So things have changed since we wrote the below briefing a couple of years ago... At YCMES we would never put a student at risk, and are proud of our record of having had no serious incident despite having taught more than 9,000 students in Sana'a. In the present situation we are unable to guarantee the security of students and as such are not currently hosting students in Yemen. Instead, we are conducting our courses over Skype until the situation improves. For more information about this, click here.
In early 2011 the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East. The citizens of Tunisia took to the streets after the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, and within months the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had been removed from power. Syria was not so lucky, and is now entering its second year of civil war.
Yemen was not immune to this Tunisian wind. Early protests over unemployment, poverty and corruption soon escalated into calls for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and while the demonstrations were largely peaceful a couple of pitched battles occurred between government loyalists and opposition tribal forces for control of the capital. On the road from the airport you can still see the characteristic mud brick buildings riddled with bullet holes; the old Yemenia headquarters has been reduced to a burnt-out shell.
On 23 November 2011, however, Saleh resigned, bringing to an end 33 years as head of state. Power was transferred to his deputy in an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and in February 2012 65% of the population turned out to vote in an election that gave Abdu-Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi a two-year mandate to draft a new constitution and pave the way for full parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014. Under his leadership, things have exhibited no sign of taking the sinister turn that they have in Egypt. The various political parties have formed a grand coalition, and under their influence the politics of Yemen have slowly been returning to normal.
An important landmark was reached in mid-December 2012 when Hadi issued a decree that both removed Saleh's remaining relatives from power within the military and merged the Republican Guard with the rest of the army. The military now belongs to the people of Yemen rather than to any individual, and with steps like this Yemen drags herself into the twenty-first century. On top of that, the National Dialogue began on 18 March, and all interested parties in Yemen, from youth activists to the president, are coming together to discuss the future shape of the country. The mood at the conference is one of optimism.
'Yemen is moving with fits and starts towards a stable and legitimate new political order,' says Dr Robert Burrowes, Professor Emeritus of the University of Washington's Henry M Jackson School of International Studies and YCMES Visiting Professor. 'But it still has a long way to go, and reaching this goal is by no means assured. In contrast to a year ago, however, Sana'a and the other major cities are now quite safe and secure, especially for non-Yemeni residents and visitors. Indeed, they afford good places from which to observe this historic process.'
Terrorism and other forms of extreme activity thrive upon poverty and chaos, and Yemen possessed these twin commodities in abundance during the troubles of 2011. This, however, is changing. As we have seen, stability has been on the up since the February 2012 election, and the GCC agreement has brought with it a large amount of international funding and goodwill.
There is an al-Qaeda presence in Yemen, as there is in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. This presence, however, is small, and it is restricted to the south of the country and under sustained and effective attack from combined US and Yemeni forces. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is very short of money indeed and firmly on the defensive. Despite the impression that a somewhat alarmist Western media may give, it does not represent a credible threat to an international student studying in Sana'a
Yemeni kidnapping, too, is widely misunderstood and wildly exaggerated in Europe and America. Only one kidnapping has occurred in Sana'a over the last year. While even that is one too many, it is a much lower number than many people assume, and the victims were released unharmed. Yemeni kidnappings, after all, are some way removed from the regional norm. One frequently hears the term 'compulsory hospitality' used; the hostages are normally negotiating tokens in disputes between tribes and the government, guests who are released promptly and unharmed.
All risks, however slight, can be reduced yet further if you take sensible precautions, and no threat is taken lightly here. YCMES maintains a close relationship with embassies, security agencies and the government, and the college management consults these bodies on a regular basis to ensure the best security measures for its students. There is a 24-hour guard in all college buildings, and travel to areas known to be dangerous is not permitted. Over its long history the college has taught Arabic to more than 9,000 students. Not a single one of them experienced a dangerous incident during their stay, and we are confident that this pattern will continue.
The leading cause of death or injury for foreigners living abroad is actually from road accidents. Many of those accidents take place in developing countries, and the risk is no less real in Yemen. Students should wear seatbelts while riding in cars and helmets while riding on scooters or motorcycles. We discourage our students from risky methods of travel, especially the motorcycle taxis that are a popular and cheap way of getting around Sana’a. Students should also remain aware of their surroundings when walking in areas of the city with heavy traffic. We do not, for example, recommend the use of personal stereos when wandering around Sana'a, but this is partly because they cut you off from the banter with locals that is an important part of everyday life in the city.