Sadly for many Americans Yemen is all about the bombing of the USS Cole, Al-Qaeda, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exploits, terrorism, drones, political violence during the ongoing so-called Arab Spring, piracy along its shores, refugees endlessly migrating in small boats from Africa and also a range of challenging humanitarian and societal challenges. Asked what is good about Yemen, few Americans would know that the Queen of Sheba’s Arab Felix is pivotal to Arab history, that Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East, that, in the 15th to 18th century, Yemen was the market capital for coffee and is also home to some of the most beautiful places on earth, the island of Socotra in particular.
Many Americans also do not know the potential strategic value Yemen has on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula astride and linking the Suez Canal and Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea via the Bab-el-Mandeb maritime choke point. Some people focus negatively on Yemen fueled by the active discussion, media analysis and soap box rhetoric that tends to paint a picture of Yemen as an unstable and largely hopeless place where terrorists have found sanctuary to mount threats, an un-managed population youth bulge has stymied economic growth, where jobs are in short supply, where water and oil are running out and a place where low adult literacy and high child malnutrition make it seem like a failed state that cannot be saved. Despite these acknowledged challenges, Yemen has much to offer. A re-balancing of our view of Yemen is required.
The Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and agreed implementation mechanisms have meant that Yemen is about to produce a new Constitution for its people. Following closely on the heels of that historic development will be a referendum and then Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Despite the ongoing fight to restore Yemini sovereignty to the Al-Qaeda established radical Islamic caliphates in Abyan and Shabwah Provinces and elsewhere, Yemen is actually making tangible progress. In recent speeches including his May 2014 United States Military Academy graduation address at West Point and more recently during a broadcast to the American people following the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria, President Obama has again recognized Yemen’s security efforts as a potential model for others to follow and a potential contribution to the wider regional and global counterterrorism campaign. President Obama is seeking funds from the U.S. Congress to support Yemen.
What has not yet been appropriately analyzed and codified in my view is Yemen’s potential contribution as an American strategic maritime ally. In early 2012 President Obama’s defense policy articulated how America would retain its power in particular with respect to the Asia-Pacific or better described as the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Debated as either a pivot or as re-balancing, America recognizes that the IOR is the world’s largest and newest ungoverned resource interstate and although American force is expressed adequately in the Atlantic and Pacific region, it is not as well marshaled further East. This has meant that India and China have been able to influence IOR countries to ensure conditions are present for them to grow as they recklessly draw an ever-increasing amount of gas and oil across the region from the Middle East and Africa to fuel their expanding economies.
Described eloquently in Robert Kaplan’s book Monsoon, America has realized that if it does not engage this region to stabilize it, others will. Key to influence in the IOR is assuring the free flow of resources by securing the key choke points of the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz in the West and of the Straits of Malacca in the East.
Yemen can help. Its Coast Guard and Navy can be resourced for success as a key American ally to police the challenging maritime domain of the Bab-el-Mandeb in the West at the mouth of the IOR. When linked to incremental and funded security sector reform, as it emerges fully from its process of National Dialogue, Yemen can be a major contributor to support greater checks on piracy, the flow of illegal weapons and people into the region and also to act as a buffer to support Yemen’s internal national counterinsurgency operations. Executive and Legislative Branch action now to formally acknowledge and resource Yemen’s future maritime contribution as a key strategic ally will not only help America more effectively and efficiently re-balance into the IOR, which is a key national security and strategic imperative, but it will also serve to appropriately moderate and re-balance our view of Yemen’s utility moving forward.