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Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 10:30 | SYDNEY
Saturday 19 Aug 2017 | 10:30 | SYDNEY

Australia to Yemen: G\'day mate!

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19 January 2011 17:00

It appears Sana'a has found a new friend. 

Yesterday's AUKMIN communique announced that 'Australia and the UK reaffirmed their commitment to continued international and regional engagement in working with Yemen to find solutions to Yemen's economic and political challenges'. And Defence Minister Stephen Smith noted in a subsequent ABC interview that '(w)e agreed that Australia would become a friend of Yemen...We've agreed that we will enhance our engagement with the United Kingdom and with the international community so far as Yemen is concerned.'

It wasn't exactly clear from that transcript what form that friendship would take — whether Canberra has designs on becoming a formal Friend of Yemen or whether we would become a 'small f' friend, concentrating our efforts on niche developmental projects. Or perhaps by doing the latter, we aim to become the former. 

The difficulty for Australia, if it is looking to be a 'big F' Friend of Yemen, is the company we would be keeping and what 'skin in the game' we have. There are some serious players in the group and, for all of our talk of middle power diplomacy, sometimes talking the talk without walking the walk does more harm than good. 

As the only Friend without an embassy in the country (the accredited embassy in Riyadh also covers Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia), no Yemeni migrant community to speak of and exports of only $190 million (over 80% of which is wheat, with no imports), our degree of interest and ability to service that interest could rightfully be questioned.   

Yemen's problems are many, as are the challenges for external powers in addressing them. Australia has yet to announce how it wants to contribute, but there was talk by the Foreign Minister on the margins of the Manama Conference at the end of 2010 about coastguard support, possibly because the Yemeni coastguard operates Australian-built vessels. But the US and the UK appear to have addressed that issue already. 

Other possible areas for assistance, such as water conservation and agricultural practices, are likely to gain more traction and, more importantly, will be less affected by the rampant corruption in the country.

There is little doubt that Yemen's future is an issue for the international community, but it is worth asking what Australia could usefully contribute, given the extremely limited interest we have in the country outside of the counter-terrorism sphere. If we are to become engaged, our interests and the unique part we will play to address Yemen's problems will need to be articulated and coordinated with Yemen's other 'Friends'. Some form of government-endorsed Yemen engagement strategy may be a good start.

Photo by Flickr user eesti.

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