Why the clamp down on terrorism is not working in Yemen [Archives:2008/1193/Viewpoint]

September 25 2008

Since a very young age, we have been taught in schools that the Yemeni revolutions of the 1960s were created to eliminate the three most threatening obstacles to our country's development: poverty, illiteracy and disease. Today, two more have been added to the list of major problems preventing Yemen from prospering: corruption and terrorism.

Yemeni people by nature are kind and friendly. Most foreigners who have visited Yemen would agree to this. If so, then how come the same nation is said to be a haven for terrorism? Is it Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups? And why can't the authorities control what is happening, despite all their efforts and the help they get from other countries?

The problem with Yemen is that its demographic, geographic and economic conditions are unique, and very difficult compared to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. We have over 23 million people surviving on a weak oil-driven economy. As a country, we do not have much industry to sustain our non oil sectors, and even agriculture -once one of our greatest assets- is today dying because of qat plantations and water shortages.

Over 23 million people live in Yemen in small settlements. Other than the four or five main cities, the rest of Yemeni towns are more likely to be classified as villages rather than cities. Even some of the most basic infrastructure such as water networks, electricity and roads is non existent. In some very remote settlements, people go home by climbing up a rope or scrambling up a mountain. Despite this, Yemen has one of the highest fertility rates at 6.1 children per women.

Outside the main cities, most Yemenis are not educated, particularly women. Their daily life rotates around the field, their children and local social activities. They have no means to education, especially beyond the basic level. And when they do, there are sometimes other cultural or stability factors that prevent education from being a priority, especially for girls.

There is no adequate healthcare, even in the main cities. For difficult surgical operations and the treatment of major diseases, Yemenis who can afford it travel outside the country. Those who don't have the money have to surrender to the local 'trial and error' medical system and hope to survive. Obviously, there is no such thing as regular check-ups, even for pregnant women. They seek medical help only if they are really sick, and then only if it is possible.

This has been the scenario for many years now. Some improvements do take place here and there, but nothing really significant or on a national level. The challenges are so big and the demands so huge that whatever resources this country has cannot make a drastic difference.

And yet, there is so much corruption -at times driven by need, but mostly by lack of accountability- that even if we had the resources to help Yemen's development, we would not be able to use them. The oil revenues, for one, seem to disappear into a mysterious black hole within the walls of the Ministry of Finance.

After all this, we wonder why there is terrorism in our country and why the government can't eliminate it. There is no easy way. We can't sit back and work on development issues while terrorist groups blow up foreign embassies, the very representatives of most likely donor countries. And it would be futile to spend all our efforts in arresting suspects, when terrorists are breeding all over the country.

Yemen needs a really good development strategy and one that is implemented by people who really want the best for their country.