For those just tuning in

As someone who’s lived in Yemen for more than two years, its hard to suppress a general sense of alarm each time the media spotlight falls on this particular corner of the Arabian Peninsula. In my work as journalist, I often feel like I’m swimming against the current with only a handful of other comrades, fighting a nearly sisyphean battle to add nuance to discussions that tend to be plagued with rather lazy stereotypes. With Yemen once again in the news due to the current “AQAP threat alert,” I figured I’d collect some of the pieces I’ve written for those seeking a deeper context into the country that–for better or for worse–is currently dominating the news cycle.

It’s fallacious–if not dangerous–to equate Yemen’s troubles with Al Qaeda. Almost every Yemeni you speak with will tell you that the nation’s Al Qaeda presence is only a result of other larger issues. Yemen remains acutely impoverished and while the country’s current post-Arab Spring “transition”–most specifically, the ongoing Conference of National Dialogue–has been hailed by some as a model, things are far more complicated. The ultimate fruits of the 2011 uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh remain unclear; the central government continues to face the challenge of reckoning with the Houthi rebels, who have carved out a virtual state within a state in the country’s far north, and southern secessionists, who seek to restore autonomy to the formerly independent south. The country often seems as if it’s sitting on a knife’s edge; “on the brink” appears to be the favored term. Still, on occasion, there are moments where Yemen’s political divisions feel as if they’re not as fractious as they often appear to be.

Even in areas notorious for their Al Qaeda presence, residents tend to argue they have bigger things to deal with. Still, the battle against Yemen’s local extremist franchise often tend to dominate the discussion outside of Yemen, even its effects of American government’s policies that tend to do so here. At times, the resentment of these policies is palpable. But as an American who’s nearly constantly surrounded by Yemenis, I’d argue its false to say that anti-American sentiment here is rife. Few Yemenis are keen to support AQAP, which is unsurprising, as the vast majority of those killed by the group’s attacks have been Yemenis themselves.

Since current president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office as part of an internationally brokered power transfer agreement aimed at ending the uprising against Saleh, there have been some tentative gains in the fight against AQAP. But even victories are not as resounding as they seem. American drone strikes may have lead to the deaths high-ranking AQAP militants like Said al-Shihri, they’re also deeply opposed by many Yemenis. There have been numerous cases of civilian casualties, in addition to strikes that seem to contradict the Obama Administration’s claims that they’re only used as a tool of last resort. In areas where the strikes are common, many locals say they’re ultimately doing more harm than good.

This shouldn’t have to be stated, but Yemen is–obviously–more than simply a “battleground in the fight against Al Qaeda.” As a young freelance journalist, I often feel particularly enslaved to the tides of media interest. But to state the obvious, I’d much rather be writing about things like Sanaa’s surprisingly vibrant art scene,  the glories of Yemeni  cuisine, of certain controversial cultural habits. In the end, the last thing Yemen represents for me is a refuge of bloodthirsty militants plotting to strike the US and, for that matter, I’ve long seen it as far more than just a staging point for launching my career as a journalist. Ultimately, Yemen is my second, adopted country; more than anything–as as bizarre as it may sound–Yemen is home.

Drones and the YPC Report

A few months ago, the Yemen Polling Center released a report on Public Perceptions of Security Sector and the Police Work in Yemen. The report’s summary runs 86 pages and tackles a pretty decent array of issues, ranging from Yemenis thoughts on female police officers to their confidence in security forces. Ultimately, however, a decent—and arguably inordinate—degree of attention has been placed on a single question, which is copied below.

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I’ve been dealing with Yemen long enough to know that anything drone related will eventually prove to be a lightening rod for attention, so I guess its not surprising. But looking at some of the discussion of this small excerpt of the report, the question remains: what, if anything, does page 32 of the latest YPC report tell us about the perceptions of US drone strikes in Yemen.

On a superficial level, the result could be used to suggest that Yemenis don’t really care about the strikes; only .8% listed drones as the greatest threat to their personal security. It may be worth noting that, ironically, that is a greater percentage than those who answered the same question with “Al Qaeda;” still, it isn’t difficult to imagine how some would seize upon such an interpretation to legitimize certain policies or cast aspersions on certain assertions.

Of course, the results to the query come with two significant caveats—it was an open question and only a single response was recorded. It wasn’t, ultimately, a question aiming to divine anything specifically related to Yemenis thoughts on drones. That being said, it is rather troubling that, according to the survey, there are over 100,000 Yemenis who see American airstrikes in Yemen as the greatest threat to their personal security.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, it is rather foolish to see these results as significant evidence of anything one way or another on Yemenis’ perceptions of drone strikes. Respondents were unable to offer more than one answer—to state the obvious, seeing financial matters as the greatest threat to one’s personal safety, for example, doesn’t preclude a person from seeing drone strikes as a danger as well, especially considering the areas where drone strikes tend to occur are quite poor and underdeveloped. It is also important to remember that strikes are largely concentrated in certain parts of the country. The majority of Yemenis live in provinces where drone strikes have never taken place; it would be difficult to imagine that a Yemeni living in, say, Taiz or Hudayda, would see drones as a threat to their personal safety—regardless of how they feel about them on an abstract level. That itself is another key aspect: a Yemeni from the province of Taiz, where a drone strike has never occurred, can still vociferously condemn drones as a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty even if they feel that they present no personal threat to their own safety.

