What the Social Sciences Can Tell Policy-Makers in Yemen

By Mitchell, Robert E. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

What the Social Sciences Can Tell Policy-Makers in Yemen


Mitchell, Robert E., The Middle East Journal


Instead of duplicating the media coverage of recent serious challenges to Yemen's national leadership in different parts of the country, this article draws on the best social science studies to help explain some of the forces behind Yemen's chronic instability, as well as to suggest what policies, programs, and management approaches might be most successful in moving the country and its growing population toward a more promising future. A state-of-knowledge review of the dated and geographically-limited literature conducted primarily by foreign social scientists covers national trends, the spatial distribution of Yemeni socioeconomic and political life (including tribes), non-tribal governance, and Yemen's social research infrastructure. The relevance of this research to two current American assistance programs in Yemen is also suggested.

If little was known about Iraq before the US-backed invasions, less was known about Afghanistan and even less about Yemen, a current focus of international development and security agencies. To help fill the knowledge gap in Afghanistan, donors and NGOs funded the development of socio-political and market research centers, an infrastructure absent in Yemen until recently.1 Although Yemen was not always off-limits to social researchers, the available community-level studies are both dated and restricted in their geographical coverage. What little is available suggests that Yemen has not been static over the past two decades. Tribal systems, the role of Islam, the importance of religious leaders, and relations between the central government and local populations are evolving in a context of unpromising economic, demographic, and natural resource trends. These changes and trends suggest that it is hazardous to base current economic development and security programs on outdated and geographically-limited studies. More recent opinion surveys are also poor substitutes for location-specific community studies as guides for the design and implementation of development and counterinsurgency strategies targeting specific communities as described in the current joint USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the DoD (Depart- ment of Defense) country strategy for Yemen.2

Despite the dated and incomplete coverage of local-level studies, the inter-regional variations in them suggest that it would be prudent to mine the existing literature as a way to provide a firmer basis on which Yemeni and international agencies design and implement their development and security programs. The present article is intended to provide this overview organized under four general categories: national economic and population trends, the spatial distribution of Yemeni socioeconomic and political life (including tribes), non-tribal governance, and Yemen's social research infrastructure. We close with some observations on the relevance that this research has for two American assistance programs in Yemen, one by USAID, the other by the US military.3 Suffice it to note that Yemen has been wracked by political, economic, and violent difficulties over the past several years and, as a consequence, the country today is different from what it was when the studies to be reviewed below were conducted. Unfortunately, neither social scientists nor informed journalists have been able to ground-test the continuing relevance reported in these studies.4

National Economic and Population Trends5

The Republic of Yemen (ROY) was established as the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962 after a civil war that involved both Saudi Arabia (supporting the Royalists) and Egypt (supporting the successful military-led dissidents). There were two Yemens, the north with its capital in Sana'a, and the south with 'Aden as its capital. The north was seen as more tribal in nature while the south was part of the communist bloc of nations and opposed to tribalism. The two parts have been in fairly continuous conflict not only with one another but also with their own constituents. …

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