Hillary Clinton became the first US Secretary of State to visit Sana’a in over two decades on Tuesday. Accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, Ms. Clinton made a series of brief official visits during her stay in the capital, which lasted only seven hours.
Ms. Clinton was preceded by James Baker in 1990, Secretary of State under the first President George Bush, who visited Yemen before its unification. Other high-ranking US officials, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “Central Command” chief David Petraeus, and President Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan have also frequented Sana’a in recent years.
Her arrival comes within the context of a Middle East tour meant to shore up the opposition of friendly Arab regimes to Iran’s nuclear program, with other stops including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
One of the main goals of Ms. Clinton’s trip was to convince a skeptical Yemeni government and populace that America’s recent intense interest in the country did not solely involve combatting terrorism.
Statements to that effect peppered her visit, yet few observers doubted that hours of private discussions with the Yemeni president and officials focused especially on countering the threat of armed groups based in Yemen.
“I want to be frank about the fact that there are terrorists operating from Yemeni territory today,” Mrs. Clinton said to an audience of parliamentarians, businesspeople and students at the Movenpick Hotel in Sana’a. “Stopping these threats would be a priority for any nation, and it is a priority for us.”
At the same gathering, Ms. Clinton affirmed the United States’ commitment to Yemen’s development as well, though she claimed that the country’s economy had been “sapped by terrorism,” which intimidated potential investors and tourists who could reverse sagging fortunes.
“Over the long run, Yemen’s economic and political development and its security are deeply intertwined,” she claimed.
The Secretary of State’s motorcade also made a quick visit through Old Sana’a’s streets en route to the presidential palace. Security for the trip was high, and members of her staff were reportedly agitated that news of the surprise visit had been made known to local news outlets before Mrs. Clinton’s arrival.
America sent $130 million to Yemen in nonmilitary aid in 2010, up from $17 million in 2008, an increase that almost meets its military aid for 2010, which stands at $170 million.
Relations between the Yemeni and American government are generally considered to be at a low ebb, in the wake of unprecedented US pressure for the country to combat al-Qaeda, and recent embarrassing diplomatic leaks which painted both parties in a poor light.
Ms. Clinton told reporters: “I could have a big picture of the world and it could say: ‘The Apology Tour,’ because I have been very, very much involved in reaching out to leaders and others who have concerns about either the general message of our confidential communications being ex¬posed in this way or specific questions about their country or themselves.”
It had allegedly been resolved by the Yemeni side that bilateral meetings between high-level officials would be suspended as an expression of resentment over the revealing episode.
But a three-hour meeting between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ms. Clinton at the presidential palace indicated that tensions between the two sides had eased.
Discussions reportedly revolved around economic and social development, cooperation on counterterrorism, and ongoing political tensions. Mrs. Clinton urged President Saleh to open a dialogue with the opposition, saying it would make Yemen more stable.
She had emphasized this point at her Movenpick appearance: “We support an inclusive government. We see that Yemen is going through a transition. It could one way or the other. It could go the right way or the wrong way.”
Clinton’s visit to Yemen follows a strong condemnation by the ruling party, aligned with the president, against American “foreign interference” in Yemeni discussions on constitutional amendments and elections scheduled for April.
A statement by a State Department spokesman two weeks ago urging comprehensive dialogue between all Yemeni political factions was perceived as a sign of official US disapproval of amending the constitution.
Ms. Clinton announced, “We will support whatever agreement Yemen’s political parties reach together as they negotiate electoral reform.”
Proposed changes, slated for a popular referendum in the up-coming elections, would ban presidential term limits and make it far easier for the incumbent president to continue his rule indefinitely.
The president stood silently with Mrs. Clinton at the news conference after their meeting. Shortly before, he gave her a silver necklace made by a Yemeni-Jewish craftsman; he placed it around her neck before escorting her from the palace.
She had told the meeting “There are terrorists operating from Yemeni territory today, many of whom are not Yemeni, some of whom, I’m sorry to say, are American citizens. So this is an urgent concern for both of us.”
Mrs. Clinton then proceeded to the heavily fortified US embassy, in which she addressed local staff, “I hope that you recognize how much those of us in Washington understand that Yemen is really on the front lines.
“It’s on the front lines of so much that matters to the American people. And obviously, our fight against the terrorists is critical here.”
Clinton, Feltman, and Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein then met with a group of prominent opposition politicians on the embassy grounds to discuss Yemen’s current political impasse.
Attendees included President of the Joint Meetings Party Mohammed Abdul Malik al-Mutawakkil, Secretary General of the Islah party Abdul Wahab al-Ansi, head of the National Dialogue Mohammed Salem Ba Sendwah, Secretary General the Haq party Hassan Zaid, Secretary General of the Unionist Nasserite Party Sultan al-Atawani, Assistant Secretary General of the Yemeni Socialist Party Abu Bakr Ba Dheeb, and Assistant Secretary General of the Baath Party Ahmad Haidar.
Journalists were not allowed to attend the meeting, which lasted only around an hour. Still, the Yemeni government was enraged by the discussions, and a day after Ms. Clinton’s departure implemented a new policy whereby official permission is needed before private citizens could visit any foreign embassy.
“It is strictly prohibited for any person to enter any embassy or headquarters of a foreign mission with only his personal credentials and identity card; advance coordination with the relevant security agencies is for the safety of everyone and achieves the interest of all,” an official source told the Saba news agency.
Also, Aref al-Zawka, president of the ruling party’s youth league, blasted the opposition leaders at a party rally on Wednesday, calling for their “speedy trial” due to their “treason against the country, their betrayal of the homeland, and their plotting with foreign powers.”
“These people are traitors and agents of outsiders,” he told supporters in the capital. President Saleh made a speech at the same event later in the day, but made no reference to the meetings or his colleague’s accusations.
At the end of the day, Mrs. Clinton briefly met a former child bride, Nujud Ali, who as a 10-year-old in 2008 had stood outside a courthouse until a lawyer finally agreed to handle her divorce from her 30-year-old husband.
Mrs. Clinton said of Nujud that she was an example for all Yemenis who aspire to a better future, saying of child brides that “Their lost potential cost their families, their communities and their country.”
“Now I hope I can say hello and thank you personally to a number of you as I leave and go on to Oman. Once I’m up in the air I’m no longer your responsibility, and you have earned a wheels-up party,” Clinton said to the embassy staff.
The exhausted secretary of state proceeded to stumble and fall while boarding her official jet – a scene which circulated widely to voyeuristic, if sympathetic, viewers on the internet and American news outlets.