In the last few weeks, Yemen -- a mostly unnoticed and unheard-of country on the southern Arabian peninsula -- has been thrust into the international spotlight. Although the Al Qaeda network has been quietly gaining a foothold in the country for some time now, the recent attempt by one of its members to detonate a bomb on a US airline has propelled the country to the top of the news cycle and the Western foreign policy agenda. If most Americans know Yemen, it is probably from the Friends episode where Chandler boards a plane for Sana'a to escape a revolting girlfriend. Now they are wondering where this country came from and what to make of it.
A couple of years ago I spent five weeks in Yemen. I don't pretend that this gives me any sort of special insight into what's going on there or how to solve the myriad problems that the country faces. But my initial impression of the news coverage is that, with some exceptions, it has been far to narrowly focused on the question of Al Qaeda, ignoring the array of concomitant problems that make Yemen such a potentially explosive place.
Probably this is due to general ignorance on the part of most commentators, analysts, and journalists -- the American public are not the only ones who have ignored Yemen for years. But examining a country through the extremely narrow lens of anti-terrorism and security can create a host of problems. The US government turned a blind eye to the network of interrelated issues in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq before sending in troops. It chose to act now and ask questions later -- a mistake that hopefully will not be repeated in Yemen.
The most egregious shortcoming in the recent coverage is the utter inability of commentators to fathom how Al Qaeda becoming stronger can fail to be the number one priority for the Yemeni government. Al Qaeda is the West's number one security concern. How can it not be Yemen's?
The problem is that the Yemeni state is under attack from so many sides that it can hardly hold itself together. Analysts overlook the devastating civil war with Houthi rebels in the north, which the government has several times come close to losing. They forget that Yemen is actually the combination of two formerly autonomous (and hostile) countries and that many in the South yearn for re-independence. Recently they have grown increasingly active in seeking it. Moreover, politics in Sana'a are volatile at the moment, as President Saleh will likely end his tenure soon (after a mere three decades in office) leading to a great deal of uncertainty over who will succeed him. And then there are the myriad social and economic problems: a water table that is almost depleted, an almost spent oil supply, rapid population growth, a lack of employment options, and one of the highest gun-to-citizen ratios in the world.
Frankly, if I were Yemen I'm not sure that Al Qaeda would be top of my list either.