This month’s newfound international attention was an unexpected boon for Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen. After the botched Al Qaeda attack on a plane landing in Detroit on Christmas Day, for the first time since September 2001, the leader of this tiny, overlooked nation has found himself happily awash in foreign financial aid, military backing, and vows of goodwill from government leaders who are afraid to see him fail.
On Thursday morning, Saleh’s government held a press conference to remind the hundreds of foreign journalists who’ve come to Yemen’s capital this week of all the wonderful achievements of Saleh’s government. Across town, the Parliamentary opposition coalition held a simultaneous press conference with a decidedly different bent.
The government’s press conference was a slick, choreographed affair held in the grand, manicured prime minister’s office. For almost three hours, Yemen’s deputy prime minister of security and defense repeated his talking points: Yemen is a “democratic nation.” The U.S. is a cherished ally. Fighting Al Qaeda is Yemen’s top priority. Aides even handed out bottles of cold water.
“In one year, or two years, or three years, you will come back to Yemen and find a solid place,” said Minister Ali Rashad Alimi, smiling over a bouquet of microphones. “Yemen is a democratic state, able to face all the challenges it faces today with regional and international support.”
Across town, the Parliamentary opposition coalition’s press conference at the Socialist Party headquarters was distinctly shabbier. About 60 local journalists gathered in the crumbling brown building to listen to a handful of opposition members take turns at the microphone. There were no Western journalists, no real-time translations, no bottles of water. Topics ranged from the minutiae of local politics to the enormity of Yemen’s new war on Al Qaeda.
“Al Qaeda has been a problem in Yemen for a long time — the issue is not new. Now the government is just taking advantage of the situation. It’s a tool for getting attention,” said Naif al-Gunas, the speaker of the opposition coalition party in an interview after the press conference.
Much of Yemen is in turmoil. The government, whose oil resources are dwindling, is fighting an on-again, off-again Shiite insurgency in the north, an increasingly violent separatist movement in the south, an influx of Somali and Ethiopian refugees, and widespread poverty. Of the 23 million people in Yemen, roughly 9 million are under 14 years old. Already unemployment is at 36 percent. None of these things, al-Gunas argued, will be solved by U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Yet last week, Obama asked Congress to approve $150 million in security assistance to Yemen for the 2010 fiscal year. That’s still music to Saleh’s ears. In 2006, the U.S. put only about $10 million in military aid in his coffers.
Khaled al-Hilaly, a reporter for the local Yemen Times, said propping up Saleh’s 30-year presidency with an influx of international aid is a dangerous move.
“Saleh will gain from this war, from all the international support. It will make him and his party more powerful, since the U.S. will have to rely on him,” he said, adding that Saleh may use his new money and influence to fight his internal political enemies simply by calling them all Al Qaeda.
“You have to remember that the government is corrupt, even the opposition,” he said. “Yemen is a paradise of corruption.”
Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, said that there’s a sense among Yemenis that their country would be utterly forgotten by the West if the threat from Al Qaeda were ever to disappear.
“By focusing on Al Qaeda to the exclusion of nearly every other challenge and by linking all of its aid to this single issue,” said Johnsen said in an interview last month, “the U.S. has ensured that it will always exist.”