GENEVA (Reuters) - Yemen, home to what Washington considers al Qaeda's most dangerous wing, has the chance of a bright future, the top U.N. official in the country said on Thursday, but needs help to deal with a major humanitarian crisis that threatens its stability.
Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, also told reporters at a briefing in Geneva that poverty, unemployment and scarce water supplies meant its recovery was still precarious.
"This is a situation that is full of hope," Ould Cheikh Ahmed said. "It is often quoted as an example. People say: 'Why don't we use the model of Yemen for the region?'
"The problem is, I'm saying to the world it could collapse today because many of the Yemenis, half of the population, need food assistance, need medical assistance. There is no water access. The youth cannot find jobs."
Yemen's humanitarian problems, including its one million malnourished children, were partly the result of decades of mismanagement, he added.
Yemen was ruled for more than 30 years by Ali Abdullah Saleh before he was forced out after months of protests early last year in one of several Arab Spring revolutions.
A transitional government is now in power, under a process which should bring a new constitution by the end of 2013 and new presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2014.
"Finally we are having a situation in the Middle East where we have a chance of the transition succeeding," Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.
But the transitional government lacks the mandate to take tough steps, including cracking down on qat, a mild stimulant leaf that most Yemeni adults chew regularly, sometimes with adverse effects on productivity.
It is also a serious drain on water supplies in a country where 13 million people out of a population of some 24 million have no access to safe drinking water.
The interim government has managed to improve security by driving militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) out of the Abyan region in the south, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.
"But unfortunately what you see there is that every single house has been destroyed. The mosque has been destroyed. The governor's house has been destroyed, the schools, the hospitals."
AQAP has emerged as one of al Qaeda's most active and ambitious branches, and despite the setbacks it suffered in the U.S.-backed military offensive in Yemen, it continues to launch attacks on the army and security apparatus.
The United Nations estimates it needs $716 million this year for Yemen's humanitarian needs, including 300,000 mainly Somali refugees, but has only received 28 percent of that so far.
If Yemen can remain stable, it has the opportunity to tap large reserves of private investment including from Yemenis in neighboring oil exporter Saudi Arabia, Ould Cheikh Ahmed said.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Mike Collett-White)