Saturday, October 04, 2008

YEMEN AS TOURIST SITE: YEMEN AS SITE OF CULTURE WARS

YEMEN AS TOURIST SITE: YEMEN AS SITE OF CULTURE WARS

By Kevin Stoda


In many ways, the world has been changing so fast that most of the planet has forgotten that less than two decades ago there were to Yemens in existence.

It was in 1990 when the Marxist People’s Republic of South Yemen joined in union with the Yemen Arab Republic. The former state had been sponsored by the Soviet Union from the 1960s onward.

Similar to the aftermath of the Democratic German Republic and the Federal German Republic becoming united in the autumn of 1990, some people in Yemen have nostalgia for a bygone era. This is particularly true for those Yemenis who have made their living in the tourist trade. These people are predominately (but not exclusively) found in the Southwest corner of Yemen.

Alas, the younger generation now live in a post-unified Yemen world where either Al-Qaeda is active or where regionally disenfranchised citizens practice kidnappings of tourists in order to gain attention for their causes. This has hurt Yemen’s chances of becoming a successful global tourist hotspot, like its neighbors Egypt and Jordan. Yemeni citizens are certain that they as much to offer the world of tourism as does Jordan—and certainly much more to offer the United Arab emirates, where Dubai is located.


RELIGIOUS AND CULTURAL WARS IN YEMEN

Until this year, it has been primarily in either the northern or eastern half of the country of Yemen where many of the more extremist religious groups come from. On a positive note though, it is in these regions where most of the renegade movements have recently agreed to make peace in return for more governmental aid in the future, i.e. as part of what is seen as the Sa’ada peace process.

Make the modern Yemeni identity even more complicated though is the fact that Yemen has both an Arab identity and an identity of itself which predates Islam by several millennia. For example, it is claimed that Yemen was founded by Noah’s son Sham, and even earlier, Adam--of Adam and Eve fame--gave his name to one of the country’s major cities and former capital of South Yemen: Adan.

As well, the Queen of Sheba is thought to have arrived in Israel from the Sabaean Kingdom of Yemen. Recall, Queen was actually one of Solomon’s biblical contemporaries—and visiting house guests.

For this reason, until 1948 a very significant faction of Jews had lived in Yemen. Sa’ada is one of the few regions where the handful of remaining Jews are found today.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda has become active with a so-called Yemeni Jihad group attacking the US Embassy in Sa’ana this month. According to Ginny Hill, writing in the YEMEN OBSERVER, “Cash-strapped Yemen lacks the financial resources to tackle terrorism in the same robust manner as the Saudis; its per capita gross domestic product of $2,300 is dwarfed by the $23,200 seen across the northern border.” The article is entitled “Yemen Faces New Jihad Generation”.

Of all the countries not currently at war, Yemen has been the victim of the greatest brunt of attacks in 2008—with five in the last three months. This situation is not likely to improve soon unless the government of Yemen can put more money and training behind anti-terrorist and anti-terrorist recruitment campaigns.

The attack two-weeks ago on the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, the capital of modern Yemen, left 17 locals—including one Arab-American—dead. The U.S. Embassy immediately sent non-essential personnel and families home. It also told all Americans to stay away from Yemen.


IN THE WAKE OF THE SA’ADA AGREEMENT


Years of tribal infighting, numerous kidnappings of foreign tourists, attacks on others, have left the Yemen economy far-underdeveloped than it should be. It is in this context that the Yemeni government under long-term President Ali Saleh made a peace agreement this past year.

The treaty is known as the Sa’ada peace treaty—named after the region where most of the recent fighting amongst the government and tribal forces had taken place over the prior five years. The Yemeni government has agreed to give an amnesty to all involved fighters, but not to fighters aligned with Al-Qaeda.

It is in the absence of any place at the negotiating table in Yemen, where disenfranchised Islamic Jihadist groups in Yemen seem to have decided to accept aid and inspiration from Al-Qaeda, i.e. ratcheting up the level of Yemeni hostilities in recent months.

Hakim Al-Masmari, editor of the YEMEN POST, has written, “Last month in my editorial, I stressed that President Saleh was desperately trying to end all his problems with the different sides. He started with the Sa’ada peace treaty, which everyone believes the country lost a lot in the negotiations, Then he released nearly all opposition political prisoners from prison, even the ones who were sentenced to prison by court.”

Al-Masmari complains, “I agree with President Salah for not negotiating with Al-Qaeda, but on the other hand if you are not going to sit on the negotiating table, then you better start saving people from their attacks to happen.”

Worse still, Al-Masmari claims, “Al-Qaeda knows that the government has no strategy to stop them, therefore, making innocent locals and vulnerable of being attacked.”

