Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2009

The US And Yemen: A Half-Century of Engagement

Edward Prados

January 2005

Center for Contemporary Arab Studies


Yemen has rarely played a prominent role in America’s foreign policy or in its national discourse. In fact, until the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the Yemeni port city of Aden, statements on Yemen often elicited the question: “Where is that?” Yemen is a conservative, Islamic, tribal, Arab nation located in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Although Yemen currently produces 438,500 barrels of oil per day, it is considered one of the world’s twenty-five least developed countries, with an estimated per-capita GDP of $508 in 2003 and a literacy rate of only 50 percent. Yet notwithstanding Yemen’s poverty and perceived unimportance, since 1946 the United States has maintained varying levels of contact with it. Several factors have contributed to this continued engagement, including strategic location, Cold War realities, regional stability, and terrorism. As with the rest of the Middle East, external influences have been a significant force in shaping Yemen. According to Avi Shlaim, “the key to . . . Middle East [development] lies in the relations between outside powers and local forces.” As the United States has been an important actor—and is now a primary actor—in Middle East affairs, an understanding of US policy toward Yemen is therefore essential in understanding its contemporary history, culture, and politics.