On Sunday, we arrived in Yemen, an ancient land said to have been founded by Shem, Noah's son. Being there is like stepping back into an exotic world of several centuries ago. It is also one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Yemen is a tinderbox: the government is fighting two different insurgencies as well as Al Qaeda cells. It's strategically important because of its significant cargo ports and its location adjacent to Saudia Arabia.
Unlike the rest of the Arabian Pennisula, Yemen is extremely poor. It has little oil and has depleted a large amount of what it did have.
The country also faces a demographic time bomb with 60 percent of its population under the age of 25, creating a growing pool of recruits for Al Qaeda and for the insurgents, particularly given the very high rate of unemployment. The birth rate is 6.7 children, one of the highest in the world.
Yemen men often have more than one wife - at the same time. Most Yemeni women wear black abayas with only their eyes visible when they are in public.
Yemen also has a terrible problem with a native drug called qat that is chewed by 70 percent of the men and a growing number of women. Many of the men wear traditional short curved swords held by ornate belts. Envision this: most of the men are drugged with a stimulant every day and are carrying sharp knives!
All these factors combine to make Yemen unstable. The site of the infamous bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden in 2000, Yemen continues to be attractive terrority for Al Qaeda, which attacked our American embassy with suicide bombers just last September. Both the Ambassador and his wife, (who is a native of Sanford, Maine,) were at home at the time but escaped unhurt. Guards at the embassy were not so lucky - several died in repelling the attack.
Approximately 100 of the remaining 240 detainees at Guatanamo are from Yemen. What to do with them if Gitmo is closed is a major concern since some of the previously released Yemenis have rejoined Al Qaeda. We discussed this and other challenges with the Yemini President Saleh and separately with our Ambassador and the Embassy staff.