Playing devil’s advocate was a popular quirk within the Yemeni government throughout most of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s reign; a game plan mostly used for economic gains.
The political circumstances in Yemen, bound to an emboldened offshoot of al-Qaeda, had proven to be a good pawn when it came to Saleh’s diplomatic ties and calls for foreign aid.
Saleh spent years negotiating foreign funds to tackle security threats, both real and imagined many might argue. Several times, Saleh would provoke the crisis a little, voicing concerns over terrorism and insurgency in his country. At this, Yemen would receive foreign aid, mostly from the United States, directed towards supporting the Yemeni military.
“Saleh had been going back and forth milking the United States for more financial aid under the guise of fighting terrorism for more than over a decade,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, a conflict resolution expert at the Brookings Doha Center who has written extensively about the conflict in Yemen.
“In the past, over 90 percent of U.S. financial support went to support security and military institutions to fight al-Qaeda, while Saudi Arabia’s aid focused mainly on supporting Saleh’s regime,” Sharqieh adds.
Indeed, a constant stream of mostly Saudi and United States aid would have ideally kept the country afloat across economic, social and military areas.
But as governmental corruption hit, the money did not cross paths with genuine, long-term development goals. Nor did foreign aid countries witness their money being channeled into Yemen’s economic development.
Two years ago the Pentagon approved $150 million fund for training and equipping Yemen’s armed forces. It was part of a political compromise with Yemeni rebels and a sustained offensive against the local al-Qaeda franchise, which trained the man who attempted to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day 2009. The money had exceeded the previous year’s $67 million funding, a figure which did not include the increased covert U.S. military and intelligence aid helping Yemen disrupt al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
More substantial foreign aid figures dated back to 2006 when Yemen received $4.7 billion in international community aid pledges during a donor conference in London, according to U.S. state department figures.
Of that amount, $3.7 billion came from wealthy Gulf states but what disturb donors, noted online news portal GlobalPost (in 2010), was that only 10 to 20 percent of the 2006 money had actually been put to use on aid projects by Yemen.
But a report by the U.S. State Department on Yemen (last updated in January 2012) said: “Much of the pledged support (from the 2006 London conference) remains undisbursed due to difficulties absorbing the aid.”
And as Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi became the newly sworn-in president last week as part of a Gulf-brokered deal that gave Saleh immunity from prosecution in exchange for stepping down, Yemen will face a new foreign aid era.
“The issue of foreign aid in Yemen is all politically driven. The Gulf initiative has the provided framework for the transition of power in Yemen and so Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have a high political investment in the country.” says Sharqieh.
“Now, they have to deliver on their peace initiative with financial support. If they don’t do this they’re shooting themselves in the foot,” he adds.
But Sharqieh warns that continuing financial support to Yemen’s military structures would not put the country on the right development path.
“There should be a changing trend in foreign aid to Yemen after the election [and a new leader.] The United States and Gulf states should now give aid that will provide genuine comprehensive development, helping job delivery, building transparent state institutions and work to fight corruption within them.
“This would be the ultimate solution to dealing with terrorism and other security problems; dealing with the underlying causes that produce terror. That’s the strategy that should lead the foreign aid in the future.”
However, al-Qaeda remains a major cause for concern for the United States. Will the enemy ever be suppressed with a continued stream of money ploughed into a country’s military structures?
“This hasn’t been the case in Yemen, or even Afghanistan,” says Sharqieh.
“It never dealt with the corruption in these countries and so there were more people becoming angered and oppressed and turning to militant groups,” he adds.
The United States, however, is continuing to voice its nightmares over the Yemeni al-Qaeda threat and so it looks probable that U.S. foreign aid will continue to veer towards security and protection.
Earlier this month a visit to Yemen by John Brennan, Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, made this clear.
Brennan said the U.S. is set to apply pressure on the Yemeni security and intelligence bodies to “do whatever is right” to confront al-Qaeda militants, adding that his visit to Sana’a was at the behest of the Yemeni officials to address sources of funding of the militant group in Yemen.
But while America continues to saturate itself in both Yemeni government and al-Qaeda finances, the Yemenis who sparked an uprising last year will be counting on the newly-inaugurated Hadi to use the expected flood of new foreign aid effectively.
“I can certainly see Hadi’s will [to improve the country]; he has financial aid on the way, he has shown the ability to unite the parliamentary opposition and attract the youth opposition to vote in the recent election – these are good signs of what he is able to do,” says Sharqieh.
“But Hadi has not yet received the billions expected in foreign aid yet, so we need to wait and see how he will manage down the road.”
Hadi has already pledged economic reform as a top priority once he receives international support funds from the international community. But the assurances that the funds will be spent on genuine societal development perhaps still aren’t there; after all, the Yemeni revolution only saw the overthrow of one man and not the whole government.
The fear that the corruption – which once wasted years of foreign funding – could still run root-deep through Yemen’s political structures remain.
Meanwhile, the pattern of foreign aid during the Saleh era may continue; the United States will continue to eye the recurrent al-Qaeda threat, whereas Gulf donors will continue to give money to the same regime they backed when Saleh was in power.
Societal development of the country could be a distant goal for the donors, prompting renewed fears over whether new aid money will ever reach those Yemenis that protested last year for opportunity and change.