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Victoria Clark: Yemen's greatest enemy is sitting across its border

Yemenis baulk at the idea that their neighbours should supply more aid

Once upon a time in the early 1950s, the King of Yemen, Imam Ahmad, dispatched an adviser to Germany who returned with marvellous tales of what he had seen there. Describing the economic miracle which the US's Marshall Plan had wrought, he explained that although the Germans had started and then lost a war against the Americans, the streets of Cologne were now as clean as the Imam's table.

No fool, the Imam decided that Sanaa's streets would soon be a match for Cologne's; all he needed to do was declare war against America, lose it, and wait for the aid to pour in. The tale may be apocryphal but, as London readies itself for tomorrow's hastily convened conference on how to help Yemen root out an al-Qa'ida cell capable of equipping a Nigerian youth with enough explosives in his underpants to down a passenger plane, it is worth reviewing the highlights of Yemen's aid history.

The traditional attitude of all Yemen's leaders towards foreign aid, and the form which aid from neighbouring Saudi Arabia has taken since the 1970s, as well as the West's most recent effort to co-ordinate aid efforts in Yemen, should all be borne in mind.

Yemen's educated classes assume that Imam Ahmad's pragmatic "we'll take as much cash as we can get by whatever means and with as few strings attached as possible" policy is also the name of President Ali Abdullah Salih's game. It benefited Yemen during the Cold War; Maoist Chinese built the country's first paved road, Soviets modernised the Red Sea port of Hodeidah and ensured the country was armed to the hilt at almost no cost, while the Americans sorted out a water supply and a girls' school.

Yemenis also assume that President Ali Abdullah Salih has deliberately refrained from cracking down hard on his jihadists in order to maintain the flow of anxious aid – money, surveillance equipment, weapons – from his Western allies and neighbouring Saudi Arabia. His mercenary short-sightedness is largely to blame, they say, for Yemen's shaming reputation as a jihadists' haven.

Saudi aid in the security field is already reckoned to be around double the $140m to be offered to Yemen by the US this year, and there is more – harder to quantify precisely – in the form of mosque-building, charity and religious education. But the hardest Saudi aid to quantify is the cash flowing straight out of a Saudi "Special Office" to the sheikhs of many Yemeni tribes, especially ones located anywhere near the Saudi border.

A Yemeni civil rights activist laments the Saudis' financial clout, portraying it as one of the chief banes of Yemen's existence: "Although Yemenis hate Saudis," he explains, "the Saudis know how to spread their influence by their wealth and they have corrupted everything in Yemen." He claims that two thirds – in other words, 6,000 of Yemen's approximately 9,000 tribal sheikhs – benefit from Saudi handouts, the most powerful of them to the tune of $3.5m a month.

The Saudis' apparent reluctance to invest in the long-term development and improvement of the country and help educate its people is what makes Yemenis baulk at the now frequently voiced Western opinion that Yemen's rich neighbours, rather than any Western countries, should be taking the lead in supplying aid to Yemen.

Pointing out the drawbacks inherent in Saudi Arabia's style of giving may be unwise, however, when the West has nothing much to boast about. A 2006 London conference devoted to aiding development in Yemen, involving both Western powers and Yemen's Gulf neighbours, resulted in pledges of almost $5bn, precious little of which has been received, let alone spent.

Yemen's Foreign Minister, Dr Al-Qirbi, in London for tomorrow's conference, has been complaining that if those projects had got off the ground and begun to bear fruit, "things would be very different now". The donors' reply to that would be that the human capital, the skills and standards needed to run the projects, were not available.

The scattering of brand new schools in Yemen's rural areas, standing empty and already decaying for lack of teachers, are a still more eloquent reminder of Yemen's true needs.

Victoria Clark's 'Yemen: Dancing on the Heads of Snakes' will be published by Yale in March