World-class buildings
Aren’t enough
To bring a nation
Up to snuff.

Yemen is finally being thrust upon American consciousness. Little good can come of that. Until now, the Yemenis had been allowed to suffer in private desperation. That’s over.

Their worst liability is a sinking water table, which is compounded by a skyrocketing population. Unlike its oil-rich Gulf neighbors, Yemen’s wells don’t produce enough oil to pay for desalination.

That’s just the beginning. Saudi Arabia, the powerhouse kingdom to the north, is unhappy to border upon a “republic” bearing a socialist gene and somewhat less stringent religious standards. Worse still, much of the nation is addicted to qat, a mild narcotic leaf chewed constantly in a large cheek wad. Qat orchards drink deeply from the sagging water table, sparking water wars like those of the old American West. Plus, chewing the leaf further impoverishes and numbs users.

And now yet another plague has emerged: the United States. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has announced that the United States is eager to help Yemen rid itself of al-Qaeda. Yemenis are understandably on edge. What if the local “war” doesn’t go well? Does Yemen become another Iraq or Afghanistan?

Yemeni fears of the United States aren’t new. American military planners have long salivated over the Yemeni island of Socotra, strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea. From there, our navy–if only it had a base–could menace sea lanes carrying Saudi oil to China. And now, the U.S.-created Somali government, across the straits, has initiated its own claim to Socotra. Will America help the Somalis if Yemen proves uncooperative?

Thus it is hardly a surprise that Yemenis are more than a little skeptical of the latest al-Qaeda scare. Did those parcel bombs discovered on U.S.-bound planes late last year really originate in Yemen? Did they really exist? If real, were they actually dangerous? Why isn’t Yemen being kept in the loop?

Adding to this understandable paranoia are the CIA’s unmanned drone flights and occasional attacks on presumed al-Qaeda operations. Who gave the United States permission to be in Yemeni airspace? Is there really a problem that the army can’t handle? That’s always possible, but so far the public isn’t buying. Yemen has always suffered armed conflict. Yemenis fear their country will become more collateral damage in the latest round of the Great Game between the Great Powers over Middle East oil.

Meanwhile, Yemen has already experienced collateral damage of other sorts. Tourism is way down, military spending is way up, and donor nations have pulled back on aid and loans. Then there’s the damaging effect of nearby Somali pirates on local fishing and sea trade. Complicating matters still further are 300,000 foreign refugees huddled in Yemeni camps, mostly Somalis escaping the nastiness back home. All told these economic ills add up to about $1 billion a year.

There’s still more fallout. Several nations have announced that they’ll no longer accept parcels from Yemen. For about a month late last year, Air Canada forced Yemeni travelers to undergo extra security checks.

Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh refers to all this as “collective punishment” of his country, outlawed by UN treaties. He contends Yemen is the victim, not the perpetrator, of terrorism.

And so if you had been contemplating emigration to Yemen to enjoy its natural beauty and dramatic architecture, you might want to think again.

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William A. Collins

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. He recently traveled to Yemen.

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