Scanning through the recent articles published on Yemen by the international media, we find the usual topics: terrorism, political instability, kidnappings and poverty. By itself, this is not so bad. It would be naïve to expect otherwise: “If it bleeds, it leads” is a rule of thumb for the modern media, and these topics are important and deserve to be covered.
However, what is problematic is that to the casual outside observer, this is all there is to Yemen. It is a land of complex political, social, cultural and religious traditions, like every other country, but reduced to a baseline of frightening and seemingly intractable problems. Looking in from the outside, it might seem that Yemen is a basket case that was never destined to be a country for too long anyway.
But if this were the case, why has Yemen not collapsed? Surely a country like Yemen would have arrived at failed state status long ago? Isn’t the country a fake nation anyway, described by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as a “tribe with a flag“? Why did the country not break down into civil war, à la Syria, as it has appeared to be on the brink of since the uprising against former President Saleh began?
The answers to these question would not be as bizarre as they seem if there was more deep analytical coverage of Yemen, rather than a brief headline followed by a few background paragraphs explaining that Yemen is a hell-hole with no hope.
Take a recent Reuters write-up: the ‘synopsis’ on Yemen provided in the third paragraph reads, “Yemen is the poorest Arab state, with a third of the population living on less than £1.50 a day. The central government faces a Shia uprising in the north, an Islamist insurgency in the south and east, and a southern separatist movement.”
If that was all one knew about Yemen, then it would probably make sense to ask the questions posed above. The need for articles and reports that delve deeper into Yemen is vital, and would provide the casual observer with the answers.
Yemen is not a failed state partly because the central state has never been particularly strong, and people have learned how to get by using their close societal networks to compensate for its absence. The biggest threat to the collapse of the Yemeni state, the Southern separatist movement, is largely held off thanks to the divisions within said movement, and the international community’s opposition to any separation.
The idea that Yemen is a “tribe with a flag” is quite frankly insulting to one of the world’s oldest ‘nations.’ Yemen might have been ruled by various different powers and dynasties, and separated along the way, but Yemen goes back further than any Westphalian concepts Friedman is trying to impose, and is thousands of years old. To be fair, Friedman includes Syria as part of his “tribes with flags,” so Yemen is in fairly good company, given that Syria is also home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations.
Why did Yemen not break into civil war during or since the revolution? Well, one answer is, by and large, lengthy conflicts do not occur in Yemen unless there is outside involvement, such as in the 1962–1970 civil war in the former North Yemen that developed into a proxy war between Nasser’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Yemen may be one of the most highly weaponized societies in the world, but it is not simply a gung-ho nation that only understands the gun.
The lack of articles that delve deeper into Yemen and really explain the situation on the ground, is not the fault of the foreign press corps in the country. First, there are not many of them, and, second, in many of the cases, editors simply are not interested.
Interesting articles do trickle through, occasionally. Recent examples are a piece that explains that Yemen’s water crisis is not as simple as “there is none,” and another that looks at the trials and tribulations of a Yemeni cycling team, a breath of fresh air when set against the usual digest of disaster.
Again, it would be silly to pretend that what usually crops up about Yemen in the international media is not important. It is hugely important. But providing other perspectives on Yemen does not mean whitewashing the negatives and only focusing on the positives. Yemen is going through difficult times, to say the least. However, these problems will simply not be understood if the present narratives continue, and if no space is given to those who wish to delve deeper into the country and provide more nuance.