An Interview with Gerald Feierstein, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen
Gerald M. Feierstein became the Ambassador to Yemen on September 17, 2010 following several postings in the Middle East. A specialist in Near East and South Asian Affairs, Feierstein entered the Foreign Service in June 1975. Most recently, he served as Deputy Chief Mission in Islamabad (2008-2010) and Principal Deputy Assistant Coordinator and Deputy Assistant Coordinator for Programs in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism in Washington (2006-2008). Feierstein received a BA in Philosophy from Point Park College and an M.A. in International Relations from Duquesne University.
The Politic: I would like to begin with a question that you probably receive quite often, and that is: Why did you decide to dedicate your career to foreign service?
Well, it is funny because we were just meeting some students the other day and they asked that question. It really was not something that I had thought about or planned a lot in advance. I was in graduate school nearing the end of my studies in political science and international relations and I didn’t really have much of an idea of what I wanted to do. A friend of mine told me that they were offering the Foreign Service exam and I decided to go down and take it. I passed it and then I passed the oral exam and here I am 38 years later.
The Politic: Do you enjoy it?
Oh yes, I love it. I couldn’t think about doing anything else. It has been a really wonderful experience.
The Politic: Speaking of your experience: Is there one experience, person, or event in Yemen that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?
I think we had the opportunity, really, in 2011 to be involved in the political transition and resolution; the negotiations led to the resolution of a political crisis here. I would have to say that, in my experience, that’s really the one thing that I think I will take away with me and remember forever.
We had a really remarkable group of people, Yemenis and international community alike. We were all working together trying to come up with a formula and a way forward that would avoid conflict and reach some kind of a resolution of the crisis or policy negotiation. People like Dr. Abdul Karim Al-Eryani, who was representing the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, really went beyond that. He’s a grand old man of Yemeni politics; I worked very closely with him. There is a great European Union representative who was here then — he is in Somalia now — by the name of Michele Cervone D’urso; a British colleague, John Wilkes, was part of the group working on this, too. It was a real team effort of a lot of people working really hard on it, who had a lot to offer.
The Politic: And now that the national dialogue is progressing, how is that going? What is your role in that dialogue?
Yesterday or the day before, they actually finished the second plenary in the national dialogue. I think that, right now, people are feeling quite optimistic that we’re actually going to come out of this with some real workable solutions to some of the critical issues that confront Yemen. We’re kind of at the midpoint now; they will go back to the working groups on Saturday and work for about another month or so. Then, they will take a break at the end of Ramadan and Eid-Al-Fitr and then come back, probably in the plenary, with the idea that they will finish their work in mid-September. I think people are pretty optimistic that it will end successfully and we’ll have some agreements on a way forward.
As far as our role, the American role, we continue to work very closely with our colleagues — a group of ten advisors who are here — on trying to support, to facilitate, and to keep engaged with the Yemenis who are leading the process. When they run into snag here and there, we try to help resolve any issues that come up — make sure that the process reaches a successful conclusion.
Beyond that, of course, we are very much involved in the next steps that are going to take place after the end of the national dialogue, which is primarily a constitutional referendum, maybe later this year and then elections for new President, new Parliament next year. The international community is very involved with supporting the voter registration process to make sure that, when we get into those elections, that we’ll have everything done logistically and a good framework for a successful election.
The Politic: I know that the national dialogue is still progressing and that you are working to develop a plan that addresses many of the issues, but do you feel that progress has been made on the issues that incited the revolution, namely poverty, corruption, and weak government services?
Well, I think that a lot of issues that were paramount in people’s minds in 2011 have been addressed in some way or another. Of course, people were very anxious to have a change in leadership on the political front; they wanted reorganization of military security, agencies, and we’re doing that. They wanted an opportunity to build a new and more forward-looking society here. I think we have the opportunity here, through the national dialogue and the implementation of the GCC Initiative, to do those things. So a lot of the issues that really brought people out into the streets in 2011 are being addressed.
