RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now in our series on piracy, a visit to Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Last week, Yemen's coast guard rescued a tanker from Somali pirates. Despite the crackdown, sympathy for pirates runs deep in this ailing country. Yemen's economy is collapsing. