The Middle East Channel

Don’t call Yemen a “failed state”

  Yemen is a weak state by anyone’s estimation, but the recent rush to label the country a "failed state" is premature and likely to be counterproductive. Bandied about recently in relationship to the Yemeni regime’s struggle with al-Huthi’s "Believing Youth," and invoked with renewed vigour after the failed airplane bombing by a Nigerian youth ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images


Yemen is a weak state by anyone’s estimation, but the recent rush to label the country a "failed state" is premature and likely to be counterproductive. Bandied about recently in relationship to the Yemeni regime’s struggle with al-Huthi’s "Believing Youth," and invoked with renewed vigour after the failed airplane bombing by a Nigerian youth who claims to have derived inspiration, shelter, and onsite training from al Qaeda activists in Yemen, the easy application of "failed state" to Yemen exposes important problems with the term’s current popularity. Yemen should not be categorized with such countries as the former Yugloslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, or Somalia, where violence has completely destroyed communities and shattered fragile political arrangements previously in existence. Yemen has thus far endured despite weak institutional capacities and a peripheral location in the global political order. Calling Yemen a failed state may lead to adopting harmful policies, which could create a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

Few would deny that Yemen is unstable, with a heavily armed population, widespread poverty, the presence of al Qaeda operatives, and ongoing contestation by citizens of the south (some of whom call for outright secession). This situation is compounded by growing water scarcity, declining oil revenues, tensions within the ruling elite, persistent charges of corruption, and a localized civil war in the northwest governorate of Sa`da near Saudi Arabia. State institutions do not control violence, nor are they capable of providing welfare, protection, or education to large swathes of the country. Complaints are heard with regularity throughout Yemen about the lack of security, that the state is unable to guarantee safe passage from one region to another, to stop practices of extra-legal justice, or to disarm the citizenry. Moreover, to the extent that a sense of membership coherent and powerful enough to tie people’s political loyalties to the nation-state of Yemen does exist, there is little evidence to suggest that the incumbent regime is responsible for creating it.

Although under such circumstances it is tempting to label Yemen a "failed state," it does not follow that "state building" is the appropriate response. The language of state failure obscures how regime incentives to build state institutions can be incompatible with regime incentives to survive. President `Ali `Abd Allah Salih has been in power for more than 30 years, as the leader of north Yemen since 1978, and of unified Yemen since its inception in 1990. The possibility must be considered that what international analysts regard as the "weakness" of the Yemeni state is directly related to the longevity of the Salih regime, and following recommendations to build a stronger state could undermine, rather than preserve, the tenuous stability that exists there.

The Yemeni regime has historically relied on spaces of disorder as a means of reproducing its rule. Whereas political science and policy-relevant literatures on "state failure" presuppose the necessity of state-building (i.e., fashioning institutions such as an effective police force, schools, hospitals, and roads in return for a modicum of allegiance and a lot of obedience), a regime’s interests in survival can be at odds with processes of state-formation — with the political will to monopolize violence, provide services, and control territory. For example, the costs for the Yemeni regime (in resources, in added vulnerability) of punishing those who resort to local systems of justice rather than relying on state courts may outweigh the benefits of allowing customary systems to co-exist with the state’s. As various international agencies and ethnographers can attest, tribal arbitration, to name one example, can be an efficient way to solve some disputes, and powerful state officials (both those who support the regime and those who oppose it) may identify as "tribal" (especially in the northern highlands), thereby making the elimination of such networks extremely difficult. In general, the cost of undermining any of the various local systems of governance evident in Yemen or of attempting to monopolize violence among a heavily armed population can cause more bloodshed than it will prevent. Specific institutional weaknesses that scholars and policy analysts are quick to identify with "state failure" may, in fact, signal a regime’s successful adaptation to circumstances, enabling it to endure, as indeed the Yemeni regime has for more than 30 years.

Distinguishing the incentives of regime survival from the logics of state-building is not to imply that foregoing state-building in the name of survival ensures regime survival, of course, or that the Yemeni regime’s politics of "muddling through" will continue to work. It does not even imply that the regime always has a coherent set of incentives to which it responds. (Recent fighting among regime members in Sa`da attests to this lack of coherence.) Considering a regime’s durability and the possible survival strategies open to it nevertheless invites a healthy scepticism towards hasty pronouncements of "state failure."

The Yemen example offers broader grounds for scepticism about the growing focus on "failed states." The seemingly neutral analytical category is frequently accompanied by a foreign policy agenda predisposed to U.S. political and military intervention. It is almost always applied to countries already deemed a threat to U.S. security interests. From this point of view, the terminology of "failed states" appears as new language for a familiar impulse. The past half-century has seen a series of purportedly objective labels being used to justify "security"-based U.S. interventions worldwide. It should not be forgotten that certain of these previous interventions played a significant role in producing the very problems with which security specialists in Europe and the U.S. subsequently find themselves confronted.

Although the indicators of a failed state generally involve claims about "good governance," the variables comprising what "good governance" means are routinely defined by particular stakeholders’ interests — by specific firms, individuals, commercial risk-rating companies, nongovernmental organizations, aid agencies, and bureaus in the public sector. University of Chicago graduate student Sarah Parkinson has argued that stakeholders’ assessments can easily lead policy-makers astray, because such assessments ignore, misunderstand, or contradict beneficial local practices or mask deeper difficulties. A country can rank high on an indicator such as currency stability simply because every time a conflict breaks out the government forces banks to freeze individual assets, which on its own could scarcely be regarded as a likely contributor to future stability. In the case of Yemen, reliance on stakeholders’ criteria has worked to focus attention on isolated issues, without any nuanced regard for context, neglecting the claims and concerns of insurgents and, arguably, the regime.

Viewed from a perspective of citizen participation and associational life, Yemen is more democratic than many countries in the Middle East. If the U.S. goal is indeed to foster democracy abroad, these vigorous forms of non-electoral contestation need to be protected. "Security" measures introduced from without are likely to endanger grassroots forms of democratic practice from within. An increased military presence multiplies potential targets for al Qaeda-like groups, makes the U.S. (or others involved) vulnerable to charges of occupation, and taps into a palpable anxiety among a range of Yemenis about issues of national sovereignty. Therefore, the impulse to intervene militarily should be avoided.

Dwindling oil and water reserves mean that Salih may be unable to purchase loyalty in ways he has managed to do until now. Promoting policies that provide general goods and services to the population may mean coming up with imaginative modes of distribution geared towards controlling corruption by circumventing patronage networks. Eradicating corruption is probably impossible, however, especially if the goals are ensuring both the implementation of some state-building policies and the regime’s survival (again, if indeed these are the goals). The key is to address citizens’ dissatisfactions, both moral and material, on their own terms. 

Lisa Wedeen is professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of "Peripheral Visions: Public, Power, and Performance in Yemen. Chicago," (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The above is a revised version of a report prepared for Noref.

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