shortcuts for Iraq to reach such a social arrangement, Yemen can serve as an inspiration to prove that ethnicity and religion do not have to dominate the Iraqi political landscape.

In its favor, Iraq is endowed with substantial oil wealth that could help speed development, whereas poverty in Yemen has hindered progress. Iraq will also benefit from the expertise of thousands of US officials and billions of dollars of reconstruction assistance.

Still, Iraq and Yemen shoulder many of the same burdens. For its part, Yemen has shown that a unique approach to some of these challenges can generate working solutions. As Iraq nears sovereignty, these Yemeni examples serve as a reminder that Iraq can and will find organic solutions to some of its toughest problems.

Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Over the past year, he has conducted research in both Iraq and Yemen.