On Thursday, I attended a memorial ceremony for recently deceased Yemen scholar Christopher Boucek at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. I had the opportunity to meet his parents, and hear from many of his colleagues and his friends. I was terribly moved when Ginny Hill of Chatham House, a Yemen scholar herself, rose to speak in remembrance of Chris. For those of us who share an ineffable love for and connection to Yemen, she encapsulated just how large the loss of a knowledgeable and open-minded expert like Chris truly is.
I first began studying this country under former US Ambassador to Yemen Charles Dunbar in the fall of 2007 during graduate study at Boston University. It was serendipitous, as I had intended to study Saudi Arabia but the scholars on that country were on leave. On Charlie’s suggestion, I invested my energies in understanding a country that rarely made it into the American consciousness, except for the infrequent mentions of the Cole Bombing or Islamist militancy. Always, Yemen was noted as the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden – an inadvertent condemnation of an entire country through guilt by association.
My studies coincided with the birth of a new group of scholars on Yemen. Boucek chief among them, the small community of new Yemeni scholars sought to write on and analyze the underlying issues that found Yemen on the brink in an effort to avoid its downward spiral. Unequivocally, not one scholar saw so-called “Islamic extremism” as an underlying issue. Economic and political disenfranchisement, however, were seen as major underlying issues.
Since the creation of modern Yemen through the unification of two former sovereign states in 1990, the country has been under a bad star. Primarily remittance states prior to unification, with upwards of one million expatriate Yemenis sending back money to their communities, the good times ended when unified Yemen – then a rotating member of the UN Security Council – failed to condemn Saddam Hussein’s aggression into Kuwait, and Gulf states consequently expelled those expatriate workers.
Things might have turned out differently for Yemen under different leadership. Around this time, oil started being exported from Yemen in significant enough quantities to help build a modern state. Unfortunately, President Saleh and his regime decided to use these rents to co-opt adversaries in their quest to retain control of the state instead of working towards the creation of an economically, socially and politically more inclusive society.
By the mid-2000s these oil rents were diminishing exponentially, with increasingly greater unrest in both the north and south of the country an outcome of the regime’s inability to appease all the players they had been able to in the good old days. Nonetheless, President Saleh seemed to take little notice of this internal grumbling as he had the external support of both Saudi Arabia and the US in maintaining his grip on power. All this came to a head this past January, in what has been characterized as the “Arab Spring.” In fact, there has been no “Arab Spring.” While North Africa has seen the overthrow of three regimes, Arabs have fared less well. Attempts to bring the governments of Bahrain, Syria and Yemen to account and make them more responsible to the desires of their citizenry have thus far been fruitless.
Today, people die every day in opposition to the so-called sovereign government of Yemen. One wonders how one would react if such a situation prevailed in France or the United States? Instead, the US government continues to pay lip service to a GCC brokered deal that seeks Saleh’s exit while continuing to fund his family in their military engagement against AQAP – a group that certainly contains members that supported Saleh in his crushing of the south’s secessionist attempts back in 1994.
In sum, there’s more than meets the eye in Yemen, and we’ve been thus far focused primarily with “counter-terrorism” eyes. A humanistic set of eyes would reveal that the citizens of Yemen – exploited by their ruler for years – are finally looking to take control of their destiny after years of disenfranchisement. They deserve the support of their friends, as well as the insight of Yemen experts, in arriving at a solution.
I was moved by Ginny Hill’s remembrance because I felt there was something else behind her grief apart from the loss of a dear friend and colleague. A small community of experts that seeks to understand the root causes of Yemen’s troubles and offer potential solutions has become smaller. With a recent CBS poll showing 65 percent of US respondents supporting military action in Yemen because they believe it is a terrorist safe haven, there is obviously a lot of work to do.
Daniel T. Mahoney
Daniel is a chief of staff at the Massachusetts House of Representatives and has travelled to Yemen extensively.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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