Yemen’s 15 Minutes of Fame

The world's attention may have moved on since January, but that doesn't mean the country's problems have disappeared.


Remember Yemen? For a few short weeks this winter, after the Yemen-trained Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried (and failed) to blow up a commercial airliner in Detroit, the troubled country found itself under a rare media spotlight. Journalists descended on the capital, Sanaa; pundits offered advice for fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ending Yemen’s two insurgencies. Congress called hearings. Yemen’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, was a regular guest on international news networks.

The country was the new Afghanistan, many said, the latest worrisome safe haven for al Qaeda and its affiliates. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman declared it "tomorrow’s war."

And now: nothing. Most of the reporters who landed in Yemen shortly after the failed bombing have left the country. If you search Google News for "Yemen," you’ll get 24,100 results for January. For February? Just 593 — many of them wire stories or items from the handful of blogs that regularly cover the country. The contrast is even starker on TV news, where the word "Yemen" was uttered exactly twice on U.S. evening newscasts in February, both times in the context of the bombing plot.

In Washington, too, the discussion has largely stopped: The congressional hearings and think-tank discussions have ended, and Yemen only merited mention at one State Department press briefing in February.

The Abdulmutallab plot convinced Americans that they should pay attention to Yemen — but as quickly as it arrived in the public consciousness, it disappeared. The few weeks of media attention did little to dispel popular misconceptions of the country, so often portrayed as a drug-addled nation of radical terrorist sympathizers. Journalists who should probably know better often reinforced the myths: Thomas Friedman’s two Yemen columns in February recounted a khat chew and fretted about Osama bin Laden greeting him at Sanaa’s airport. The brief public debate also failed to answer a number of key policy questions or clarify the United States’ often muddled Yemen policy.

The lack of attention now is unfortunate because — despite the media’s silence — quite a bit has happened in Yemen over the last few weeks. The Zaidi Shiite rebels in northern Yemen — the Houthis — agreed to cease-fires with both the Yemeni and Saudi governments. The rebels have taken steps to implement both truces, releasing most of their Saudi prisoners of war and clearing roadblocks from northern Yemen.

But though the fighting has largely stopped, reconstruction has yet to begin. Northern Yemen’s infrastructure is shattered after years of war: The fighting has demolished "7,180 houses, 1,412 farms, 267 mosques, 94 schools, eight medical centers, four police stations, three court buildings, three other government facilities and two religious centers," according to an estimate published in January in Small Wars Journal. A quarter-million people have been displaced in Yemen, and many have been displaced in villages in Saudi Arabia along the border.

Western countries have pledged to provide development and humanitarian assistance to Yemen; rebuilding the devastated north should be a major goal of those aid efforts. And yet the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in late February had to approve a $5 million bridge loan to finance its operations in northern Yemen. It shifted money away from other programs, in other words, so it could continue to provide basic services to refugees and internally displaced persons in Yemen’s border regions.

Why was this kind of last-ditch effort necessary? Because international donors have contributed less than 10 percent of the $39 million the UNHCR says it needs to fund operations in northern Yemen this year.

"This step is an alternative to scaling down or suspending UNHCR’s protection and assistance programs," Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the agency in Geneva, said at a news briefing.

Refugees in the north might seem irrelevant to policymakers in Washington or London. The Houthi conflict is an internal issue (though it has drawn in Saudi Arabia as well), and predominantly Shiite northern Yemen isn’t a very fertile recruiting ground for a stridently Sunni organization like al Qaeda.

But the Houthi conflict is a central piece of Yemen’s complex political and socioeconomic puzzle. The Yemeni government has spent millions of dollars fighting the Houthis since 2004, draining an already-depleted treasury. And every dollar that’s spent fighting the rebels is a dollar that can’t be used to fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — or to spur economic development in a desperately poor country where half the population lives on $2 or less per day.

