Where are the Friends of Yemen?

Yemen is teetering on the brink of civil war, and yet the UN Security Council has failed to produce even a joint political statement on the situation there, much less a concrete plan of action to avert this disastrous outcome. Its 15 members have discussed the situation and listened to a report by Jamal Benomar, who travelled to Yemen as an envoy of the UN secretary general. There have been heated debates on how to help Yemen in closed-press meetings, but the only action they have taken is to urge Yemenis to refrain from violence.

One Western diplomat, who preferred to remain anonymous, told journalists that Russia and China are blocking any coordinated action on Yemen and preventing others from taking bold steps in adherence with their policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. In a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Western diplomats are blaming everyone for the crisis in Yemen but themselves. Meanwhile, last year Western countries essentially assumed responsibility for events in that country by establishing the so-called Friends of Yemen group.

President Saleh’s nepotism

Everyone seems to have forgotten about the Friends of Yemen. Could that be because the initiative has failed? Obviously, nobody wants to own up to failure. But it is worth recalling all the lofty rhetoric that came out of this group about how the people of the Arabian Peninsula are dreaming of democracy.

There is a belief in the West that if only the authoritarian leaders in the region were deposed or persuaded to change their ways, these lands would once again become “Arabia Felix” (Happy Arabia), as ancient historians used to refer to them for their beautiful nature and expensive perfumes. But, alas, things are not so simple, and Western leaders apparently have no other constructive recommendations for the region.

At least Yemen’s oil-rich neighbors are taking some steps to this end. They met in Saudi Arabia the other day to draft a plan for a gradual transition of power beginning with the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has ruled the country since the 1990s, when South and North Yemen were united as a single state. Saleh, who played a major role in unification, had led North Yemen since 1978.

Now he has to prepare for his departure two years before the end of his term, which he won in elections, amid popular protests inspired by Tunisia and Egypt. The problem is that the president wants mediators and the opposition to guarantee immunity for himself, his family and members of his tribe whom he placed in top government positions.

One of his sons, Ahmed, the head of the presidential guard, was until recently seen as his likely successor. The president’s nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law and even just people from the same village are at the head of secret services, army units and major companies. The Al-Jazeera website regularly publishes lists of the president’s relatives who occupy positions of power. Obviously, this nepotism has rankled others. The opposition is adamantly refusing to give guarantees of immunity to Saleh’s cohorts. In fact, there is already talk of criminal prosecution. This is why Saleh, who will be 69 on April 21, is biding his time even as tensions are running high.

Incubator for terrorists

How will the Western nations respond? Why announce a grandiose project to help Yemen in early 2010 only to forget about it shortly thereafter? It was Britain that proposed the Friends of Yemen group. Now it is preoccupied with events in Libya, where it has also failed to produce any positive results.

In late January 2010, London hosted an international conference on Yemen attended by heads of state and foreign ministers from around the world. Here, Yemen was deemed an incubator of terrorism and a potential shelter for terrorists. Its economic and social situation was described as highly volatile. The World Bank reported that 43% of Yemen’s 23 million people live on two dollars per day. In the next 20 years, the mostly illiterate Yemeni population is expected to double.

It was also recalled at the conference that in 2006 the international community had promised Yemen almost five billion dollars for the economic development but failed to deliver. Apparently, more important issues came up. However, what caused the problem of Yemen to re-emerge were a series of terrorist attacks in the United States in late 2009. In November, an army officer opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Ford Hood in Texas. And on Christmas day, a Nigerian attempted to blow up a plane en route to Detroit.

It turned out that both criminals had been in regular contact with Muslim preacher Anwar al-Awlaki over the Internet. Awlaki was educated in the United States and lived there for a long time, but recently he has been broadcasting sermons from Yemen, where he is far from the only prominent anti-Western Islamic cleric. Awlaki and his fellow Islamists oppose President Saleh, whom they criticize for harassing radicals and cooperating with America on counter-terrorism.

Despite opposition from Islamists, Saleh has hosted international conferences on democracy and human rights from time to time and generally listened to advice from Washington and London. I visited several events of this kind, and during interviews Saleh would tell me with a smile: “People here do not like Americans but they like Russians. This is because Russia does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”

The West promised a Marshal Plan for Yemen

The Yemeni government has always eagerly accepted foreign assistance. Last year, however, there were fears of foreign intervention. Following the terrorist attacks in the United States, many started comparing Yemen with Afghanistan, another hotbed of Islamic extremism. Was this the start of a campaign to justify a military intervention in Yemen? The Yemeni president and his entourage responded by calling for a kind of Marshal Plan to save Yemen, invoking the program of American assistance to help rebuild Europe after WWII.

The Yemenis requested $40 billion over ten years or so. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said on this score: “Without material assistance, Yemen could become a failed state.”

In response to this plea, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and some other countries expressed their willingness to contribute at least part of the requested funds in the form of targeted development programs. So far, this promise has not been kept. However, these countries, who brought Yemen into their sphere of influence and promised to help, cannot shun responsibility for developments in that country.

Yelena Suponina is a Moscow News political analyst specializing in the Middle East; she holds a degree in philosophy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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