Al-Qaida is the least of impoverished Yemen’s problems

Ian Black writes:

It is hard to know where to start when looking at unhappy Yemen’s many problems – but one thing is certain: the threat of resurgent al-Qaida terrorism that so preoccupies the US and other western countries is not its biggest one.

The poorest country in the Arab world, Yemen is running out of oil and water and suffers from catastrophically high population growth. Its largely tribal society has more in common with underdeveloped African countries than its wealthy Gulf neighbours, who tend to view it as a source of dangerous instability.

Stunning scenery and architecture once made it a magnet for adventurous western tourists, but kidnapping and terrorism have damaged its image and shrunk its foreign currency earnings. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978, is a classic Arab strongman – although he presides over a republican system more democratic than most in a region of hereditary monarchies. He has described ruling Yemen’s 24 million people as “dancing on the heads of snakes”.

The Guardian reports:

The president of Yemen secretly offered US forces unrestricted access to his territory to conduct unilateral strikes against al-Qaida terrorist targets, the leaked US embassy cables reveal.

In a move that risked outraging local and Arab opinion, Ali Abdullah Saleh told Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, John Brennan, in September 2009: “I have given you an open door on terrorism. so I am not responsible,” according to a secret dispatch back to Washington

In reality, despite the offer of an “open door”, Yemen has restricted access for US forces in order to avoid playing into the hands of Saleh’s domestic critics.

The Guardian reports:

Yemen’s long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, emerges from the US embassy cables as a perplexing partner in the “war on terror” who flits from disdain for the Americans to congeniality while all the time wrestling to keep a lid on the simmering tensions in a country that he warns is on the brink of becoming “worse than Somalia”.

The 64-year-old, who has ruled Yemen for half his life, is variously labelled as “petulant” and “bizarre” in his negotiations with US security officials who met him in Yemen on several occasions in 2009 as concern grew about al-Qaida’s resurgence in the country.

In a series of three meetings Saleh painted a picture of himself as a leader on the brink of disaster whose policies are marked by unpredictable volatility, while maintaining a relaxed, almost debonair manner. At one stage he met the US ambassador and a senior CIA man at his country retreat “relaxed in an open collar white shirt and dark trousers” while “above his left eye were visible the traces of a cut he suffered in a fall on the deck of the swimming pool at the presidential palace in Sana’a”.

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