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.


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.