Yemen and the problem of sovereignty

Much has been made lately about Yemen as a new front in the American military effort against Al Qaeda and its affiliates (in this case, it’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP). An already ill-defined border with Saudi Arabia has long caused problems in the control of militants, criminals, and illegal immigrants, and as AQAP continues to operate and, perhaps, grow in strength, the Yemeni government’s inability to run its own household has led to some interesting strategies on the Saudi side for dealing with the problem, detailed in this article I ran across in the Times a few weeks ago. Turns out that my paper with Toby Rider, “War, Peace, and Internal Sovereignty,” has something to say about this problem (in fact, Toby’s working up a case discussion of Yemen for the next draft of the paper as I write this), so let’s dig into it a little deeper.

The basic story goes something like this: the Yemeni government struggles to exercise that sine qua non of statehood, internal sovereignty, leading to frequent and costly violations of the international agreements, like the border, that nominally structure its relations with its wealthier neighbor to the north. From the article,

This remote 1,100-mile frontier, once a casual crossing point for Bedouins and goats, has become an emblem of the increasingly global threats emanating from Yemen: fighters from Al Qaeda, Shiite insurgents, drugs and arms smuggling and, well under the world’s radar, one of the largest flows of economic refugees on earth…

…The porousness of the border is essential to Al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch, which has become a major terrorism concern for the United States as well as Arab countries. Al Qaeda draws recruits from Saudi Arabia, where they can cross and recross without being noticed, and it has sent militants across to try to kill Saudi leaders in their efforts to topple the oil-rich kingdom.

With Yemen unable to credibly promise that its subjects will abide by the border, the Saudis have a few options available to them:

  1. Do nothing. As long as the violations aren’t that big of a deal, both Yemen and Saudi Arabia might be happy to save the costs of trying to solve the problem and just let them go on. This isn’t uncommon along many of the world’s borders, but clearly the nature of the violations are becoming an issue for the Saudis, who’ve decided they can’t remain aloof.
  2. Attack Yemen. Not unlike the American Punitive Expedition of 1916 designed to scatter Pancho Villia’s formations after they made clear the Mexican government’s inability to stop them from raiding into New Mexico, the Saudis could conceivably intervene militarily. However, that’s likely pretty costly, and it’s not clear that the endgame would be beyond either eliminating militant groups (unlikely) or occupying the territory themselves (expensive).
  3. Subsidize Yemen’s enforcement of the deal. Finally, the Saudis could simply try to help the Yemeni government rein in militants and enforce the border, which the article indicates we’re starting to see, with increased support for the Yemeni president and payments sent to border-area tribes in order to prevent further violations. So while Yemen is the source of many problems for the Saudis, they’ve settled on what amounts to concessions to the government, not because they’ve been coerced, but because (conceivably) President Saleh would make the proper investments to centralize his authority if he could, but he lacks the means. So we’ve got an attempt here at what we call in the paper a “subsidized peace,” where you help your erstwhile enemy consolidate control over this own territory and, hopefully, reach a stable peace.

So that’s where the Saudis and Yemenis stand now, an attempt to subsidize a peace that the Yemeni government has no incentive to break but that it can’t afford (without some assistance) to enforce on its own subjects. Of course, however tempting it is to assume that the Saudis have “figured something out” about the futility of war in dealing with such issues, our model indicates that things can change quite quickly. First, if the Saudis no longer believe that Saleh would really make the necessary efforts if given the subsidy, and, second, if the subsidy gets too expensive, they may well decide that war or some kind of military intervention, despite its costs, is the best option.

What might lead either of these scenarios to come to pass? First, a major shock to existing government revenues or capacity in Yemen could render any investments in enforcement or consolidation infeasible or subsidies too expensive, which reopens the prospect of an unenforceable border. Second, a change in government might lead Yemen, if not to support militants at home, at least to tolerate them, rendering promises to use the enforcement subsidy incredible. This could of course happen as the result of politics as usual, a coup, or even a change of international priorities for Saleh, but the effect would be the same: to bring war back on the table as an option.

To sum up, then, if we’re going to try to prognosticate about what might happen in the short- to medium-term along the Saudi-Yemeni border, it would be useful to keep track of any factor that might lead Yemen to be unwilling or unable to spend the Saudi subsidy effectively or any factor that alters Saudi Arabia’s confidence in Saleh’s ability to follow through.

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