This year, for the first time, I reported from the World Economic Forum in Davos.
I could scarcely have landed a more extreme contrast from my previous assignment. A few days earlier, I was in Yemen, accompanying government forces fighting Houthi rebels and Islamist extremists.
On a bone crunching, tortuous drive to the top of the Al Manara mountain, just east of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, I had seen soldiers precariously camped in tents clinging to rock faces above precipitous drops. I had watched as we bounced by scattered military hardware – a rocket launcher here, an armoured vehicle there – and donkeys used to re-supply the further-flung outposts of the battle. I had even ventured into deep tunnels hewn into hard rock by rebels to shelter from coalition air strikes, and despite passing close to frontline snipers, emerged with only a few bruises.
Looking across from the mountain top over the Houthi-held territory below, it appeared a swift advance could dislodge the Iranian-backed rebels, perhaps pushing them out of the capital, or at the very least into meaningful peace talks. All the while I had wondered at the stark, inhospitable, red, rocky landscape and eerie, desolate beauty of ancient fortified villages so typical of this stricken country.
And yet these were not the things that stuck in my mind as I exchanged my dusty jacket for a suit and tie, and walked through the carpeted halls of the Congress Centre in Davos. Instead, I thought of two young students I encountered at Aden University. They had a 3D printer – the kind of modern marvel you might expect to see among the tech companies exhibiting on the promenade in Davos. But while the printer was incongruous in this war-torn environment, the way they were using it was anything but: they were printing prosthetic hands.
Using 3D modelling software, they were taking local materials to create something greatly needed in Yemen. As their professor explained, more than 5,000 young people here need prosthetic limbs. One of the students showed me their latest project, an unfinished hand; they had stopped working on it simply because they did not have what they needed to complete it. Increasingly, he told me, the materials they need just cannot be found in Yemen. Instead they must somehow find them from overseas.
In a country in the grip of famine, civil war and political chaos, it isn’t hard to see why such a task is a huge challenge. Even more so when they simply do not have the funds to create their own designs and must buy the more sophisticated materials they so desperately need.
Back on the Al Manara mountain, Yemen’s military commanders face a not dissimilar issue. The country’s government troops are not a vast, sophisticated force, capable of swift decapitation of its enemies. Instead they are an army that holds the high ground for military necessity, advancing as and when possible or required. That said, they may well be capable of taking Sanaa if they mounted an aggressive campaign similar to that waged by the Iraqi army in Mosul.
But the government has no intention of racing down from the mountain to capture the city. Wary of the civilian casualties the Mosul assault created, it is reluctant to make such a move. Officials believe the government has popular support in Sanaa, and risking that would undermine their ability to reunify the country.
Push may, however, be coming to shove. The Saudis want to see the war in Yemen wrapped up quickly. This failed state is now being exploited by al Qaeda and ISIS, and represents a direct threat to Saudi Arabia’s own stability. Not only that, the situation undermines the ambition the Saudis were proudly demonstrating at Davos – a future of hi-tech development and clean energy, of cultural and economic advancement. Investors cannot help but be wary of a conflict on its borders that could quite realistically see Iranian-made Houthi missiles land in Riyadh.
In terms of this year’s Davos theme – Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World – it would be hard to conceive of a more vivid example of the need to find a shared future, than Yemen. Likewise, it is even harder to find a more fractured world than this desperately divided country.
Yemenis are tired and angry. They are desperate for a compromise that would achieve peace, but see the Houthi’s backers – Iran – and the government’s backers – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as obstacles to such an outcome.
Following the assassination of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who famously described running Yemen as "dancing on the heads of snakes", and the unseating of internationally recognised president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the prospect of reunification is as distant as ever.
The conflict in Yemen is extraordinarily complex. The country has always been poor, and has long relied on its more prosperous neighbours for support. Players in the conflict are many, and include the US, as well as the Saudis, Emiratis and Iranians. The path to a unified Yemen is murky and unclear.
'We want to live'
I asked the two students at Aden University what they hoped to see in their country’s future. Was it a big united Yemen with everyone together? “Actually, I don’t care about this stuff,” one told me. “We’re already in a messed-up place. We want to live. We want medical services, we want roads, we want education, we want to have jobs. That is what we are thinking about as young people. I don’t care about political issues. That’s what we’re hoping for. We want to live.”
This is the simple truth of so many conflicts: the young want nothing more than a future. These two students were industrious, passionate, ingenious. They were resourceful and determined. The future of their country depends upon people just like them.
In Davos, as conversations flipped from migrants and refugees, to education and infrastructure, to protectionism and globalism, I kept thinking of these two young people. If Yemen cannot provide for them, then they will be lost to it, very possibly on some migrant route in search of a better life. They may realise their potential elsewhere, or they may be denied that opportunity, or worse. Either way, they will not be around to shape their country’s destiny.
Solving crises in Yemen and similar conflict zones is the key to so much of what was discussed in Davos. If the world looks on, then these people become the world’s problem. For good or bad, the shared future discussed at the WEF is theirs and ours.
Deadlocked: Yemen’s Civil War airs on CNN International on Saturday 17 February at 4pm ET/10pm CET