Ambassador-in-Residence Barbara Bodine discussed Yemen’s development, challenges, and future for an audience of about 80 students and community members in Robertson Hall Oct. 11. The speech opened a Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) series on Arab political development.
Bodine, the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 1997-2001 and a lecturer in public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, began her talk by comparing Yemen 30 years ago to the country today.
Then and now, she said, the country was “politically precarious, economically precarious, and beset by external forces that wish it ill.” It also had the same ruler, the initially unpromising president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Bodine sees some common threads in the Arab Spring events of this year – “demography, economy, technology, and democracy” – and demography, in her view, is a particularly salient issue in Yemen. More than 50 percent of the population is under 15 years old, youth unemployment has reached 60 percent, and fertility rates are among the highest in the world at six to seven children per family.
“There is high correlation between youth disproportion and civil instability,” she said, pointing out that young Arabs have no memory of the creation of Israel, a non-theocratic Iran, or perhaps even the first Gulf War, and their worldviews have been influenced by the availability of satellite television.
Bodine also stressed how close Yemen was – and still is – to becoming a “failed state” and examined how Saleh managed to retain control even during last spring’s political and social upheaval. She cited the opposition coalition’s total disorganization and Saleh’s own relative popularity as reasons for his current, if tenuous, grasp on power.
With respect to continued U.S. involvement in Yemen, Bodine said that the difficulty is “not in the end of the transition, but in the ambiguity of the transition,” with the possibilities of economic collapse, a humanitarian crisis, and political uncertainty arising.
“Yemen has needed a Marshall Plan,” she said, though she added that cuts to American foreign aid and waning interest in the country render such an intervention impossible.
Bodine does not find the emphasis on al-Qaida in U.S.-Yemen relations productive. “In the last five years, our interest in Yemen has been solely on AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula], and I think that is very shortsighted,” she said. “I have never gotten the feeling that there is a fundamental anti-Americanism among Yemenis, like there is in Pakistan.”
Bodine also praised several aspects of the Yemeni government and people, including their religious tolerance, protection of women’s rights, lack of a secret police force, strong national identity, and, before 2005, a steady but bumpy move towards democracy, rule of law, and free press.
Looking forward, Bodine emphatically pronounced Yemen’s people and the long-vacant port of Aden as the nation’s greatest resources. She has hedged hopes that international organizations, governments, or corporations could develop Aden profitably.
Sarah Xiyi Chen ’13 is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Arcadia, Calif.