Our Man in Sanaa

Why the big problem with Yemen is Yemen's president.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

SANAA, Yemen — The scene in Yemen’s capital Sept. 20 was almost embarrassing, according to those who looked on: John Brennan, the influential White House counterterrorism advisor, was trying to leave Sanaa after a fly-in, fly-out visit with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh about his country’s burgeoning al Qaeda branch.

But Saleh was too busy pleading for U.S. cash to let the 25-year CIA veteran drive away, according to people familiar with Brennan’s visit. Clutching Brennan by the arm, Yemen’s burly president of 30-plus years stood at the open door of Brennan’s limo, pressing his appeals that the United States pay up now, not later, on the $300 million that Barack Obama’s administration is planning to give Yemen over the near term to help it combat al Qaeda. (Someone finally eased shut the limo door on the Yemeni leader, allowing Brennan to get away, witnesses said.)

And everyone knows what will happen if Saleh doesn’t get more free money, because it’s a threat Saleh and his officials use at every opportunity to demand international aid: Without an urgent and unending infusion of foreign cash, it will lose its fight against the aggressive Saudi and Yemeni offshoots of al Qaeda that Saleh long allowed — though he doesn’t admit that part of the story — to make their home here in Yemen.

"No friend of Yemen can stand by when the economy of that state comes close to collapse … or when the authority of the government is challenged by extremism, by violence, by crime, or by corruption," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Sept. 24 in New York, striking the spunky, this-is-Yemen’s-finest-hour theme at a "Friends of Yemen" conference of officials of roughly 30 countries gathered together to brainstorm propping up the Arab world’s poorest and most chaotic country despite Yemen’s best efforts to collapse.

Yemeni Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar echoed the World War II theme when it came to hinting what kind of money international donors might want to drop on the dresser on the way out — that is, if they want Yemen to fight al Qaeda.

"Certainly, we need a Marshall Plan for supporting Yemen. I believe the amount needed is around 40 billion dollars," Mujawar told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. (Yemen’s annual GDP is a mere $27 billion.)

Reviewing Yemen’s recent history suggests a different idea: The big problem with Yemen isn’t al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nor is it the Zaidi Shiite rebellion in Yemen’s north or the separatist movement in Yemen’s south. It isn’t the 40 percent unemployment. It isn’t the near one-in-10 childhood mortality rate or the malnutrition that causes more than half the country’s children to be stunted. Although all those factors exist, tragically, in this hospitable, ancient, and beautiful country, and all are grave, none of them is Yemen’s main problem.

No, the big problem with Yemen is Yemen’s president — Saleh.

The perpetually shortsighted corruption and mismanagement of Saleh and his circle have been such that almost everyone — Westerners, Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors, many Yemenis — routinely use that word "collapse," speculating more on the "when" than the "if."

Yemen moved squarely to the front of U.S. security worries last December when a Nigerian allegedly trained by al Qaeda in Yemen tried to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound airliner. Ambitious and energetic, led in part by Saudi veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemeni branch is known, has launched almost daily attacks this summer and early fall on Yemeni security and intelligence forces. Some U.S. intelligence officials and others see Yemen’s branch as the gravest threat to the United States, and U.S. Central Command said this summer it wants to pump $120 billion in military aid into Yemen over the coming years to help it fight al Qaeda.

U.S. State Department officials publicly have been more measured so far, saying they will direct more than $100 million of the new nonmilitary aid to building public services and civil society. Brennan, one of the most adamant in the Obama administration about the threat of al Qaeda in Yemen, made his trip here last week with a letter from Obama to Saleh calling the United States "committed" to helping Yemen.

No one doubts that the threat to Saleh’s government from the few hundred al Qaeda fighters here is real. But no one doubts, given Saleh’s history, that the Yemeni leader is trying to exploit that threat to gain foreign aid and squelch political opponents and dissidents.

