There is an old Yemeni proverb which reads: “Do not sigh, for your enemy will hear and rejoice.” Following last week’s terrorism scare there was an audible sigh from journalists and politicians as they frantically typed Yemen into the google search engine.
Even after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwestern Airlines flight 253 this is a country that we know precious little about. A cursory glance at the shelves of even the most reputable bookshop shows that we know much about Yemen’s past but precious little about the Yemen of today or tomorrow future. If there was ever a case for not cutting the higher education budget this is it – we have never needed anthropologists more.
With such a dearth of information it is all too easy to fall back on stereotypical images of Yemen as an economically backward, and politically corrupt backwater of the Middle East where tribal affiliation and religious identity make it a fertile recruitment ground for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Such analysis ignores the complex interplay of variables both in Yemen and the wider region. There is a danger therefore that since Yemen now only exists to us because of the events of last week, that the media and political focus will be security driven.
This is perhaps understandable but it would be a mistake. There are inevitable dangers with a security first approach. The US pledged $150 million in military assistance to Yemen earlier this year and drones have been operating in the area ever since. The unintentional killing of a local tribal elder, Sheikh Jaber al-Shabwani, in May shows just how precarious such a strategy is in a country where public opinion is extremely hostile to US foreign policy.
It will be intriguing to see how the British government responds to recent events. The coalition government places a high premium on tackling threats at source and has shown a willingness to use its growing aid budget as a wider instrument of foreign policy.
If the government ventures down this route then it should do so knowing that Yemen needs more than just humanitarian assistance to keep the country afloat. The last thing Yemen needs is a hearts and minds initiative similar to that which occurred in Afghanistan. It should reflect on the Yemeni proverb that says ‘look to your near neighbour rather than your distant brother’ when you are in need.
Yemen needs long-term assistance to help manage its transition to a post oil dependent economy. It is increasingly marginal both to the global market and the regional economy of the Arabian peninsula. Yemen’s strategic decline is best illustrated by the fact that Yemen’s once prestigious ports of Aden and Hodeida that dominated the shipping lanes connecting East and West are now overshadowed by Djibouti and Dubai. Entry into the Gulf Cooperation Council (and access to the economic benefits of membership) needs to be part of a comprehensive development strategy. In all of this, however, the government will need to resolve whether it works through tribal connections in an effort to bypass state corruption or whether its focus is a formal state building agenda.
None of this is easy and much of it will require long-term assistance, but with 60% of college students being female we should not sigh too much, Yemen is not Afghanistan.