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What's the Matter with Yemen?

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
April 4, 2010
Washington Post


The attempt by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to bring down a fully loaded American airplane on Christmas Day 2009 thrust Yemen into the international spotlight. The would-be bomber had attended training camps in Yemen and received instructions from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. There was an immediate outpouring of demands to "do something" about Yemen to prevent it from becoming another failed state. These two books leave no doubt that Yemen is indeed a dangerous basket case, unfortunately one with no easy fixes.

Victoria Clark's "Yemen" combines a sweeping history of the country from the 16th century until today with a travelogue and journalistic ruminations. A freelance writer based in London, Clark was born in Yemen; her father was a BBC correspondent stationed in Aden in the early 1960s, when it was still a British protectorate. Clark describes a Yemen composed of competing societies rolled into one very uneasy state: the tribes in the northern highland, where religiously conservative, parochial and isolationist traditions hold sway, and the more liberal, progressive and entrepreneurial urbanites along the southern coast who once dabbled in Marxism but now seem to want just a functioning government.

Clark's history of the country is not for the casual reader. The first part of the book labors through a succession of greedy, corrupt rulers, from Ottoman pashas who overtaxed and extorted the locals, to qat-chewing imams who micromanaged the country with singular brutality. Yemen peaked in the early 19th century, when the fabled port of Mocha was exporting some 20 million pounds of coffee a year. Foreign countries could not resist meddling, and Clark makes clear that these interventions never ended well. The Ottoman Empire's efforts to colonize Yemen needlessly cost Turkish money and lives. Clark characterizes then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's foray into Yemen in the 1960s with 55,000 troops as his country's Vietnam.

Yemen's own rulers take the lion's share of the blame for the country's backwardness and poverty. For decades, they have begged for international aid while spending what little money they have--and, perhaps more important, what little water--on growing qat, a thirsty shrub whose leaves, when chewed, provide a stimulant. Clark estimates that one in seven Yemenis is involved in the cultivation, distribution or sale of the plant, and that three-quarters of Yemeni men and a third of Yemeni women are spending 10 percent of "their meager incomes on it."

Yemen muddled through the Cold War years as the United States and the Soviet Union vied for influence with military and financial largess. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, eager to prevent the spread of godless communism, funded Wahhabi schools in Yemen as an ideological counterinfluence to Soviet Marxism. Remittances sent home by Yemeni expatriate workers around the gulf kept the country afloat. This pattern ended with the outbreak of the 1990 Gulf War, when Yemen disastrously sided with Saddam Hussein. The furious Saudis sent 800,000 Yemeni workers packing. Hundreds of hard-core jihadists returning from the Afghan war added to this combustible mix.

Clark is best when she focuses on the mix of unsavory characters jostling for power in Yemen today. She says that the country's long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is "neither temperamentally inclined nor sufficiently powerful to confront the jihadists head on by declaring all-out war on them." More concerned with tribal rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south, Saleh fights the jihadists half-heartedly. In a warning to those who want to do something about Yemen, Clark insists that Saleh is more than happy to take other people's money as long as there are no strings attached.

Beyond the jihadi threat, Yemen's biggest problem is its inexorable demographics. It is the poorest Arab country, with one of the highest birth rates and lowest levels of female literacy in the world. (Those two facts are of course linked.) The population is set to double by 2050. It may be the first country in the world to run out of water.

"I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced" is a shocking book that captures the social challenges facing Yemen better than any scholarly work could hope to do. It is the real-life story of Nujood Ali, who at the age of 9 was married off to a much older man by her poor father in exchange for $750. Although the groom promised not to consummate the marriage until a year after Nujood's first period, he forced himself upon her the very first night. Terrified, Nujood screamed to her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who were sleeping in a nearby room. Silence. Not only did her husband rape her that night, but he started to beat her regularly as well. Somehow, Nujood summoned the courage to flee by taking a taxi to the courthouse. "I want a divorce!" she announced to an astonished judge.

Although child marriage is common in Yemen--by some estimates, half of all Yemeni girls are married by age 15, and brides under age 12 are not at all uncommon--no young girl had ever before demanded a divorce. "You're a very brave girl," replied the judge to Nujood. "Other girls before you have had the same problems, but unfortunately they didn't dare talk about them. We'll do everything we can to protect you." True to his word, the judge arranged for Shada Nasser, a stylish, unabashedly feminist human-rights lawyer, to represent Nujood. The media picked up the story, and it became an international sensation. Having secured her divorce, Nujood was named a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year in 2008. Her book, ghostwritten by a French woman, became a bestseller in France. Today, Nujood is back in school studying and dreaming of becoming a lawyer herself. Her case has inspired other young girls to demand an end to their oppressive marriages, both in Yemen and in neighboring Saudi Arabia. In 2009, the Yemeni government passed a law raising the legal age of marriage to 17 for both girls and boys - a start, although it could be generations before such laws are regularly enforced.

Together, "Yemen" and "I Am Nujood" are cautionary tales for those who want to fix Yemen. The country's problems run deep, and we ignore them at our own peril. But constructive engagement requires long-term thinking, patience and a reliance on local partners who undoubtedly will not share our sense of urgency.


Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women Are Transforming the Middle East."

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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