You mentioned several others: corruption, poverty, and the delivery of basic services. Those are long-term issues. I don’t think it is realistic that you will really make much of a change in those things in the two years of the political transition. I do think that if we are successful in implementing the GCC Initiative and in building a new foundation for modern state in Yemen, that as we go forward, those critical issues will be addressed. But, realistically, I think we are looking at something that is a generational shift.
The Politic: Speaking of a generational shift, how do you think the country will adapt to the growing population? Do you think that they will be able to provide jobs for them in the future or do you think it will become an increasingly large problem?
Well, it is a very good question. I think it is one of the central questions that Yemenis are going to have to confront. The population is growing very fast here, with over a three percent population growth rate. I think that, in any society, continued growth at that rate is difficult to sustain, puts strains on society, on government’s ability to deliver services, on basic infrastructure. It is certainly no different here.
Once we get passed this period of political transition, the real challenge for Yemen is going to be on the economic side — economic growth and prosperity and this issue of providing jobs for the young generation that is coming up is going to be a huge challenge. I personally believe that the potential exists in Yemen, but to develop an economy that can provide opportunities for young people and Yemenis across the board is going to require some fundamental changes, some fundamental reforms. I think it is going to require opening up avenues for investment, both foreign and domestic, and really trying to build a private sector. In the same way, through the political transition, I hope we can develop the public sector.
It is a fundamental question; it is a critical question for the future of the country. I think it is a little bit early to make any predictions about it, but it is something that all of us, both Yemenis and Yemen’s friends around the world, need to focus on.
The Politic: And what is Yemen’s economy like? What are its main industries and exports?
Well, the largest export comes from the oil and gas extraction. They have, over the past number of years, been able to sustain their economy primarily through the export of crude oil. They have brought on line some natural gas, including some that is exported to the United States in the form of liquefied natural gas; those are finite. I do think that there is potential to develop new oil or energy resources in the country, so that is something that can be developed further.
They have some agriculture, they have fisheries, but really there is not a lot of economic development in the country right now. And that is something, again, where I think we all need to focus in the future. They have huge potential if they can ever stabilize the security situation here — huge potential in developing their tourism sector. But I also think, with a large and young population of good workers, that there is a lot that they can do that will build more of an industrial and manufacturing base for the society.
The Politic: So you spoke a little bit about Yemen’s potential if they can stabilize the security situation. I know that there were a few AQAP terrorist attacks in 2012. What do you feel is the general attitude toward the group among the Yemeni people?
Well, I think that our sense is that Yemenis, like people all around the world, are not terribly interested in or supportive of these violent extremist organizations. I think that you have to keep in mind that the number one victims anywhere in the world to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] are the Yemeni people themselves. Hundreds have been killed over these past years.
The AQAP occupied large sections of some of the southern governments, particularly Abyan, and had to be driven out at considerable difficulty by the population with the support of the military and security forces. It is really a cancer on the society. There are certainly people who have some ideological affinity for AQAP, but I don’t think it is a particularly large group. Some other people are drawn to them because of economic, tribal, or social issues. For the most part, I think that Yemenis understand that AQAP and other similar kinds of organizations are a threat to their security and stability, first and foremost, and certainly an obstacle to their economic and social development.
The Politic: Given that sentiment: Is there a backlash among the Yemenis about the prisoners who are still being held at Guantanamo Bay?
Well, I think that certainly there is a strong sense among the Yemenis that they would like to see the resolution of that issue. They look very carefully at President Obama’s speech in May, in which he reiterated his commitment and his determination to close Guantanamo. As you probably know, nearly half of the population at Guantanamo right now is Yemeni. So I think that people would like to see something that would allow most, if not all, of those individuals to come back to Yemen.
The Politic: Balancing the security benefits with the risk of alienating Yemenis, what is your opinion on the use of drones in Yemen?
