For many in Congress, Yemen evokes a predominantly negative image, one characterized by al-Qaida. Recent targeting of German and Russian nationals in Sana’a doesn’t help. Preparing for my recent trip there, I was warned about kidnapping. While kidnapping of foreigners is not uncommon, my time in Yemen offers a more positive perspective.
Americans could be very comfortable in Yemen if they don’t burn credit accrued in 2011 among Sana’a’s politicos. The U.S. supported, albeit imperfectly, a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that helped bring Yemen out of revolution and toward a democratically elected government. Amid anti-American sentiment among revolutionary youth, the U.S. supported a process by which Yemen’s major political and tribal parties came to the table for a national dialogue, setting Yemen on a course for a new constitution and presidential and parliamentary elections.
Yet, as the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights reiterated last year, what is burning America’s credit are indiscriminate drone strikes. Congress’ counterpart in Yemen, that country’s parliament, has consistently condemned the use of drones and has recommended prohibition. The consensus on Sana’a streets is that drones have yielded no positive results and have created more sympathy, not less, for al-Qaida. Now, the subsequent tit-for-tat is spiraling out of control, and April’s massive U.S. drone strike in Yemen, against people who have yet to be identified because “signature” drone strikes don’t require identification, is exemplary of the excessive nature of these killings.
Drone availability has made it easy for Washington to ignore the root causes of conflict in Yemen: lack of justice and rule of law (half of the country lacks basic policing mechanisms), marginalization and lack of political representation, abuse of government authority, and pervasive poverty. One study suggests 75 percent of Yemen’s local conflicts are over water and land. Water is now a national security issue because the country will be out of it within most Yemenis’ lifetime. If America can help address this, we have the potential to prevent violence.
Congressional action to help Yemen politically and economically is, therefore, critical. Their government is broke. And with an unofficial unemployment rate as high as 60 percent, the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy in the Arab world, and with more than half the population living in food insecurity, without clean water or sanitation, Yemen needs help now.
If Congress wants to stabilize Yemen so that al-Qaida’s foothold weakens, a different tack must be taken. What surfaced in my meetings with Yemeni sheikhs and tribal leaders, parliamentarians, government officials, civil society and media is that — in addition to good governance and tackling corruption — a basic development agenda is a must. Congressional pressure on the former and support for the latter would help rebuild trust in the U.S. and reinforce faith in Yemen’s government (weaker now than it was in 2011).
Good governance and development agendas can run concurrently. But America must lead by example when routing out corruption in Yemen. The stories of foreign donors wasting millions on unrealized projects are too common. There’s work to be done among international actors as much as local ones.