Yemen has not received much aid to fight terrorism from neighboring Saudi Arabia and it has had an on-again off-again relationship with the U.S. since the bombing of U.S.S. Cole 8 years ago.

Sadly, it is not only foreigners who are under threat.

Yemenis are also most often under attack. For example, there have been 8 bombings or attacks on mosques in the past year alone. In short, 18 years after unification, modernist and religious forces in Yemen are still having it out with one another—just as had occurred much more aggressively in the 1960s and 1970s..

Meanwhile, tribal and modernist factions are both continuing to seek to dominate the political landscape in the years before the long-term presidential strongman Saleh retires in two years—as he has announced he will do.


ALL IS NOT LOST

Meanwhile, as Hill notes in a more upbeat tone, “In recent years, the Yemeni government has pioneered a dialogue programme and poetry recitals to influence violent jihadis and tribesman. The most recent initiative is a two-hour feature film intended to educate the public about extremism.”

Hill explains, “The film, called THE LOSING BET, follows two Yemeni jihadis who return home after being radicalized abroad. They [the characters in the film] are directed by an al-Qaeda mastermind to recruit new members and carry out a ‘martyrdom operation’. News footage from the aftermath of a real suicide bombing is edited into scenes of this creative new drama and produced by a famous Yemeni director.”

In the years since the infamous bombing of the U.S.S. Cole off the coast of Adan, American foreign policy has shown a love-hate relationship with the Yemeni government and its peoples. On the one hand, the U.S. appears to have been high-tailing its way out of Yemen at every bombing—whether it be the bombing of the Cole or the bombing at the embassy.

On the other hand, the U.S.A. and many European countries have on-and-off invested a lot of money and human resources at times in a great variety of projects—not just in the area of tourism but in the area of public works.

For example, the very first day I arrive in Sana’a this past week, my taxi driver pointed out that both the canal and road system had recently by restored through moneys through U.S. government agencies and funds.
In Zabid, I observed German contractors working on projects to restore different times of ancient canals that UNESCO World Heritage Site. Likewise, in the small town of Makanah in the Hajar mountains, Japan was active in construction projects for the city.. Elsewhere French and Italian water projects were observed and appreciated.

The U.S. has also recently helped Yemen with long-term refugee problems--building housing for African refugees, some of whom have been living here for generations.

Everywhere I traveled in Yemen, local peoples appeared to be happy in acknowledging positive manifestations of tourism, achievements of foreign government projects, and NGO assistance which might be offered to these wonderful and hospitable Yemeni citizens.


WORLD BANKING CRISES AFFECTS DEVELOPMENT


In conclusion, from what I could tell from my tour of Sana’a and Southwest Yemen this Eid Holiday, Yemen has a lot to offer the world—and especially those Yemenis in this mostly-formerly Marxist region—seem openly welcome more western-Arab interaction.

Yemen is not a closed land like Saudi Arabia. It is very open to people-to-peoples cooperation and exchange.

I think it is time to rethink our developmental- and military policies in the Middle East in such a way that tourism and other infrastructural investment can be implemented in those neglected regions which have recently signed onto the Sa’ada peace treaty.

The U.S. should not be seen now—even in the wake of a recession--as abandoning any peaceful country or region to Al-Qaeda—especially in regions of Southwest Yemen, where citizens are continuously reaching out to the West to make investment. The West and neighboring Arab countries, like the oil-rich Gulf states, need to help them regain their footing on the way to modernization (at a tempo appropriate to the needs and efforts of the Yemenis on the ground these days).

In short, high unemployment is likely the biggest obstacle to combating radicalism in Yemen. This means public works projects will be quite beneficial in the short- and intermediate term. Empowering women can become part of the project if the West is creative in implementing such large scale training and construction efforts.

Nonetheless, with the expensive banking debacles in the West this decade, most of the developing world and Ban Ki Moon at the UN are all extremely nervous that the U.S. and European governments, NGOs, and private investors will not try to do more to (1) fight Al-Qaeda by (2) targeting development moneys along with (3) providing some military training to those under-trained regimes, who are overwhelmed by Al-Qaeda.

Yemen is the place to start to really win hearts and minds. Both Gulf state oil money and (NGO or) foreign government cooperation with Yemen is a very important project to focus on in 2009 and 2010, i.e. before new elections in Yemen take place and change the political landscape.




NOTES

Al-Masmari, Hakim, “Exactly What I Said”, YEMEN POST, September 22, 2008, p. 6.

“Global Financial Crisis Could hurt UN Program”, YEMEN OBSERVER, September 23, p.10.

“Yemen Faces New Jihad Generation”, YEMEN POST, September 22, 2008, p. 9.

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