Yemen Urgently Needs a Lifeline: My Trip Report from Sana'a

05/09/2014 08:45 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2014

This week in Yemen - with foreign reporters getting deported and the blood of dead Yemeni soldiers staining the grounds of the presidential palace - is reaffirming for many in Washington the preconditioned negative image of the country, one predominantly characterized by al Qaeda's violence. Recent targeting of German diplomats and French and Russian nationals in the capital city of Sana'a doesn't help. Preparing for my trip to Sana'a last week, I was warned about the potential for kidnapping. And while hostage taking of foreigners is not uncommon, my time in Sana'a offered a very different, and more positive, perspective.

The good news, according to one Yemeni insider, is that Americans could be very comfortable in Yemen if they don't burn the credit accrued in 2011 among politicos in Sana'a. At that time, the U.S. Administration supported, albeit imperfectly, a Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that helped bring Yemen out of their revolution and on a path towards a transitional, and, eventually, democratically-elected government. Amidst anti-American sentiment among revolutionary youth, which has risen rapidly since, the United States and its international partners supported a process by which every Yemeni major political and tribal party came to the table for a national dialogue, setting Yemen on a course for a new constitution (to be finished this year), and presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming years.

As the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights reiterated last year, what is burning America's credit quickly are the indiscriminate drone strikes. So too is the feeling, described by two prominent parliamentarians, that the U.S. government is treating Yemenis more like animals than human beings. One parliamentarian went further, saying that he sees no positive U.S. role in Yemen and only feels its hegemony, noting that the most recent U.S. Ambassador positioned himself more like the ruler of the country than a diplomat.

On drones, the Yemeni parliament has consistently condemned their use and recommended their prohibition. The consensus on the Sana'a street is that the drones have yielded no positive results and have created more sympathy, not less, for al Qaeda. In fact, over the last ten years, al Qaeda's growth in Yemen correlates strongly with the introduction of American drone strikes in the early 2000s. Now, the subsequent tit-for-tat is spiraling out of control. This April's massive U.S. drone strike in southern Yemen, the names of which have yet to be identified because "signature" drone strikes do not require identification, is exemplary of the excessive nature of these revenge killings.

Drone availability has made it easy for Congress and the Obama Administration to ignore the root causes of conflict in Yemen, whether lack of justice and rule of law (half of the country, for example, lacks basic policing mechanisms), marginalization and lack of political representation, abuse of government authority, or pervasive poverty. A related study, published in Yemen's English language dailies last week, suggested that 75 percent of the local conflicts are over water and land. The country will be out of water within most Yemenis' lifetime, making water a national security issue. If America can help address these root causes, we have the potential to reduce much of the violence.

Congressional action to help Yemen sustain itself politically and economically is, therefore, critical. With an unofficial unemployment rate as high as 60 percent, the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy in the Arab World, and with over half the population living in food insecurity and lacking clean water and sanitation, Yemen needs help now. The government is broke, sustained by lifelines from neighboring Gulf states, and is only able to provide a few thousand jobs for the hundreds of thousands of job seekers every year. Considering this, and with over 40 percent of the population under the age of 16, those job numbers will only get worse.

If Congress wants to stabilize and securitize Yemen so that al Qaeda's foothold weakens, a different tack must be taken. The need for good governance surfaced consistently in my meetings with Yemeni sheikhs and tribal leaders, parliamentarians, government officials, civil society and the media. In addition to good governance and tackling corruption, a basic development agenda needs to be adopted. Unemployment, illiteracy, and food insecurity are at record highs. Congressional pressure on the former and support for the latter would not only help rebuild some trust in the U.S., it would go far in reinforcing faith in the Yemen's transitional government, which is weaker now than it was in 2011.

Good governance and development agendas can be done in tandem. But America must lead by example when routing out corruption in Yemen. The stories of foreign donors wasting millions on unrealized projects are all too common. There is the sense that there's a lot of talk within the donor and development community, but not a lot of walk, especially when it comes to political and economic institution building - an over abundance of propaganda, but little help on the ground. Clearly there's work to be done among international actors as much as local ones.

A big chunk of the local corruption is in the oil and gas sectors (where the majority of the government revenues stem) with some elites buying energy at the country's cheaper subsidized rate and selling it on the gray market for at least twice as much (and sometimes up to ten times as much). Consequently, a democratization of energy supplies, using renewable energy specifically, would do this country and its people some good. Harnessing solar power locally, for example, could help undermine existing energy geopolitics (blackouts are common, due to affordability and accessibility, but also to political ploys) while building also sustainable local economies. The potential is vast: Yemen has one of the world's highest solar yields.

Yemen urgently needs a lifeline this year. This country is resilient, hardworking and innovative and Congress and the Obama Administration should realize its opportunity to partner with Yemen as equals and maximize its potential. Not in a way that advantages some, while disadvantaging others (e.g. tribal leaders versus government officials), but in way that supports a national agenda of good governance that is decentralized yet federalized enough, with political representation and participation at every level and in each of Yemen's six new regions, and incorporates its traditional models of transitional justice and reconciliation.

This is no small task. But it is the necessary and difficult prerequisite for preventing further escalation of violence and extremism. If Congress and the Administration are serious about tackling violence in Yemen, no amount of drone strikes will stop it. The only way forward is the road less traveled, and less funded, in foreign policy - that of long-term, sustainable, development-oriented solutions. Yemen deserves nothing less.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. A shorter version of this article previously ran in Roll Call.