NEW YORK (Reuters) - It has to be one of the toughest jobs around - trying to sell U.S. businesses on the investment potential of one of the poorest nations on Earth, a country battered by Islamist militants who bomb, assassinate and kidnap.
Yet it is a job U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein is taking on by leading a delegation of 10 Yemeni businessmen on a 10-day, five-city tour of the United States.
“We think there are great opportunities. There’s money to be made investing in Yemen,” Feierstein, a career diplomat, said on Thursday. This is the first time the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has organized a Yemeni business delegation to visit U.S. companies.
Just last week masked gunmen fatally shot a Yemeni who worked in the security office of the U.S. Embassy, leaving behind a wife and seven children. A month ago the embassy was stormed by protesters angry about an anti-Islam film made in California.
The task of promoting Yemen seems daunting and could draw a parallel to the 2011 film “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” starring Ewan McGregor as a fisheries expert hired by an eccentric sheik to bring fly-fishing to the parched land. Still, the Yemeni business executives, who arrived in New York on Wednesday, presented an upbeat image of their nation.
”The overall situation in Yemen is improving,“ said Fathi Abdulwasa Hayel Saeed, chairman of the Yemeni Businessmen Club. ”Yes, there are challenges. Yes, there are security issues but Yemen is such a virgin country where there are a lot of opportunities to do business.
“I think a lot of American companies have been shy from coming to Yemen, while other nationalities like from Europe and Southeast Asia have been coming to Yemen even in the difficult times,” Saeed said.
Their itinerary also takes them to Kansas City, Houston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
‘YEMEN NEEDS POWER’
The executives come from the construction, pharmaceuticals, medical and technology industries. However, much of the discussion focused on developing clean water, a precious commodity in the dry Arabian peninsula landscape, as well as renewable energy such as wind and solar power.
“Yemen needs power to grow the economy,” said Wael Zokari, chief executive officer of Griffin International, the technology arm of conglomerate Griffin Group.
“The technology we need comes from the United States,” he said.
Yemen produces less than half the electricity it needs now, let alone for the infrastructure it wants to build to grow an economy that contracted 10.5 percent in 2011 to under $29 billion.
The International Monetary Fund estimates 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day and earlier this month forecast economic contraction of 1.9 percent for this year.
However, in September nearly $8 billion in international donor pledges were collected to help support the government’s budget, which is under severe strains because of frequent attacks on its oil pipelines.
According to Feierstein, there is a misperception that Yemen’s oil and gas production is “going to run dry over the next few years.”
He said oil companies, including major U.S. producers, are interested in taking another look at the country because much of it has never been explored. A survey by Houston-based oil and gas consultant Knowledge Reservoir is under way to calculate more accurately its gas reserves, a U.S. State Department official traveling with the delegation said.
The storming of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa occurred in conjunction with the violence on September 11 in Libya in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya, another diplomat and two U.S. security men were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
Asked if he has enough support on security in Yemen, Feierstein responded: ”Yes. Absolutely. I would say specifically that the support we have gotten from Washington, the State Department, from (U.S.) Central Command, the White House, which oversees or certainly watches these things, has been outstanding.
“There’s never been a time where we came and asked for support where the support wasn’t forthcoming.”
Yemen still is rattled by violence, often claimed by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and U.S.-led drone attacks on militants. But the executives highlighted a political transition that is holding despite militancy, while international donors have pledged billions of dollars to help rebuild the country.
In February, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the sole candidate to replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh, was sworn into office. Saleh ruled Yemen for three decades with an iron fist but was pushed out by months of street protests sparked by the Arab Spring.
The hope among the executives, the U.S.-backed government, and Washington is that much like McGregor’s fictional movie character, who saw his project blown up by local militants, they, like the salmon, will survive.
Editing by Bill Trott