It is something that we spend a fair amount of time discussing. Our sense, based on the conversations that we have with Yemenis plus what we hear from other people and a little bit of polling data that we have seen, suggest that Yemenis understand the need for the drone program. I think that certainly we all understand that the U.S. policy is trying to move beyond kinetic activity to confront violent extremist organizations and really is focused on building the Yemeni economy and also helping the Yemeni Security Forces acquire the capability themselves to provide for security in the country. Ultimately, those are really the two keys to successfully eliminating violent extremism in Yemen.
Having said that, I think there is also an understanding that there is an immediate threat that we and our friends here in Yemen as well as the entire global community, are confronting from people who are determined to try to develop new tactics to carry out terrorist attacks around the world. Therefore, we need to find means to prevent them from doing that while we work on these other long-term solutions to the threat. Nobody likes the drone program; nobody thinks that the drone program is the solution to the problem. And yet, I think that the Yemenis, like we, understand that given the circumstance that we are confronting and the lack of any real alternative in the short-term, the drones are an important and effective tool in the fight against AQAP and other organizations like it.
The Politic: Are the Yemenis trying to fight AQAP or is that mostly an international effort?
Oh no, I think that the real leadership in the fight against AQAP is coming from the Yemenis. If you look at 2012 — the successful offensive against AQAP in Abyan Governorate, which was a collaboration between the Yemeni military and the people of Abyan — I think that is extended into other governorates that are conflicted affected areas where you see the military security forces working closely with local populations to try to build up the capacity to resist AQAP. I think certainly, again, our own effort is focused on trying to build capacity in the Yemeni Military and Security services so that they can take on these challenges and be more effective.
The Politic: How would you describe the United States’ overall mission in Yemen? In addition, what do you do on a daily basis?
The American strategy in Yemen is built around three pillars. The first pillar, of course, is on the political side: working very closely with our partners here in Yemen as well as in the international community, trying to ensure the success of the GCC Initiative and the implementation of this political transition that we’ve been working on for the last two years. Secondly, the security side: helping to build up a military and security capacity and working very closely with the Yemeni Military and Security forces on some reorganization efforts that are going to increase their capability and professionalize their services. This is so that they will be strong partners going into the future and so they can address all of the national security challenges that confront Yemen. Third is the economy: trying to encourage basic elements of economic reform as well as helping some of the critical humanitarian challenges.
Last year, the U.S. was the largest donor for humanitarian relief confronting a very serious and very dire situation here. We’ll continue that. We will continue investing with our partners in the donor community in close cooperation with the government of Yemen and the Yemeni people, and putting in basic elements of economic development so that we can build a foundation for the future. Also, of course, encouraging strengthening of the private sector here, both through some of these economic reform initiatives, but also by encouraging the U.S. private sector to engage with Yemeni counterparts more effectively and more extensively. So those are the three core elements of what we’re trying to do here. On a day-to-day basis, I undertake a variety of efforts, through dialogue and discussions with our Yemeni counterparts, implementation of the various programs, working very closely with agencies in Washington to try to develop these initiatives and programs that will support the three pillars.
The Politic: Do you feel that Washington is supportive of the United States’ mission in Yemen or do you think it should be a higher priority?
I think that we have extremely good support from the administration and from Congress. I think that, in terms of political engagement, it has been extremely positive. Great collaboration with not only Washington — the State Department, of course, the White House, and the Department of Defense — but also our colleagues in Central Command down in Florida have worked very closely with us on some of these military security efforts. Congress has been extremely supportive, I think, and understanding of the challenges. We have, over the past few years, seen a significant increase in the resources that we have available to support the various elements of our mission here.
So I think, in terms of looking at Yemen in the context of the changes that are occurring in the region, I had the opportunities to build stronger, more viable, more sustainable governments and societies. Yemen is one of the most significant examples of how that reform movement, how that evolution, is happening in this part of the world, and I think that Washington has been extremely supportive of the changes here and encouraging the continuation.
