Yemen is mired in chaos: Al Qaeda controls parts of the country, hundred of thousands of people have fled their villages, millions don't have enough to eat. The Friends of Yemen have pledged urgently needed aid.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal started off the international Yemen Donor Conference in Riyadh with a lavish gesture: he pledged $3.25 billion (2.58 billion euros) in aid for Riyadh's impoverished neighbor.
"Yemen needs help from its brothers and friends," al Faisal told the meeting. "The country can't overcome the present crisis alone." The foreign minister did not detail how the money would be used, but Riyadh already provides oil and military to Yemen's government to support the fight against extremism and terrorism.
The Friends of Yemen are a large group: about 30 states, including Arab and European countries, the US and China, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Their goal is to support political change in Yemen and help stabilize the state.
As the conference drew to a close on Wednesday, pledges of aid amounted to about $4 billion. Yemen hopes the money will actually start to flow. Ahead of the international donors' meeting, Mohammed al-Saadi, Yemen's Minister for International Cooperation, pointed out that funds pledged at a previous conference had yet to be delivered.
Yemen is mired in a massive crisis. Al Qaeda militants are expanding their foothold in the South, and Shiite Houthi rebels are challenging the government in the North.
At the same time, the conflict continued between supporters and opponents of Yemen's long-time ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down as president in February after months of political unrest, demonstrations and bloody fighting in the streets. The Saleh clan, however, still controls large parts of the security forces and the government. Yemen's new president, Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi, is also said to have close ties to the ousted president and his clan.
Months of protests forced President Saleh out of office
The situation is critical: The armed conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of Yemenis from their homes. "The country is really facing a humanitarian disaster," Elham Manea, a political scientist at Zurich University, told DW. "700.000 children face death because of malnutrition."
Aid organizations, like Oxfam, Care and Save the Children have also warned that Yemen is on the brink of a "catastrophic food crisis." In a joint report published Wednesday, the three organizations said at least ten million people - that is almost half the population - do not have enough food. They said donor states focused solely on politics and security in the country, while the humanitarian crisis threatens even more lives.
"The Yemeni state no longer functions," Manea said, adding that groups such as Ansar al Sharia have filled the power vacuum. The extremists, who have close ties to al-Qaeda, have taken hold of entire provinces in southern Yemen.
Al-Qaeda uses Yemen as a sanctuary to coordinate international terrorism: US officials said earlier this month they had foiled an airline bomb plot by Al-Qaeda's Yemen branch.
Yemen's president vowed in February to press on with his government's "war on terror" regardless of the sacrifices. The Yemeni military has been trying to push back the extremists in the south of the country. Terrorism continues to be a threat, however: on Monday, a suicide attack killed almost 100 people during an army exercise in the capital Sanaa.
Fate in their own hands
The Yemeni elite tends to instrumentalize the international community's fear of a collapse of the country," said political scientist, Manea. It is thanks to this fear that Yemen continues to receive ample support, she said.
"Yemenis have to basically take their destiny in their own hands," Manea said, adding that the problem lies with the ruling elites' 30 years of mismanagement that brought the country to ruin. A change in power is necessary, she said.
That, however, is not on the horizon. The current elite are as influential as ever and supporters and opponents of ousted president Saleh are not likely to reconcile. "It doesn't seem they want to find a compromise," Manea said. "Both groups are armed to the teeth. But neither is strong enough to eliminate the other."
Cause for concern
Disappointment over the political developments is on the rise among Yemenis. Disillusionment reigns among young demonstrators who took to the streets in protest against Saleh. Many, according to Human Rights Watch, are still in prison.
"We have seen continuing violations of human rights in Yemen, not withstanding the transfer of the government from the former long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh to his former deputy Hadi," Letta Taylor of the rights organization told DW. The violations are not as apparent or brazen as before, she said, but they give cause for concern. She mentioned attacks on independent or opposition media and detainees who were "held incommunicado for days, weeks, or months at a time and also tortured."
Taylor urged the Friends of Yemen to make their aid more conditional on progress on human rights issues. "We would also like to see the friends of Yemen push hard in the EU and the UN Security Council for sanctions against human rights violators in the government, or against former government officials who have violated human rights in the past. The sanctions that we would like to see include asset freezes and travel bans," the aid expert said.
There was no mention of sanctions at this first round of international talks in Saudi Arabia aimed at stabilizing Yemen. The Friends of Yemen are scheduled to meet again at the end of June to substantiate their pledges.
Author: Nils Naumann /db
Editor Gregg Benzow