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  Book review

Yemen into the Twenty-First Century: 
Continuity and Change 

Edited by Kamil Mahdi, Anna Wurth and Helen Lackner

Ithaca Press, 2007. Pp. xxviii 464. Tables & Figures. Maps. Acronyms. Bibliog. Notes. Index. Hb. £35. ISBN: 978-086372- 290-5. 

This book contains a selection of papers which were originally presented at an international conference on Yemen convened at the University of Exeter in April 1998. The aim of the conference was to consider the major issues influencing Yemen’s development during the years following the country’s unification in 1990. From a total of some forty contributions presented at the 1998 conference the editors of this volume have selected 18 papers, relating primarily to economic, social and legal issues, some of which have been revised to take account of recent developments. The editors offer no explanation for the long delay in producing the book; they do however express gratitude for the financial and moral support which the project received from the government of Yemen. 

The book is divided into four parts, with its component papers grouped under the following four headings: (1) Structural Adjustment and the Political Economy of Yemen; (2) The Legal System; (3) Environment, Water and Agricultural Land Tenure; and (4) Social and Regional Issues. The book includes an introduction summarising the main points of each paper and offering a thoughtful overview of post-unity Yemen in its domestic and international context. This overview underlines the relevance to contemporary Yemen of the issues discussed in 1998. 

Anyone aspiring to an informed understanding of the factors likely to determine Yemen’s prospects in the years ahead should read this book. It may seem invidious to highlight particular contributions but one which is of crucial importance is Christopher Ward’s paper on Yemen’s water crisis. In terms of its water resources Yemen is considered to be a ‘dry’country. Yet groundwater continues to be mined at such a rate, estimated at five times the rate of replenishment, that parts of the rural economy (which sustains 70% of the country’s population) could well disappear within a generation. Major cities are already suffering acute water shortages; Sana’a’s main sources of supply are drying up. A majority of the urban and rural population, which is already over 20 million and is due to double within the next twenty years, do not have access to safe water. This stark fact has obvious implications for public health, human development and poverty reduction – all issues tackled in detail in other papers. In terms of water alone, Yemen faces an existential challenge, yet the gravity of this challenge seems not to be widely recognised and has yet to be effectively addressed, not least by international donors. In fact, as the editors point out in their introduction, the West’s current ‘security first’ approach to Yemen is diverting energy and attention from fundamental problems of political economy, natural resource management and institutional development. And some observers would argue that this myopic approach has encouraged the Yemeni leadership to take a sledgehammer to crack nuts of domestic dissent. Meanwhile, poverty and unemployment, exacerbated by the economic reform programme sponsored by the World Bank and IMF, continue to rise at a time when oil production has peaked. 

The overall message of this book is a sombre one: Yemen is living on borrowed time, and the country’s long term viability as a state and society is in increasing jeopardy. 

John Shipman