LONDON — In a prominent hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said: “If disorder threatens, take refuge in Yemen.” The prophet was referring to the prosperous and civilized Yemen. But today disorder and radicalization in Yemen are beginning to infect Saudi Arabia, and thus the safety of the world’s largest oil producer.
The prophet’s hadith about Yemen has enjoyed new resonance ever since the 1980s, when Saudi Arabia — in line with American policy — sought to export domestic dissenters, most prominently Osama bin Laden, a Yemeni of Saudi birth, to fight Soviet infidels in Afghanistan. Although dissent was mostly diverted to Afghanistan, bin Laden’s most trusted companions (his wife, too) have remained mainly in Yemen.
In the wake of the Taliban’s ouster in Afghanistan, bin Laden and his followers have come to regard Yemen, alongside Pakistan, as a haven. Indeed, Yemen is now a bubbling caldron of jihadis who have flocked there because it, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, has weak, easily manipulated state institutions. U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent order to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility has made the problem of Yemen’s weakness a leading international issue. One-third of the Guantanamo detainees are Yemeni, but Yemen cannot guarantee the United States that the detainees will be controlled effectively if they are returned home. This fear is real. Many previously released Guantanamo inmates have disappeared underground.
Saudi Arabia, unlike Yemen, has supposedly created a “model” system for reintegrating and re-educating Guantanamo returnees. The Al Munasaha rehabilitation center is supposed to “cure” jihadi passions, and Saudi returnees from Guantanamo who spend time at Al Munasaha are later offered jobs and wives.
But many of them relapse and escape to Yemen. Most notorious among these recidivists is Abu Sufyan Al Shihri, now “Deputy Leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.” Seven other Saudi jihadis who escaped to Yemen are also known to be active in al-Qaida there.
Thus the two largest countries on the Arabian peninsula — Saudi Arabia, the biggest in terms of landmass and oil wealth, and Yemen in terms of population — are now locked in life-and-death struggles with internal enemies. The paradox is that, though the threat to both countries is the same, each is worsening the outlook for the other by the policies they are pursuing.
For example, in the 1980s, millions of Yemeni men worked in the Kingdom. Remittance income formed a big part of Yemen’s budget. But in 1991, 800,000 Yemenis were expelled because they were seen as a domestic security threat in the runup to the first Persian Gulf war. Since then, Yemeni labor has been banned from Saudi Arabia.
Embittered and unemployed, young Yemeni men often become subject to another Saudi policy gone awry — its propagation for export of the Sunni Wahhabi form of Islam. With new Wahhabi schools popping up everywhere in Yemen because of Saudi financial support, it is small wonder that the number of Yemeni jihadis has grown exponentially. But Yemen, too, is engaged in its own destructive policies. President Ali Abdullah Salih has regularly used Yemeni Wahhabis to defeat his domestic opponents — first the Communists, then the Zaidis, and then the Huthis.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Yemen is unlike that with any other Arab country. The two countries are joined through historical, ethnic, and tribal ties, yet neither has the means to resolve popular resentments and resistance.
Saudi Arabia’s traditional “soft power” foreign policy tools — lavish spending of oil money and dafwa, “the call” — are no longer effective. Building fences and sending helicopters to police the borders will not be sufficient, and the idea that jihadis can be rehabilitated is a myth. No medicine will work if, when the patient is released, he encounters the same virus: institutionalized Wahhabism.
Yet there are things the Saudis can do to vaccinate themselves, and Yemen, from fanaticism. The tentative moves toward liberalization that King Abdullah has made over the past two years need to be accelerated, made more daring, and become more effective in removing the Wahhabi ideology as an incubator for radicalism.
This should not be impossible, because both Saudi Arabia and Yemen have moderate, indigenous Islamic traditions that can be mobilized against jihadism. If given the financial support that the Wahhabis received, these forces could reverse the current drift to fanaticism. Both King Abdullah and President Salih understand the problem; they need to stop using the old tactics and grasp the strategic need for change.
The first change is economic. Instead of exporting radicalism, Saudi Arabia must start importing Yemeni manpower by lifting its ban on Yemeni workers.
Yemeni officials have also requested admission to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Up to now, GCC leaders have spurned Yemen’s membership for the same reasons that the European Union fears admitting Turkey: Yemen would instantly become the bloc’s most populous country.
Indeed, Yemen’s population exceeds that of all six GCC members — Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia — combined. But if Yemen’s masses are not to become more radicalized, they will need to be incorporated into an economic zone that offers hope for the future. The GCC can and must assume that role.
Yemen is strategically important, not only for Saudi Arabia, but for the world, because it is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula from which oil can reach the open seas without passing through a narrow strait — either the Strait of Hormuz or the Suez Canal.
To endanger this passage is to endanger the world economy’s energy lifeline. When considering Yemen’s future, therefore, the stakes could hardly be higher.
Mai Yamani’s most recent book is “Cradle of Islam.” © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)