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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 November 2007, 12:12 GMT
Yemen's tenuous grip on stability
By Brian Barron
BBC News, Sanaa

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world the Yemen Republic is trying to develop tourism. After an al-Qaeda suicide bombing in the summer these plans suffered a setback and the future for the country is far from certain.

Members of Yemen's counter-terrorism unit (Photo: Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemen is strengthening its security with its Counter Terrorism Unit
If you ever go to Yemen, mind your feet.

I was reduced literally to my uppers the other day running across a volcanic plateau in pursuit of British military instructors coaching Yemen's Counter Terrorist Unit, the CTU.

As the paramilitary fighters were firing real bullets at pop-up targets it was best to be well back.

But when the chase was over I found my shoe heels had vanished and the soles had been shredded like spaghetti by sharp rocks.

Sandals and guns

The Yemen Republic is an exotic mix of mountains, deserts, frequently rebellious tribesmen and guns. Maybe 16 million of them are in circulation.

You want a customised AK47? No problem, sir.

But trying to find a decent pair of British size 10 in the old walled city reveals an obvious truth.

This is a land of sandals.

Finally at a shop near the al-Yaman Gate, where 40 years ago I saw the bodies of executed Royalist agents hanging from the beams, we found a pair of French loafers for sale.

For five minutes our Arab minders bargained, pleading, as they brandished the fragments of my shoes, that I was an old guy who needed sympathy, and the price came down from $115 (57) to $90 (45).

You cannot do that in Oxford Street.

Captivating labyrinth

A couple of days earlier I had wobbled into Yemen via an enormous set of mobile airport steps that had the shakes.

A street in the old quarter of Sanaa
Yemen has a population of 21.5m
Even as Sanaa expands at breakneck speed beyond its ancient confines, the heart of the capital remains a captivating labyrinth of Arab coffee shops, silversmiths making ceremonial daggers, and stalls overflowing with spices and herbs.

Through one doorway you glimpse a camel in an inside chamber walking in tight circles, pulling a rotating soya bean grinder.

All this is overlaid with prayers being called day and night. A cacophony so intense because of the thousands of loudspeakers, that the government is trying to limit the volume in the wee hours because of complaints from sleep deprived citizens.

Piety prevails today. Yemen seems in the grip of an almost feverish bout of mosque building.

One Sanaa columnist reckons 50,000 mosques have risen across the nation, compared with 12,000 new schools.

Remember, this is a big place, roughly the size of France.


As a so-called frontline state in President Bush's war on terror the Yemen is strengthening its security and intelligence units. Hence that CTU training day.

But when it comes to al-Qaeda, they are also trying reconciliation.

Thousands of Yemenis fought under Osama Bin Laden's leadership against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the next generation backed the Taleban in their war against the Americans after the 9/11 tragedy in New York.

One result was that known al-Qaeda activists who had returned home to Yemen were detained often without trial.

One of them is Nasser Ahmed al-Bahari, a charismatic 34-year-old former bodyguard for Bin Laden.

He was freed after 20 months because he pledged not to take part in any terrorist conspiracies.

The worry for the West is that Yemen is the odd man out in Arabia
Mr Bahari, bearded, 6ft (1.8m) tall, fought as a Muslim volunteer in Bosnia, Somalia, and Afghanistan, where he was wounded in the leg and personally tended by Bin Laden.

These days, retired from the battlefield, he drives a taxi in Sanaa and studies marketing at night school so he can re-invent himself.

But when it comes to al-Qaeda's aims the urbane Mr Bahari is an unrepentant supporter convinced the West will fail in Afghanistan.

Uncertain future

Given the ambivalence about al-Qaeda across Yemen and the power of the tribes it is no surprise to find that Western diplomats and military instructors pay serious attention to what is called "close protection".

If you come across a Western envoy doing his rounds, especially outside the capital, you cannot miss the bodyguards.

Map of Yemen Republic including the capital Sanaa
Fit looking military veterans, with cropped hair, in civilian clothes, carrying backpacks. These are full of weapons and communications gear.

In Yemen today, the backpack men are an essential part of survival for those who might be targets.

The worry for the West is that Yemen is the odd man out in Arabia.

To the north lie rich neighbours like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, though Yemen remains one of the world's poorest countries.

To the south, just across the Gulf of Aden, lies the failed state of Somalia and troubled Ethiopia.

With corruption allegedly on a huge scale, oil revenue dwindling, water resources drying up, and the population predicted to double, Yemen's future looks uncertain.

It is still north of south, if you see what I mean, but only just.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 24 November, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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