It's (still) the economy, stupid.

We're pleased to present another guest post by PhD candidate Fernando Carvajal, who spent most of 2011 embedded in Yemen's revolution, and is now deeply involved in the task of helping the country rebuild. In today's post he argues that the new government and administration--as well as the international community--must prioritize Yemen's economic situation.

Now that people refer to this as the post-Saleh era, and the Gulf Cooperation Council removed a thorn from its side, it is time to step up or shut up. Regional and international actors worked tirelessly to ensure a quick and ‘peaceful’ end to Yemen’s popular uprising of 2011, but none have spoken of concrete efforts to aid the Republic and its new President to recover from a dire economic crisis. The promise of a meeting of the Friends of Yemen lingers on since President Saleh signed the GCC initiative on November 23, 2011. The goals of political stability and a peaceful transfer of authority have been achieved, but what of addressing the root causes of the uprising in order to avoid a renewed conflict?

Some observers and government officials in Sana’a may say that security is the number one priority for the post election period, but this is merely playing with the age old debate over what comes first, security or the economy. The people were suffering from a near famine and worsening economy at the national level prior to the start of the popular uprising of February 2011. Then, the economy was not a priority. Officials always blamed international partners for not delivering on promises made after the 2006 presidential election, while the international community and neighbors blamed widespread corruption as the reason for delay in delivering over $5 billion in aid. This became the same excuse when the dysfunctional Friends of Yemen group was established and again no aid was delivered outside the $150 million authorized following the terrorist attempt by the Underware Bomber Christmas day 2009.

The uprising in Yemen was perceived as a higher threat to stability in the Peninsula than Egypt of Tunisia. It was believed events in Yemen would serve to encourage dissent in Bahrain and other Gulf states. The powers that be moved immediately in early 2011 to ensure no Yemeni center of power would escalate the conflict and create a spill-over throughout the Peninsula. The youth movement was overwhelmed by the organized opposition and military defectors aiming to regain the monopoly on mobilization. This has ultimately failed, for protest squares still maintain the physical presence of resolute young men and women who may not yet be satisfied with the transfer of authority from President Saleh to his Vice President, Abdo Rabo Mansur Hadi, through the one man election of February 21, 2012. But aside from a lack of organization and cohesive leadership the youth do remain hopeful in realizing the remaining goals of their ‘revolution’. And while the precedent of yet another successful electoral process in Yemen does represent a challenge for neighboring rulers, there is still no popular awareness in the Peninsula demanding increased access to the ballot box. The Peninsula is now on Guarded (blue) level rather than Severe (Orange).

Yemen’s economy is so deeply neglected internationally and regionally that it is completely off the media radar. Also, Yemen has been ignored even by the upcoming Jeddah Economic Forum of 3-6 March, 2012. The people of Yemen continue to be ignored while they lack access to stable fuel supplies, electricity, suffer from increasing inflation and diminishing imports. The Yemeni Rial has made gains against the dollar in recent weeks, but banks continue to suffer from low deposits and with minimal international trade, this will not improve any time soon.

Arab governments can no longer neglect dire economic crises. This is no longer time for international priorities, it is time for action to serve the people, or gains will be lost to renewed conflict. In addition, this vacuum will provide fertile ground for the expansion of groups aiming to further destabilize the country. It is a fact that neither the Houthi group nor the Southern Movement currently offer any relief to their ‘people’, never mind a viable option nationally, but they will continue to agitate their followers. During his visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi at the start of 2012 PM BaSundwa mentioned Yemen would need about $10 billion, but no one stepped up. In mid-February President Obama’s administration announced a total of $800 million in support of the Arab Spring, Yemen’s share of ‘millions’ don’t begin to scratch the surface. If we look at the government’s budget and the impact of the uprising it is estimated Yemen needs an instant influx of cash of around $3 billion. This will allow the government to inject cash into all ministries in order to meet payroll, deferred for almost three months for some people. The amount will also support payments to the military and allow the government to deal with restoration of public areas around the country.

In addition to this immediate cash the government will need about $5 billion for fiscal year 2012. This amount will provide liquidity to address a number of priorities that will lead to popular trust on the government and the transition process. Without a comprehensive strategy to address the economic crisis no one will be able to call for a stable dialogue process, nor be able to challenge continued agitation by Houthis or the Southern Movement. Unfortunately, people have to accept that an “anti-corruption” campaign by President Hadi will be suicide. It cannot be a priority this year. Corruption is not only at the top, but deeply rooted among ordinary employees whose salaries do not meet the standard of living. One still has to pay the electrician to connect the power line even after the official bill has been paid, never mind government agencies with extensive bureaucratic procedures. International donors should demand increased transparency and accountability, but not a head on anti-corruption campaign. If Yemenis and international partners really want a ‘new Yemen’ each must put forth their best effort to fight corruption from the bottom-up and implement stronger accountability measures immediately. The standard of living will not improve unless the government makes it the number one priority.