Yemen: ‘Trust in God but tie your camel first’

The British think-tank Chatham House (also known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs) published my paper on Yemen last week. Claire Spencer, head of Chatham House's Middle East programme, chaired a round-table discussion for an invited audience, including representatives from the UK Foreign Office and Arab diplomats.

I started by presenting a broad outline of my paper Yemen: Fear of Failure and argued that Yemen appears to be in denial about its precarious future. I quoted CIA Director Michael Hayden who said earlier this month that Yemen is a "country of concern, a place where Al Qaeda is strengthening. We've seen an unprecedented number of attacks this year. Plots are increasing not only in number, but in sophistication, and the range of targets is broadening." I talked about Yemen's strategic location and pointed out that the infectious nature of state failure would make every problem in the region more intractable, should Yemen slide towards collapse.

I argued that criminal networks on both sides of the Gulf of Aden have already forged close ties between Arabia and the Horn of Africa, and I cited the UN Monitoring Group on the arms embargo to Somalia, which lists Yemen as the source of a significant number of weapons in circulation in Somalia. Oman's ambassador to the UK pointed out that the West has left Somalia to rot – I'm paraphrasing here – which has made Yemen vulnerable to problems that are not of it's own making. And a representative from Yemen's embassy in London rightly pointed out that Yemen is not yet a failed state.

The discussion highlighted an urgent need for Western governments to engage Yemen's Arab neighbours – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States – to influence events in Sana'a. I ended my presentation by arguing that policy-making towards Yemen must start from a realistic assessment about the true nature of power in Yemen. I said that a distinction must be made between the Yemeni government, which legislates fairly freely, without power, and a shadow elite, which is running the country as a private interest.

I asked what leverage – if any – the West and Yemen's neighbours can bring to bear over the shadow elite? I ended by quoting an Arab proverb – 'Trust in God, but tie your camel first'. The West, Yemen and Yemen's neighbours all seem to be leaving Yemen's future to chance – but are we doing enough to tie Yemen's camel before it's too late?

The session raised plenty of questions, but not enough answers.