In the end Yemeni perceptions of drone strikes are a complicated issue that can’t be covered in a single question—especially a question in a report that’s devoted to a completely different topic.  The YPC has put out a useful report on an important subject. The temptation to use said report to attempt to derive answers to a question it wasn’t asking is probably one that’s best avoided.

Going South

“The unification of Yemen is the only positive event in modern Arab history,” the late Muammar al-Gaddafi apparently once remarked.

Two and a half decades after the merger of the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), (“north” and “south” Yemen, respectively), the Colonel’s words arguably come off as a tragic joke.

” يا وحدة الشعب حلم السنين (Oh, the unity of the people, dream of the years),” reads a line from a famous Yemeni poem that was adapted into one of my favorite Yemeni songs. In 1990, the fulfillment of this collective longing for the unification of greater Yemen fueled a collective burst of celebration across the newly formed country. In light of the events that followed, its rather depressing to think back to the unfulfilled hopes of that particular moment in the recent past.

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Hadi at one year

“Nobody knew Hadi was this clever.”

This time last year, success for newly inaugurated president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi was roughly defined as mere survival. Few knew much about the man many mocked as  “عبدربه مركوز.” He’d stood silently by Ali Abdullah Saleh as his Vice President for well over a decade, but it was easy for skeptics to joke that his accomplishments were largely limited to presiding over ribbon-cutting ceremonies as Saleh’s stand in.

12 months later, Hadi’s been able to hold his own, proving many pessimists wrong. Still, true leadership requires more than just (barely) holding Yemen together. Giving a positive review of Hadi’s first spate of reforms last Spring, one Yemeni political analyst added a key caveat, stressing that the president “has yet to prove that he’s the state builder that Yemen so desperately needs.” His words, arguably, are just as true today.

Full article reflecting on Hadi at one year for the Christian Science Monitor

و نفس المقالة بالغة العربية

On recent events in al-Dhale

Over the past few days, the village of Jaleela, in the southern province of al-Dhale, has been the scene of a fierce violence. The facts are muddled, owing to Jaleela’s general isolation and the (unsurprisingly) differing narratives of those involved. But the basic chain of events appears more or less uncontested. A convoy of troops from the Republican Guard was met with some form of resistance from locals as it traveled through the area. Things soon escalated. Subsequent clashes proved deadly, leaving at least three–including a child–dead, and raising accusations that the military used excessive force.

Its unfortunate for a number of reasons, but sporadic violence in rural areas of Yemen often risks fading into a blur. Regardless, here–or anywhere, for that matter– clashes are almost never just “clashes;” regardless of catalyst, events cannot be divorced from the environment in which they occur. And while recent events in al-Dhale may seem minor in the grand scheme of things, the violence touches on issues that reverberate far beyond the south Yemeni countryside.

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Interviewing Ali Salem

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Sitting in a posh Beirut apartment complex, it was surprisingly easy to forget I was meeting with a man who is ultimately a historical figure. Up until July of 1994, of course, Ali Salem al-Beidh was in the center of it all–from unification and its aftermath to the almost incomparably bloody 1986 Civil War. As he sat across from me in the flesh, Ali Salem seemed almost separate from “Ali Salem:” the ability to maintain an astoundingly low key face to face presence, I’ve noticed, is a skill many Yemeni politicians seem to share.

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Listening to Gangnam Style in Sanaa

The idea of Yemen as a land caught in time–though somewhat appealing–is ultimately a rather orientalist stereotype. It’s something I’m almost constantly reminded of here, whether in the form of tribal leaders who tuck Iphones in the embroidered belts holding their centuries old Jambiyyas or the smattering of FC Barcelona memorabilia decorating shops tucking into ancient buildings in Old Sanaa. Even rural areas, it seems, are far from untouched. A friend, I remember, once described his astonishment as he reenacted a famous movie scene on a cliff-top in his village: as he shouted “I’m the king of the world” with arms outstretched, his cousin noted that the scene was “just like Titanic,” getting the cultural reference without missing a beat.

This idea of Yemen the isolated has been floating through my mind recently as I’ve been subjected to the surprisingly frequent sounds of Korean rapper PSY’s single “Gangnam Style,” a rather-focused satire that’s somehow developed into the most paradoxical global hit since Los del Rio’s “Macarena.” I have no idea whether those behind the song had any inkling of their impending worldwide fame when they initially set out to parody classless Koreans’ vain attempts to attempts to channel the “style” apparently epitomized by the residents of Seoul’s exclusive Gangnam district; either way, months later, the original meaning has more or less dissipated. PSY and his colleagues have been compensated with money and notoriety, so I’d imagine that they’re not particularly distressed.

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