Daniel Korski

Beware Yeminitis 

Beware Yeminitis 
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Yesterday saw an outbreak of Yeminitis, with Westminster focused on Osama Bin Laden’s ancestral home after the foiled bomb plot.

To CoffeeHouse readers, this will come as no surprise. Last year, the Spectator prophesised that Yemen would be the “sleeper issue” of 2010. And so it has proved.

But what have successive British governments been doing since the threat began to grow?

UK policy towards Yemen is an exemplary case of cross-government cooperation. Rarely do the FCO, DFID and the MoD collaborate as closely as they do over Yemen. Alan Duncan, now a Minister for International Development, has taken a personal interest in the country, flying to Sana'a earlier in the year and drawing on his network in the Gulf to engage Yemen’s leadership.

The government isn't flying blind. It has funded research into the country at Chatham House and the Carnegie Endowment. When I visited and worked in Yemen four years ago, there was not nearly as much information available from think tanks as there is today. Officials are well-informed.

Why does none of this help? First, because Yemen faces a number of challenges, each one of which would be enough to bring a country to its knees. Thousands of Yemenis trained in al-Qaeda's camps were integrated into the Yemeni army to fight in the region’s various and seemingly interminable conflicts, which also attract veterans of Balkan, Chechen and Iraqi wars. It makes for a volatile situation.

If that were not bad enough, Yemen faces a long-term economic crisis. Its respectable annual growth has been primarily due to an increase in oil production and prices, while revenues have yet to be invested in employment-generating, non-extractive sectors.

It will take considerable effort to help address this multifaceted challenge, not least because of the frequent difficult relationship between the West and the Yemeni government. But above all, it will take high-level political engagement. A George Mitchell-type envoy should be appointed by the UK and its allies to focus the international strategy and engage regional actors, as well as the Sana'a leadership, on Yemen’s problems. Ideally, the envoy would be someone like Mohamed Sahnoun. But it may also be a role for someone like Alan Duncan – as long as he can represent Germany, Italy, France and the US as well.