This comment was published in The Observer on 31/10/2010
The prince had been energetically employing a startling mix of inducements (cars, flats, jobs, wives) and threats to rid Saudi Arabia of an al-Qaida problem made embarrassingly manifest when many of the 9/11 bombers were found to hold the kingdom's passports. One of the "carrots" was inviting a young Saudi member of AQAP who was hiding out in Yemen but claimed to have seen the error of his un-Qu'ranic ways to attend his private Ramadan soiree. He further honoured the young jihadist by transporting him there aboard his private jet.
On arriving at the palace, 23-year-old Abdullah Hassan al-Asiri – his name indicates that he came from a formerly Yemeni province – was duly welcomed by the prince in person. Al-Asiri told him that several other jihadists were keen to follow his lead and throw themselves on his benevolent mercy. However, could the prince reassure them all by speaking to one of them in person, then and there, on al-Asiri's mobile phone? Yes, the gracious prince replied, why not?
That call was the agreed signal for the detonation of a bomb al-Asiri had secreted about his person, probably in his underpants, like the Nigerian but Yemen-trained "underpant bomber" Umar Farook Abdulmutallab, who almost exploded an aeroplane over Chicago last December. The blast blew al-Asiri to smithereens, while fortunately failing seriously to injure the prince. However, it was by far the nearest al-Qaida had ever come to assassinating a member of the kingdom's ruling family. Given the fright of this incident, it is hardly surprising that the Saudis' intelligence effort in Yemen is now fine-tuned and energetic enough to pick up rumours of the threat uncovered on Friday. That success can be construed as a welcome sign to the kingdom's western allies that, opaque and unresponsive as it tends to be, it is taking a useful interest in neighbouring Yemen rather than limiting itself to buying influence among the country's top tribal sheikhs.
It took last December's failed plane bombing to concentrate western minds on Yemen. The poorest country in the Middle East, a terrifyingly dysfunctional state stranded among some of the richest states in the world, including Saudi Arabia, looked ideally suited to providing the world's Islamic jihadists with as welcoming and safe a haven as Pakistan's tribal areas. In January, the then prime minister Gordon Brown hurriedly added a forum to discuss Yemen to the end of a London meeting about Afghanistan. But what, precisely, could be done?
Yemen is home to a whole series of linked crises. The trickle of oil which accounts for 90% of its exports and three-quarters of its revenues will both have run out by 2017, as will the water supply to its capital city, Sana'a. Its 23 million-strong population, two-thirds of whom are under the age of 24, is set to double by 2035. Unemployment is around the 35% mark. At the time of the meeting, the country was also suffering two separatist insurgencies: one in the north near the Saudi border had created a vast refugee problem, and one in the south around Aden which looked capable of splitting the country in half again after only two decades of unity.
Yemen's President Abdullah Salih, at the helm for more than 30 years, thanks to a little oil wealth and a talent for co-opting, flattering, reconciling – a style of rule he describes as "dancing on the heads of the snakes" – presides over what academic Robert Burrowes has dubbed a "kleptocracy, a government of, by and for the thieves".
All this is appalling for the vast majority of Yemenis. AQAP, rather than being supported, has ruined tourism in their beautiful country and scuppered all chance of western investment. Southern Yemenis feel warmly towards the west and are unlikely to furnish AQAP with any abiding safe haven in the country. In the last six years of visiting the country regularly, I have learned that Yemenis care much more for land and money than they do for religion or ideology. While a few may be drawn to jihadism, more numb their fear of the future by chewing the leaves of the mildly hallucinogenic qat shrub whose cultivation consumes over a third of the country's agricultural land and a ruinous quantity of water.
AQAP's ability to infiltrate is aided, however, by Yemeni culture. Much of Yemen is run by tribesmen whose sense of self-worth revolves around honouring guests without questions, owning weapons and resisting centralised authority if its dictates impinge on traditionally tribal prerogatives. Small wonder that the influence of the American-educated and English-speaking, internet-savvy Yemeni tribesman and cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, the man whose teachings may have inspired the bombers, is proving impossible to eliminate, for example. Whatever the pro-or anti- al-Qaida politics of members of the Awlaqi tribe, a large and powerful grouping whose lands are situated east of Aden in the south of the country, they would be dishonouring themselves and their tribe if they handed him over.
Quite correctly, there seems no chance of western armies trying to enforce change on Yemen in the manner they have set out to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, in truth, Yemen deserves more pity than bombs. The United States has increased its aid to Yemen – half developmental, half military – to approximately $300m.
We would be well advised to leave the job of arresting Yemen's descent to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf counties which make up the Middle East's equivalent to the European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). All have substantial Yemeni diaspora and a much better understanding of how the country's internal and tribal affairs work. They also have the funds and, as the attack on Prince Mohammad bin Nayef shows, the immediate and pressing motivation.