The West, the Arab states in the Persian Gulf, and others have already put $5.7 billion on offer to Yemen since 2006, as Yemen’s al Qaeda threat grew. But Saleh’s ineffective government has been unable to come up with concrete spending and monitoring plans that satisfy the donors. The Friends of Yemen conference was intended to sidestep those concerns and come up with a way to push development regardless, perhaps by establishing an additional development fund for the country.

What Yemen needs most isn’t more cash, though, but a government that spreads its cash to the people, rather than steals it. Military and domestic aid given without the strictest of conditions and oversight will only let Saleh’s government continue to ignore all pressure for reform, perpetuating the disaffection and suffering that sustain insurgencies and al Qaeda.

When it comes to short-sightedness regarding Yemen’s best interests, Saleh and his ruling family circle have demonstrated a near unerring propensity to err since he assumed the presidency in 1978, after leading a military coup in 1962. Since then, Saleh has built a power system based heavily on buying the goodwill of Yemen’s tribal leaders, allegedly paying them to deliver the votes of their people in election after election.

In the first Gulf War, Saleh cast what became known as the most expensive "no" in history — voting against international deployment to roll back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Yemen’s Gulf neighbors expelled Yemeni workers from their countries, lastingly depriving Yemen of remittances, the mainstay of its tiny economy.

The blunders continued. Saleh allowed al Qaeda members to make their homes here as long as they didn’t target his government (a gentleman’s agreement broken only in recent years). Instead of incorporating southern Yemenis after the 1994 north-south civil war, Saleh marginalized them, politically and economically. Anger in the south has fed insurgencies and protests against Saleh’s government, creating southern discontent that al Qaeda is now trying to exploit.

In 2004 when the Zaidis, a religiously oriented sect in Yemen’s north, took up arms against the government, Saleh’s military rocketed and mortared the cities and towns of the north, according to residents there — killing hundreds if not thousands of his people and doubling and doubling and doubling again the ranks of fighters for and supporters of the northern rebels.

Corruption — the theft of Yemeni public funds and foreign aid — is so rampant here it would make Afghan President Hamid Karzai blush. In a country with one of the highest child-mortality rates in the Middle East, where only about half the people have access to medical services, top government officials and low-ranking workers alike steal and waste half of the slim allocation that the government devotes to health care, according to the World Health Organization.

Saleh’s government also has resisted significantly scaling back an outdated fuel-su
bsidy program that sucks up more than 10 percent of Yemen’s GDP — perhaps because, according to Abdul-Ghani Iryani, a Yemeni development analyst, Saleh’s cronies are skimming $2 billion a year off the program for their own pockets.

Estimates are that Yemen, a country at peace with all its neighbors, spends from one-third to one-half of its budget on security and intelligence services, keeping a lid on its own people.

On the day Brennan visited, Yemeni forces with U.S. help staged an attack on an al Qaeda hideout in the southeast. But the siege ended with the showy Yemeni cordon of tanks, artillery, troops, and warplanes around the town of Huta somehow letting top al Qaeda leaders escape, as Yemeni forces did last month at another siege in the southern city of Lawdar.

Saleh’s regime appears eager to use the influx of new military aid against its own people, persistently claiming that al Qaeda and Yemen’s southern separatists are one. (Separatist leaders deny it; Saleh’s regime has supplied no hard evidence; and most Westerners are skeptical.)

Saudi Arabia has been one of the worst enablers for Saleh’s regime, bailing it out recently with a more than $2 billion gift of cash just when growing money pressures had economists hoping Yemen might be forced into reform.

U.S. officials seem to be more properly cynical about Saleh and his claims, and working to try to monitor aid for special operations and critical social services.

But if Saleh continues to refuse and delay reforms, the United States and its allies should do something inconceivable in the can-do war on terror: back off and let Saleh feel the pain of his sucked-dry economy and thwarted people. Rather than trying to prop up another wobbly tyrant, as in Afghanistan, the United States would help most by allowing Yemen’s citizens, and potentially better Yemeni leaders, to finally have a say.

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