Yemen: Discontent and Poverty Simmer in West's New Front Against al-Qaida
Arab country's dwindling oil revenues and vocal Islamist opposition present a volatile mixture
It has four soaring minarets, seven ornate domes and can be seen from all over Sana'a: the Yemeni capital's Salih mosque is a vast monument to the country's president, Ali Abdullah Salih, its lights blazing all night even when power cuts plunge parts of the city into darkness.
"Look at it," said Nasser al-Rimahi, a teacher. "Do you know how many millions that mosque cost? Do you know the state of our hospitals and schools, the problems of making a living here? They say it was a gift from the president. But where did he get his money from?"
Salih has compared ruling Yemen to "dancing with snakes" – a striking image in a predominantly tribal country whose water and oil are fast running out and which has catastrophic rates of poverty, illiteracy and population growth. But it has taken the spectre of jihadi terrorism to galvanise global interest unprecedented in his 31 years in power.
Alarm bells went off when the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, praised todayby Osama bin Laden as a "heroic warrior", tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day. The stark realisation that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) could strike so far beyond its Yemeni base has resulted in a high-profile international conference in London this week to discuss the twin issues of terrorism and development, and co-ordinate efforts to help a state which some say is failing in slow motion.
Many Yemenis say the threat from Aqap is exaggerated by western governments and media. "Life here is normal," said Ismail Sohaily, of al-Iman University, fighting off a reputation as a hotbed of Islamist activism. "This is not Waziristan or Tora Bora. My students joke that they were surprised we weren't blamed for the earthquake in Haiti."
Still, normality in Sana'a includes a fortress-like US embassy hit by suicide bombers in 2008, troops searching vehicles for wanted men and weapons and displays of counterterrorist firepower for the foreign TV crews who poured in after the Detroit incident. "The media frenzy is over now," said commentator Nasser Arabyee, "but Yemen's problems remain."
It is not hard to gauge public opinion. Salih presides over a system of what one expert calls "pluralised authoritarianism," with a vocal and predominantly Islamist opposition and a press that is highly critical despite a crackdown in recent years.
Fears about terrorism are bad for desperately needed foreign investment and tourism. "It has been very hard these last few months," lamented a shopkeeper in Sana'a's labyrinthine old city, his cheek bulging with qat as he surveyed his unsold stock of curved daggers, brocaded belts and jewellery. "It's all because of the security problems."
But fighting against rebels of the Shia Houthi clan in the north, the economy, corruption, separatist unrest in the south, malnutrition and a young population of 23 million that will double in 20 years all feature higher than al-Qaida in most people's lists of concerns.
"There is the ideology of al-Qaida that you can't get rid of very easily," said Jalal Omar Yaqoub, deputy finance minister. "Yemen has become fertile ground for it because of its economic and development challenges. Citizens want job opportunities, basic services, electricity, water, healthcare and the rule of law. If these are available the majority will be law-abiding; the security forces can deal with the small minority who are not."
Yaqoub is one of a "new gang" of technocrats close to Salih's son, Ahmed Ali, expected by some to succeed his father. But critics caution that the president will have to give up some of his immense power to allow formal government to function more effectively. "If Salih continues to rule like this the economy will collapse," argued Abdel-Ghani al-Iryani, a consultant. "The regime must understand that if it wants to survive, it must change."
Economics, development, politics and terrorism are seen as inextricably interlinked: diminishing oil revenues have limited Salih's ability to buy support and maintain security in provinces such as Abyan, Shabwa and Marib – "ungoverned spaces" where al-Qaida is operating. The snake-dancing is getting riskier.
Yemeni officials hope that the current international concern will produce financial aid – $4bn a year is the figure bandied around. But Washington and London insist there will be no "blank cheques" or new pledges unless serious reforms get under way. Fuel subsidies, which consume a staggering third of state spending, are a prime target; thinning the ranks of the bloated civil service another. Both feature in a 10-point reform plan drawn up by Yaqoub and praised by the US.
Help may come from Saudi Arabia, increasingly worried by the dangers from its poorer neighbour. It already pays billions of dollars a year to Yemeni sheikhs and others but has no long-term development strategy. Agreement by the Saudis and smaller Gulf states to reopen their labour markets – closed to Yemeni workers since Salih rashly backed Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait – could generate huge sums in remittances. That would be far better than any handout.
Diplomats say Salih is watching his back: Sheikh Abdel-Majid al-Zindani, the cleric and Afghan war veteran who taught Osama bin Laden and founded al-Iman university, has already warned of an American plot to occupy Yemen – despite Barack Obama's insistence that he will not put US "boots on the ground".
Iraq and Afghanistan have taught painful lessons about getting too close to Washington: with the vast majority of Yemenis against foreign intervention, US involvement is likely to remain discreet. "It's a lose-lose situation," said a former official. "When the government attacks al-Qaida the opposition and the Islamists go crazy. The US has unrealistic expectations of what can be done."
So what can the London conference achieve? "We're seeing results in [Yemen's] counterterrorism efforts and we want to see similar results when it comes to development," Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said on Friday. Yet some in Sana'a worry that for the west, fighting al-Qaida will take precedence.
"International support may empower Salih to be more repressive," warned Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor of the Yemen Times.
"I haven't seen corrupt officials being tried. The government needs to be made more accountable. Help can't be given unconditionally. It doesn't have to be about bombing al-Qaida. It's got to be about re-instating the rule of law, about things that matter to the Yemeni people - not just to the outside world."