The inner courtyard of the traffic-police headquarters in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, resembles an open-air market. Across the sprawling yard, drivers haggle with men in uniform, and money changes hands in exchange for registrations and authorizations. Offices in the two buildings that frame the courtyard are used for more complicated business, such as issuing certifications that only the director general can provide. One afternoon, a Yemeni businessman stood on a balcony overlooking the yard. “This is the problem,” he told me. “I had to bribe the police five times just to report a theft from my car. It is everyone for himself,” he said, scurrying off toward a senior officer, a smuggled bottle of Johnny Walker Black in his briefcase.

Similar scenes showing a lack of state authority and of alternative power structures are found across the city. One morning, I visited the interior ministry and spoke to a senior military officer who was busy on the phone trying to prevent the escalation of a land dispute in Aden that had already left two of his cousins dead. As he explained, although the land issue was being tried in court, the deaths had to be resolved between the families. He was trying to persuade the police to confiscate the feuding families’ arms and to negotiate a deal that would compensate his family for the deaths. “This is madness,” he told me in between phone calls.

In this landscape of competing political and tribal authorities, where officials leverage their individual authority to supplement their meager incomes, interest groups fill the voids. They exploit a situation in which President Ali Abdullah Saleh is able to extend his rule over parts of the country only through the proxy of favored tribal leaders. These groups buy the loyalty of segments of the population and manipulate local domestic conflicts to their perceived interests. For example, they emphasize the fact that the tribes in the resource-rich provinces do not share in the benefits of the country’s oil and gas reserves. And Al Qaeda’s regional offshoot, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) garners favor by helping dig wells and paying for health care for the needy. Benefitting from these organizations’ largesse are a number of tribal, religious and political groups including AQAP; puritan non-political Salafis, who seek to emulate the earliest successors to the Prophet Muhammad; Wahhabis, supporters of Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islam; and local tribes.

Conflict rooted in local grievances is inevitable. The absence of a coherent Yemeni government has sparked a bitter war between Houthi tribesmen and Saudi-supported government forces in the north, has led to a secessionist movement in the south, and has provided grounds for powerful tribes to forge alliances with AQAP. Official incompetence and corruption have caused the proceeds of the country’s dwindling oil reserves and water resources to be squandered. As a result, Sana’a is set in the next ten years to become modern history’s first capital to run out of water, according to the Sana’a Basin Water Management Project, which is funded by the World Bank.

After the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, Yemen became the latest focus of Western efforts to defeat global jihadists such as AQAP. One of the poorest countries in the Arab world, Yemen is a study in the difficulty of containing militants and their ability to capitalize on widespread societal grievances, including those regarding cultural rights, bleak economic prospects, corruption, and gripes with the perceived inequitable distribution of power. It also showcases the problems with the West’s reliance on allies with questionable domestic policies, suggesting how hard it is to ensure that aid provided to a dysfunctional and corrupt government is, in fact, used to improve the population’s quality of life. Meanwhile, addressing the grievances on which militants feed is complicated by widespread anti-American sentiment and distrust of Western policy interventions.

The reemergence of an al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, seven years after the group was believed to have been shattered with the death of its leader Abu Ali al-Harithi in a U.S. drone strike, reveals the limitations of a security-dominated approach to defeating the militants. Al Qaeda in Yemen has reconstituted itself as a decentralized group that is more attuned to local grievances; again, decapitation is unlikely to do the trick.

In the United States and Europe, a consensus is emerging that Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states will have to play a key political and financial role in coaxing the Saleh government to implement reforms. But this will require Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to change their policies toward Yemen. They would have to stop manipulating Yemen’s domestic conflicts and instead seek to resolve them. In recent months, Saudi Arabia has joined forces with the Saleh government in fighting tribal rebels in the north who are driven primarily by social, economic, and cultural grievances. A ceasefire with Saudi Arabia, declared by the rebels in January and portrayed by the kingdom as a military victory, has so far evaporated in renewed fighting. But an earlier ceasefire, mediated by Qatar in 2008, failed when Saleh refused to implement it on the advice of the Saudis. A recently agreed-on ceasefire between the Yemeni forces and the rebels is likely to be short-lived if the rebels’ cultural and economic gripes are not addressed. To do so, Saudi cooperation is needed.