The Politic: What misperceptions do you feel that the average citizen of Yemen has of America, and vice versa?
I think the biggest misconception that the Yemeni people have about the United States is the breadth of our engagement here. Unfortunately, the idea took hold over the last ten or twelve years that the U.S. interest in Yemen was very narrowly focused on counterterrorism and defeating al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We have had to work very hard to get them to understand and to recognize that our policy is much more broadly based than that narrow CT function. I think we are making progress on that, but it is certainly a big issue that we have confronted.
We are fortunate in the sense that many Yemenis have family in the United States, there is a very large Yemeni community in the United States, and there is also a very large community here in Yemen of American citizens of Yemeni origin, and so there is a strong basis. Having said that, the Yemeni people on the whole have not traveled very much. They’re not terribly experienced with the world around them, and that includes travel to the United States. So there is a lot of mythology about what America is like, what Americans are like, that we have to overcome.
The Politic: Are you optimistic about Yemen’s north and south remaining united after the negotiations? Do you think there is a chance that some of the southern leaders who are boycotting the dialogue will continue to push for separation?
It is an interesting question. As the dialogue is continued, I think that, increasingly, people have begun to recognize that there are solutions to the legitimate grievances of the southern people that can be accomplished through the continued unity of the country and through various mechanisms that give people at the local level more of a sense of control over their lives, that they are being treated as equal citizens in the society. Really, we have to focus on those.
The international community through the GCC Initiative, as well as the two UN Security Council resolutions to 2014 and 2051, have been very clear in saying that it is the view of the entire international community that Yemen should stay together as a unified state. We do recognize that the history here, particularly since 1994 [the Civil War], has been problematic for the southern people and that those issues have to be addressed and they have to be rectified. We understand all that, but we think that a strong, unified Yemen — where people feel as though they are equal citizens, they are valued, they have equal opportunity in their lives — is the best way forward for all of the Yemenis, whether they are in the North or the South. As we move through the national dialogue, trying to come up with ideas to resolve these outstanding issues, I think, increasingly, the idea of a separation is fading away and we are moving into a period when we can come up with good options on the faces of unity.
The Politic: Speaking about moving into a different period: How, if so, do you think the dialogue will change the status of women and their roles in Yemen?
Well, interestingly, at the end of the second plenary, a kind of the midpoint in the national dialogue, a number of decisions were taken. One of the decisions that was taken was the continuation of a guarantee that thirty percent of the positions in all government institutions throughout society would be dedicated to women. As we have moved through this national dialogue, women are playing a much greater role in some of the basic decision-making and some of the issues that are confronting the country than they ever have before.
I think that, from our own perspective, the entire process — not just the dialogue itself, but the entire process, beginning with the political crisis in 2011 going through today — has greatly enhanced the role that women, that youth, that civil society, are playing in some of the fundamental decision-making, some of the fundamental direction of the society, than they ever have before. I think that women have become accustomed to this role and will be much more aggressive now than they have in the past in ensuring that this isn’t just an anomaly, but that this become a part of the new reality in this society.
The Politic: My final question is: In your opinion, how do you feel that America is represented abroad? Secondly, are there any elements of our foreign policy that you would like to change?
Well, if I wanted to change elements of our foreign policy, I would run for Congress! I think that here, in the region — I have spent most of my career in this part of the world — we have tremendous engagement and a tremendous ability to reach out to all elements of societies and governments to make a difference. I have been doing this for 38 years; I think in my own career, I have had opportunities to be involved in issues that I think, outside of government, you would never the same opportunities.
I think, I hope, that Americans can look at their representation abroad and be proud of the role that we are playing in promoting basic American values and supporting the things that are most important to the American people in the world around them. It has been a great career for me; I can’t think of anything that I would have rather done over these years and I hope that the American people understand and appreciate that role.
Embassy of the United States to Yemen: http://yemen.usembassy.gov