Yemen: An Outsider’s Perspective

With such emphasis on terrorism, it is understandable as to why “Yemen: the national security threat” is the most regurgitated perspective of Yemen.

yemen-terrorismIf you were to ask a stranger on the street, “what do you think of Yemen?” assuming that the respondent did not mistake your question for “what do you think of ‘Ye-man’ – a Jamaican accent on ‘yes man,’” the response would likely refer to either one of three issues: terrorism, poverty or Chandler Bing’s infamous escape to Yemen on the sitcom Friends.

Before we continue, I must admit that I have not conducted such a survey but rather experience teaches me that the topics individually reflect the three different but overwhelming perspectives of Yemen that outsiders tend to hold of the country.

Let me explain.

I rank terrorism as the most highly Yemen-associated topic because Yemen is unfortunately home to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Commonly referred to as “AQAP,” this franchise of al-Qaeda has been labeled as the “most active” by the US since its emergence in 2009. Operating in relative lawlessness, AQAP has managed to grab world attention by its attempted attacks including Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or the so-called “Christmas Day bomber” incident.

So much so that even in the recent State of the Union address, President Obama identified Yemen as one of the territories his administration deploys drones to combat al-Qaeda. But while on the topic of drones, it is worth mentioning that they do not always kill terrorists, sometimes they kill a wedding convoy of 13 innocent people, as one did last month in Yemen. Thus, with such emphasis on terrorism, it is understandable as to why “Yemen: the national security threat” is the most regurgitated perspective of Yemen.

Although terrorism and poverty are arguably interlinked (i.e. poverty being one of the many causes of terrorism), I believe that “poverty” as a topic associated with Yemen justifies its own mention. This because it is hard to find any material on Yemen which does not reference the country as “the poorest in the Arab World.” This is often partnered with a subsequent sentence comparing Yemen’s relative poverty to its neighbors opulence of oil wealth.

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And yes it is true that at least half of all Yemenis are food secure (10 million people)

But Yemen, one of the world’s oldest civilizations and more importantly, the birthplace of coffee itself (side note: the Mocha you love so much is actually a name-sake of the Yemeni port of Mocha from which coffee was first exported) has so much more to offer to the world. Indeed, the poverty issue which is so often referred to is never really explained; reporters do not emphasize why and how the poverty occurred.

They make little or no mention to 33 years of economic mismanagement by the former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for the most part considered state coffers as his own bank balance. Reporters make no mention of the Yemeni entrepreneurial spirit which saw Yemeni traders go as far Malaysia and Kenya. Or as short as Saudi Arabia, only to be kicked-out by the hundreds of thousands at the whim of the Saudi government. Nonetheless, my point is clear; give a Yemeni an opportunity and they will succeed. And if any editors are reading this, give it a rest with the “poverty” line – its overused, counterproductive and makes it seem like your story lacks depth.

Now to the light-hearted bit: Chandler’s escape to Yemen

Chandler Bing was a leading character on the 90’s popular Friends sitcom. In one episode he invents a story about his company transferring him to Yemen in order to escape from his high-pitched ex-girlfriend, Janice. To which his dim-witted best-friend, Joey famously responds “Oh, good one! And “Yemen,” that actually sounds like a real country!” And this is the point I am trying to make: Before terrorism or even poverty, many outsiders had not even heard of Yemen. In fact many presumably still do not – and arguably, this is saddest part of all.

Omar Mashjari is British-Yemeni writer and Law student. He recently graduated with a First Class Honors degree in Law from the University of Liverpool . Omar writes for the Huffington Post and other outlets, specializing in Arab and Yemeni politics post-“Arab Spring.”