Yemen seems to get nothing but bad press in the media these days.
With recent headlines such as "Yemeni authorities 'foil al-Qaeda plot to seize ports'", "Why al-Qaeda in Yemen scares the West" and "US and UK pull staff out of Yemen amid terror alert" - this beautiful country is going to take a long time to recover and once again be a sensible and viable destination for tourists and travelers.
But the media seems to dwell and thrive on bad news. The first time I visited the country was a good 12 years ago on assignment for Oxfam GB and at the time there were security issues the were jeopardizing our visit. I remember the journalist Brian Baron broadcasting on the radio from the capital Sanaa just before we arrived saying "the tension here in the capital is palpable". Arriving in Sanaa nothing could have been further from the truth, but then the media does seem to thrive on a drama.
Yemen is a place of real beauty and culture. The mountains, the architecture, the desert - all breathtaking but now seemingly out of bounds to most visitors.
This is a country ruled by men - and fierce fighting men at that. Much of the country is run under a strong tribal system and carrying a weapon from what seems like a very young age is the norm rather than the exception. 2007 figures suggested that the number of privately owned small arms per head of population in Yemen was second only to the USA with 54 per 100 people compared to the US's very impressive figure of 95 - well done the US! Guns are carried openly in many areas outside the main cities and this ensures that peace is largely maintained in what might otherwise be a fairly lawless place. Some markets and shops sell not only vegetables but also guns and ammo - strange seeing assorted rounds on offer next to perfume and aftershave bottles. On each of the three visits I've made to Yemen I've had security of some kind at some point - the first time it was an official police escort with a heavy machine gun mounted in a HiLux - on subsequent visits it was our Bedouin guides who carried more weapons than a small army but who would feel naked without them. A couple of AK47's in the Landcruiser cab and grenades beneath the seats began to feel strangely normal. Despite all the obvious weapons on display the hospitality and openness towards strangers was fantastic, typical of traditional Arabian cultures (particularly once it was established that we were British and not American). Food and Qat was shared, handshakes held for longer than seems comfortable in the West and all the time emphatic reassurances that there were no problems for visitors.
This was however several years ago and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Things have changed for sure: Oil and gas companies have expanded operations and their expat staff become targets for kidnappings: American drones target al Qaeda operatives but of course kill innocent civilians in the process: The revolutions of the Arab spring spewed over into Yemen and lead to the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his 33 year reign: Civil war preoccupies much of the North. All in all things do not bode well for this beautiful and enigmatic country.
It's more than likely going to take a long time before it's sensible to travel freely around Yemen - but I look forward to it and hope that the country and it's hospitable people aren't too badly scarred by the intervening years.