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What to do in Yemen: Five Basic Suggestions

Over the past several days I have been asked numerous times to explain what I think the US should do in Yemen, and while I am not a policymaker and generally shy away from making prescriptions – largely because I do not always trust the people tasked with implementing them – I have made a list of five basic suggestions. (Because: A. people love lists and B. five is a good, small number that I can type up over coffee in the morning on vacation.)

This is less a blueprint for success in Yemen than it is a basic checklist. Nor is it comprehensive so much as it is a starting point. As I write in a forthcoming piece:

In the absence of any easy or obvious solutions, Yemeni advisers and a surprising number of foreign experts are putting their faith in the country’s blind ability to muddle through the multitude of challenges it will face in 2010. This belief is buoyed by intimate knowledge of the past – Yemen, they claim, has seen far worse and survived – but such an argument confuses history with analysis. And in Yemen hope, even desperate hope, is not a strategy.

I have long argued that success in Yemen requires a localized, nuanced and multi-faceted response to the challenge of al-Qaeda in Yemen. This requires a great deal of expertise and in-depth, localized knowledge, which I am not always sure neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia possess let alone the US and its European allies. Military strikes alone are not the answer, as I have said repeatedly over the past few weeks: “There is no magic missile solution to the problem of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Bring in Saudi Arabia: The US must work behind the scenes to convince Saudi Arabia that US goals of destroying al-Qaeda in Yemen and stabilizing the country are in Saudi Arabia’s best interest. This will not be easy, but it is essential. Without at least the tacit acceptance of Saudi Arabia anything the US attempts to do in the country can be subverted. Saudi Arabia is by far the most powerful foreign actor within Yemen, but it is not a monolithic one. Towards this end the US must draw Saudi Arabia out of the al-Huthi conflict in the north and use its considerable influence in San‘a and throughout the tribal regions in the north to help end active fighting in Sa‘dah as an initial step towards a cease-fire.

Treat Yemen as a whole: The US and other European and western countries cannot afford to focus on the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen to the exclusion of every other challenge. There has to be a holistic approach and an understanding that all of the crises in Yemen exacerbate and play-off against each other. Simply targeting the organization with military strikes cannot defeat al-Qaeda. Something has to be done to bring a political solution to both the al-Huthi conflict as well as the threat of secession in the south. Not dealing with these will only open up more space for al-Qaeda to operate in as well as creating an environment of chaos and instability that will play into the organization’s strength. Indeed, by focusing so exclusively on al-Qaeda and by viewing Yemen only through the prism of counter-terrorism the US has induced exactly the same type of results it is hoping to avoid. This demands much more development aid to the country as a way of dealing with local grievances in an attempt to peel-off would-be members of al-Qaeda.

Reverse the Trend: The US must also swim up current against bureaucratic muscle memory and attempt to reverse recent trends. In particular it should move closer to the risk management side of the spectrum than remaining on the risk prevention side, where current US diplomacy is stuck. Certainly there are very real security threats in Yemen, but cloistering diplomats inside a fortress like embassy compound and having them scurry back to the fortress-like housing compound in Hada is not a good way to get to know the country and it certainly does not provide the type of localized nuanced knowledge that is a prerequisite for success in Yemen.

Utilize Institutional Knowledge: Due to the very real security threats in Yemen, the country is an unaccompanied post, meaning that spouses are only allowed to come if they can find work inside the embassy while dependants of certain ages are not allowed to come. In practical terms this means that the US is sending younger and more inexperienced diplomats to a country that demands it send its most knowledgeable and experienced foreign policy hands. I have often criticized US policy in recent years towards Yemen as a dangerous mixture of ignorance and arrogance. And I continue to hold this view, though it pains me to do so, as I know many of the diplomats and many of them are brave and intelligent young women and men who perform extraordinary services. But as a whole, my pointed criticism remains, I believe, accurate. The short tours – 2-3 years – also have an impact, as much institutional knowledge is lost. In Yemen, personal relationships mean a great deal and there is too much seepage when a political officer is replaced after such a short time in Yemen. Not only does the incoming officer have to reinvent the proverbial wheel but they also have to re-learn the tribal and political geography of an incredibly complex country. Many Yemenis view their relationships not through the prism of dealing with a US representative but rather with an individual and known entity while the constant turnover undermines trust within the country.

Go on the Offensive: The US must be much more active in presenting its views to the Yemeni public. This does not mean giving interviews to the Yemen Observer or the Yemen Times or even al-Hurra, which is at least in Arabic. It means writing and placing op-eds in Arabic in widely read Yemeni newspapers like al-Thawra. I detailed a golden opportunity that the US missed with the Shaykh Muhammad al-Mu’ayyad case in August in a report I wrote for the CTC Sentinel (which is available on the sidebar). This also means allowing US diplomats to go to qat chews in Yemen – and even, perish the thought, chew qat with Yemenis. The US should be honest about what qat is and what it does and not hide behind antiquated rules that penalize a version of the stimulant that does not exist in Yemen. Whether or not the US knows it, it is engaged in a propaganda war with al-Qaeda in Yemen and it is losing and losing badly. US public diplomacy is all defense and no offense in Yemen, this has to change or the results of the past few years will remain the roadmap for the future. And that future will witness an increasingly strong al-Qaeda presence in Yemen.


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