Amb. Edward W. “Skip” Gnehm Jr. and his State Department colleagues used to joke that Yemen – the Arabian Peninsula nation that shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman – was their foolproof tactic to fend off tough questions during their frequent visits to Congress to testify.
“If they were haranguing you or beating you up about selling the wrong equipment to the wrong country, if you could just think of a way to bring up Yemen and start talking about the tribes, their eyes would glaze over, they’d start talking to aides and they’d forget entirely what it was they’d asked you,” said Amb. Gnehm, B.A. ’66, M.A. ’68, Kuwait professor of Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs. “You were scot free.”
“I hope I don’t do that to you tonight,” said Amb. Gnehm, former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, Jordan and Australia, in his introduction to the 2010 Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture held March 4. The lecture, which focused on Yemen (PDF), was sponsored by George Washington University’s Middle East Policy Forum. In the lecture, Amb. Gnehm drew upon his service as charges d’affaires and deputy chief of mission to the American Embassy in Yemen from 1978 to 1981, and on more recent trips to the region.
“Yemen is in deep trouble, and at least one of its problems – the presence of Al-Qaeda – impacts American national security,” he said. “The need for the United States to address this presence is without debate.”
But Washington’s understanding of Yemen is debatable. “If we are to deal effectively with the al-Qaeda threat stemming from Yemen, we must understand the complexities of the many issues currently facing Yemen,” warned Amb. Gnehm. “We must also act wisely within a cultural setting that may, in fact, circumscribe our actions.”
Part of acting in a culturally wise manner is realizing that Yemen has a long and proud history. Although many American reporters seem to think Yemen was born on Christmas Day 2009, when a Nigerian-born and Yemen-trained terrorist tied to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden was captured before he could blow up an airplane.
“Really? Just like that?” Amb. Gnehm said. “Ask a Yemeni and he might remind you of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, a Yemeni queen by the way, or any other of many historical accounts of a country not often in the U.S. news. I was certain that I had lived in Yemen and, in fact, had recently visited Sana’a — all before December 25, 2009!”
Despite its proud cultural history, Yemen is a nation in crisis today. “Yemen faces an extraordinary array of significant issues: political, economic and social,” said Amb. Gnehm. “The most essential fact to understand is that these issues are deeply intertwined. It is impossible to tackle one without dealing with the broader constellation — and that includes the major U.S. concern — the al-Qaeda presence in Yemen.”
In addition to al-Qaeda’s Yemeni presence, the republic also faces a rebellion in the north, a southern secessionist movement, tremendous poverty, massive unemployment, a population explosion and severe water crisis, Amb. Gnehm said. Additionally, Yemen could lose its primary source of government revenue, its oil reserve, in five to seven years. “Real questions persist as to the government’s ability to operate effectively both due to a lack of resources and of expertise not to mention rampant corruption,” Amb. Gnehm said.
As one could imagine, there is no easy and quick fix to Yemen’s problems. “Success will require the sustained commitment of the international community, most particularly Yemen’s Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors, as well as international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund,” said Amb. Gnehm. “Most importantly, a meaningful commitment and determination by the government of Yemen itself to address the issues it now faces is essential to any success.”
The United States must not stand idly by and watch Yemen develop into a catastrophe, warned Amb. Gnehm. “A failed state on the Arabian Peninsula that looks like Somalia today would be a major threat to the United States, to major oil producers in the region and to the major shipping lane between Europe and Asia that passes through the Red Sea,” he said. “We simply cannot afford to ignore this ‘failed state’ possibility; but to be successful we need to address the whole range of political, economic and social issues comprehensively and with a commitment for the long term.”
Menachem Wecker, who is a writer and editor at the news website of The George Washington University, George Washington Today, where this article was previously published. He also blogs on religion and art for the Houston Chronicle.