The Houthi conflict has quieted down, for now, though previous cease-fires have collapsed after weeks or months. In southern Yemen, the government continues to round up members of the separatist movement: More than 130 people were arrested in the last week of February, and Tariq al-Fadhli, the separatists’ leader, has pledged "acts of civil disobedience" against the government.

Both of these conflicts distract the government from dealing with the small AQAP presence in the country. Yemen’s Interior Ministry made a much-publicized pledge on Feb. 9 to fight the group "around the clock" — or that’s how it was reported, at least. The actual Arabic statement, though, made almost no mention of al Qaeda; instead, it promised to fight "the terrorists" — al-irhabeen — a shorthand the government often uses for all its internal threats. The statement pleased an international audience, which viewed it as proof of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s willingness to fight al Qaeda, but it was also intended as a not-so-veiled threat to his domestic foes.

Another unanswered question is the proper role of development aid. Both of Yemen’s insurgencies are fueled, in part, by complaints about a lack of economic development and the government’s inability to provide basic services. Economic issues, then, should be a key part of Western policy toward Yemen, but questions linger about what sort of foreign aid is best. Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University and an FP contributor, has urged more development aid "as a way of dealing with local grievances in an attempt to peel-off would-be members of al-Qaeda." FP’s Marc Lynch notes the government’s "mind-boggling" corruption and advises a more modest approach to foreign aid.

International donors have pledged to give more, though specific commitments are still vague. Representatives from Gulf Cooperation Council countries — plus the United States and the European Union — met in Riyadh on Feb. 27 for another international conference on aid to Yemen. President Saleh is looking to raise $40 billion from international donors over the next five years but got little in concrete commitments.

The United States, for its part, has pledged to deliver $121 million in development aid to Yemen over the next three years. The U.S. Agency for International Development says the money will focus on a few key areas, such as increasing youth employment and improving the Yemeni government’s ability to deliver health care and education. That’s an insignificant sum — less than $2 per Yemeni per year — and it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on Yemen’s economic problems.

Most U.S. aid to Yemen is still focused on the military. Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, was the first high-ranking U.S. official to visit Yemen after the Christmas Day bombing plot. He met personally with Saleh and delivered a letter that promised to double the United States’ $70 million annual budget for training and equipping Yemen’s security forces.

Military aid would undoubtedly help Sanaa combat AQAP. Saleh’s government, though, views security assistance as "dual use": New training and hardware will help the Yemeni Army fight the Houthis and the southern separatists. But the Army’s conduct in both conflicts has often been brutal — so U.S. support for those conflicts, even unintentional, could fuel anti-American sentiment in Yemen.

"Countries working with the Yemeni government should recognize that many Yemenis see their government as a greater threat to their security than al Qaeda," Human Rights Watch wrote in a Jan. 22 memo, which urged the United States to ensure its security assistance is not used to commit human rights abuses.

Security assistance is ultimately a short-term fix to a long-term problem. Yemen’s mounting economic woes — the country is running out of oil and water, the official unemployment rate is 35 percent, the state-run power company can meet only 83 percent of the country’s rapidly growing electricity demand — will rapidly become a regional concern, as impoverished Yemenis leave the country in search of work.

And that failing economy could create security problems for the region and the West. AQAP remains deeply unpopular in Yemen; the group has less than 300 active members in the country, according to most estimates from Western and Yemeni intelligence officials. But the group has shown itself able to exploit Yemen’s internal grievances, particularly in the south, as a useful recruiting tool. As the economy deteriorates, the government’s ability to provide services — and thus its authority — will continue to weaken. That could make parts of Yemen a useful base for AQAP and affiliated groups.

Yemen will surely never command the attention that, say, Afghanistan does — at least not while U.S. soldiers are fighting and dying in the latter. But Washington still needs a holistic policy toward Yemen, one that addresses the country’s longstanding socioeconomic problems and political grievances. That requires a sustained focus from policymakers and analysts (and even reporters!) — not a reactive approach that simply escalates military aid without regard for the consequences and offers superficial solutions to Yemen’s woes.

Gregg Carlstrom is a journalist based in Cairo.