United Nations – When Yemen refused to vote in support of a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution against Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf War, a visibly angry U.S. delegate turned to the Yemeni diplomat and said: “That will be the last time you will ever vote against a U.S. resolution.”
Washington’s subsequent retaliation, in the aftermath of that negative vote, was predictable.
The United States not only downgraded its relationship with Yemen but also cut off all military aid to a country once heavily armed with Soviet weapons.
But since that much-talked-about confrontation in the Security Council chamber, there has been a dramatic turnaround in the fluctuating love-hate relationship between the two countries.
And this week’s aborted attempt to blow up a U.S. plane by a Nigerian student, with ties to a terrorist group in Yemen, has brought the political spotlight back on a country which is proud of its gun culture.
Yemen reportedly has over 60 million handguns and small arms spread over a population of some 21 million people.
Yehya al-Mutawakil, a former interior minister, was quoted as saying that everyone in Yemen is armed with handguns, while members of various tribes have gone upscale: they are armed with assault weapons, rocket launchers and submachine guns.
Ahmed al-Kibsi, a Yemeni professor, once told a British reporter: “Just as you have your tie, the Yemeni will carry his gun.”
Between 2002 and 2008, Yemen received some 69 million dollars in U.S. military aid; and 496 Yemeni military personnel were trained under the International Military Education and Training programme (IMET).
William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New York-based New America Foundation, cites press reports to suggest that Washington will rapidly ramp up U.S. military aid to Yemen over the next 18 months.
The projected total, he said, is about 70 million dollars, or roughly the amount provided during the entire administration of former President George W. Bush.
“U.S. military aid to Yemen is a double-edged sword,” Hartung told IPS.
On the one hand, the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has participated in strikes against al Qaeda and al Qaeda-inspired groups within and around its borders.
On the other hand, he said, “The Yemeni government is one of the most unstable regimes in the world, and there is a danger that U.S. weapons and training could be turned against U.S. interests, if there is a change in government there.”
The administration of President Barack Obama suspects that the so-called ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’, based in Yemen and which took responsibility for the attack on the U.S. airline on Christmas day, worked closely with the Nigerian would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
But administration officials have also expressed fears that Yemen is fast becoming a haven for al Qaeda terrorists, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The United Nations has categorised Yemen as one of the 49 least developed countries (LDCs), describing it as one of the poorest of the world’s poor.
A resource-starved country, Yemen is the only Middle Eastern nation that is an LDC, ranking 153 on the U.N.’s Human Development Index of 192 member states.
With one of the highest growth rates, Yemen’s total population is expected to reach 40 million over the next two decades.
Poverty is widespread, according to the United Nations, with about 45 percent of the population living on less than two dollars a day.
When North and South Yemen buried their political differences back in May 1990 to become a single country – the Republic of Yemen – the merger was cynically described as “two poor countries becoming one poor country”.
Currently, the United States provides funding for child survival and health, development assistance, and financing for narcotics control and anti-terrorism activities – besides military aid and military education and training.
The U.S. State Department says that U.S.-funded programmes will improve the capacity of the Yemeni counterterrorism unit, special forces and the coast guard to conduct security missions and support U.S. counterterrorism goals and develop the government’s capability to secure and control its borders.
The government, which is battling an armed insurgency in the south, is also receiving U.S. funds to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
Hartung told IPS the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is also involved in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, at an unknown budgetary cost.
“It is also possible that a more visible U.S. role in counterterrorism efforts in Yemen could provide a rallying cry for extremists seeking to garner support for terrorist activities originating there,” he added.
Hartung said the Obama administration “is essentially initiating a low-level war in Yemen with little or no public discussion about its potential consequences”.