The oil-rich Gulf states grouped in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should consider letting their poor stepbrother join the organization. Membership in the GCC is a long-standing Yemeni goal, and the conditions for joining will have to be tough -- a course the GCC has so far refused to entertain. In fact, Yemen’s economic woes have been exacerbated by repeated expulsions, over the past two decades, of Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states heavily dependent on foreign labor. GCC states can offer Yemen an incentive to undertake economic reforms by putting in place labor agreements that both regulate the migration of labor and stop the illegal movement across the Saudi border of Yemenis desperate for economic opportunity.

Enlisting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in the stabilization of Yemen will also require them to stop funding tribal groups inside Yemen to ensure their loyalty, which weakens the government in Sana’a. And it will also have to entail a halt to Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of proselytizing by Salafis and Wahhabis, a majority of whom do not share AQAP’s global jihadist aspirations but who do contribute to an environment of intolerance and religious dogmatism. Wahhabi encroachment among the Shi’as of northern Yemen is one driver of the rebellion in the north.

The influence of puritan interpreters of Islam reaches into the mosques across the country where Salafi and Wahhabi imams preach. At times, the government acts to assert its authority and prevent religious hardliners from taking the law into their own hands. Last year, for example, it cracked down on Chinese massage parlors in Sana’a after a member of parliament warned that the fundamentalists would act against the parlors if the government failed to close them down. Such moves ensure that the fundamentalists will back the government in its efforts to defeat the southern secessionists. The government’s co-optation of the militants appears to be so successful that Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who the U.S. Treasury lists as a “specially designated global terrorist,” declared his support for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s fight against AQAP.

Yet at qat-chewing sessions and in conversations with more liberally inclined Yemenis, stories, often difficult to verify, abound of Salafis and Wahhabis imposing their strict norms on local communities and administering justice on their own. In one case, a group of Salafis allegedly bulldozed a three-story building in Sana’a belonging to a 73-year-old woman accused of running a brothel. When the Salafi perpetrators were charged in court, only one lawyer volunteered to represent the woman. He withdrew after the first court hearing, alleging that the not-guilty verdict had been decided before the proceedings had even begun. In another incident, one Yemeni journalist said he had confirmed a story of a father and son who were killed for allegedly pointing their satellite dish toward Europe to receive pornographic channels. Irrespective of their veracity, stories like these paint a picture of a polarized society in which groups preaching intolerance gain the upper hand virtually unchallenged.

Prior to the failed Christmas Day bombing, the United States and its allies allocated some $5 billion in aid for Yemen. But Yemen’s inability to absorb aid and the degree of its corruption have prevented much of this money from being deployed. In effect, this means that the bulk of support given to Yemen is military-, security-, and law-enforcement-related, while the underlying issues remain unaddressed. Western aid workers hang out at Sana’a’s Arabia Felix Hotel for weeks to lobby officials for the registrations and authorizations they need. The process is often delayed because the NGOs refuse to pay bribes. More often than not, persistence wins, allowing them to implement projects at the local community level. Such projects, which often tackle grievances that nourish AQAP, would benefit from additional funding.

Yemen’s problems have festered for years. Fixing them in a bid to dry up the watering grounds of the likes of AQAP is a complex, long-term, tedious undertaking. Containing the militants and driving a wedge between them and their local allies are important first steps. But so long as they are not coupled with tangible efforts to resolve Yemen’s multiple problems -- the lack of basic services, the dim economic prospects, the mismanagement of the country’s resources, the corruption, the nepotism, and the absence of transparency -- they are unlikely to produce strategic victories. “The problems are too many. They keep multiplying. Who knows if Yemen will hold together?” the Yemeni journalist Zaid Ali Al-Alaya’a said recently, shaking his head in despair. “Today’s operating principle is: ‘What’s in it for me?’ People need hope. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

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  • JAMES M. DORSEY has covered the Middle East as a journalist for more than 30 years for outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and UPI.
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