by Alan Greenblatt
When Ali Abdullah Saleh took over as president of Yemen in 1978, his two immediate predecessors had been assassinated over the course of the previous nine months.
But if the job was no great bargain back then, it's not going to be much more of a gift to Saleh's successor. Yemen is one of the world's poorest countries and faces enormous challenges in terms of declining natural resources, illiteracy and unemployment.
Yemen is home to three separate insurgency movements, including an active branch of al-Qaida that has targeted the U.S. on several occasions.
"Basically, everything that could be going wrong in Yemen is going wrong," says Christopher Boucek, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-author of a 2010 book about the country titled Yemen on the Brink.
It's not clear when Saleh will step down. In the face of rising protests, he has pledged to leave office by the end of the year. Negotiations for him to stand aside immediately, in favor of a transitional council that would set up a new government, appeared to have stalled Friday.
Regardless of the timeline, it's clear that any regime that follows Saleh's will face several Herculean tasks.
"All of these problems are going to be there for whomever or whatever group takes over, and they're not going to be easy to solve," says Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. "The opposition is so deeply divided, its agenda is so inchoate and broad, that they really have no idea what they're going to do the day after."
The Threat From Al-Qaida
Yemen sits on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman. It is the ancestral home of the bin Laden family and the current headquarters of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
AQAP was responsible for the attempted Christmas Day "underwear" bombing aboard an airliner bound for Detroit in 2009, as well as the twin attempts to blow up cargo planes using packages last October.
The group is considered the most active of al-Qaida's regional affiliates in "seeking to carry out a successful attack inside the United States," according to the Congressional Research Service, or CRS.
Two attacks in 2008 on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa killed 17 people, including one American citizen, while the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden killed 17 sailors.
Saleh has been considered a U.S. ally in the fight against AQAP, although at times a frustrating one.
"Yemen is probably a low priority for the Obama administration, but it has the potential to rise really quick," Boucek says. "Al-Qaida central has aspirations but are under more pressure. The more imminent threat, I would say, is coming from AQAP."
Other Security Concerns
The formerly separate states of North and South Yemen unified peacefully in 1990, but there has been considerable internal conflict since. The government in Sanaa has been dealing with domestic insurgencies in both the north and the south for several years.
The northern revolt, known as the Al Houthi conflict, began in 2004 and involves sectarian divisions. Civil unrest in the south that began in 2007 centers on complaints that regional resources are being drained to benefit the north.
The question of who takes power in Saleh's place, and whether that person is considered acceptable to the Houthi in the northwest and the various groups fighting in the south, "could cause the country not to explode but to collapse," says Bodine, who is now teaching at Princeton University.
No one wants to see another failed state just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia.
"The issue is not that a Taliban-style government is going to come in," Bodine says, "but with a distracted government and these two other security issues not resolved, you really will have ungoverned territories where al-Qaida can operate with impunity."
The Basics: Jobs And Water
The continuing threat from al-Qaida has the potential to keep Yemen's problems on the radar screens of policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Yemen currently receives about $300 million annually in U.S. military and humanitarian assistance, with closer to $2 billion coming from Saudi Arabia. The country is going to need a great deal more help in the future.
Oil accounts for about two-thirds of government revenue and nearly all of Yemen's exports, but it's running out. Production has fallen from its peak of 440,000 barrels per day in 2001 to 260,000 barrels per day last year. It's expected Yemen's reserves will be depleted at some point between 2017 and 2021, according to CRS.
Yemen has no way to replace that lost income. And unemployment is already at Depression-era levels.
"There's 35 percent unemployment officially, but the reality is more like 50 percent," Boucek says.
The country's most persistent problem, however, is water. The country is already running out of fresh water, which is hampering its agricultural efforts.
Things are bound to get worse. The country's high fertility rate means its population is expected nearly to double by 2025, to 44 million people.
"It's hard to know what the priorities should be," says Steven Caton, a Harvard University anthropologist who has studied Yemen for decades.
"There is no one solution," Caton says. "It would require a national council in Yemen with international experts to talk about the problems of each district of water basin to talk about how those needs might be met by employing a whole range of economic, political and social strategies."