Yemen: The Most Dangerous Domino

Home of an aggressive al-Qaeda franchise, Yemen is the latest Arab nation where young people have risen against an entrenched ruler. Would a change of regime there really be for the better?

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Photograph by Yuri Kozyrev for TIME

Pictures of President Saleh hang in a shop in the old town of Sana'a

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But it's also much, much poorer. Beggars — rarely seen elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula — swarm cars at intersections. At roadside restaurants with outdoor seating, they scramble to grab any leftovers before waiters can remove the plates. Unlike its neighbors, Yemen has little oil or natural gas. Many families survive on remittances from Yemenis working as manual laborers in wealthier Middle Eastern nations, and the global recession has shrunk the number of even those jobs. "If you're a young Yemeni, you don't have any reason for hope," says Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor of the English-language Yemen Times, which is frequently critical of Saleh. "There's no reason to think your life will be better than your parents'."

And there are plenty of young Yemenis: 74% of the population is under 30 years old, an astonishingly high proportion even by the standards of the Arab world. In recent years, Saleh's economic planners have woken up to the challenges posed by the youth bulge and have sought to goose the economy into creating jobs. They've tried, for instance, to capitalize on Sana'a's cooler temperatures to market it as a place for Arabs from other countries to build summer homes. But investment has been fitful, and unemployment remains astronomical: nearly half of Yemenis ages 15 to 29 are neither going to school nor employed.

The combination of a sclerotic regime and high youth unemployment alarmed U.S. officials even before the uprisings broke out in Tunisia and Egypt, where those problems were less acute. Back in November, the U.S. counterterrorism official told Time, "What Yemenis are most upset about is, they have poor schools, health care, sanitation." At the time, the prospect of a youth-led revolt seemed remote. The official was concerned that such conditions were ideal for incubating jihadi sentiments and acknowledged that simply increasing counterterrorism assistance to the Saleh regime would not be enough.

In 2010, U.S. humanitarian assistance to Yemen more than doubled, to $42.5 million. Yemeni officials wanted more, much more. Foreign Minister al-Qirbi pointed out that "every dollar we spend on counterterrorism is a dollar we're not spending on something else." But giving more to the Saleh regime was problematic: according to Transparency International, Yemen is one of the most corrupt places on the planet. Saleh's critics point out that the counterterrorism forces that receive substantial U.S. funding are controlled by the President's family — his son Ahmad Ali and nephews Yahya and Ammar — who also have extensive business interests. So the Obama Administration began to nudge Saleh toward making his government more transparent, less corrupt. On a trip to Sana'a in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed Saleh to drop his plans to amend the country's constitution to enable him to run for office again in 2013. In time, U.S. officials hoped, Saleh could be persuaded to give his opponents a greater voice.

But young Yemenis weren't prepared to wait that long. Protesters began to gather at Sana'a University shortly after the fall of Tunisia's Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January. By the time Egypt's Mubarak fell, a month later, Yemenis were assembling for demonstrations in most major towns and cities. Even the Houthis staged peaceful marches in the north. If Saleh hoped to brazen it out, defections from his General People's Congress party made that impossible. The unkindest cut of all may have been the desertion of Hussein al-Ahmar, a leader of the Hashids, Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation. His father Abdullah had been speaker of Yemen's parliament and long a Saleh ally. Now Hussein has called on "all honorable men" to quit what he's termed the "congress of corruption."

Whether Saleh goes at the end of the year or succumbs sooner to the protests, al-Ahmar's tribal affiliation will make him a potential successor. But his long association with the regime won't endear him to young Yemenis. Nor will they easily take to the main opposition party, Islah, which includes hard-line Islamists. U.S. officials will not have been reassured to see Sheik Abdul Majid al-Zindani, an influential radical cleric and onetime mentor of bin Laden's, joining the protests recently.

Saleh's departure would also probably embolden both the southern separatists and the Houthis in the north. That, in turn, could set off alarm across the peninsula: Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia, already anxious about the Shi'ite uprising in Bahrain, regards the Houthis as dangerous heretics. Northern Yemenis say Saudi forces have on occasion crossed the border to strike at Houthis. And then there's AQAP, which has called for toppled Arab regimes to be replaced by Islamic rule.

The multitude of challenges facing anyone seeking to govern the country explains why Saleh once likened running Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes." His successor had better have nimble feet.

with reporting by Massimo Calabresi / Washington and Oliver Holmes and Erik Stier / Sana'A

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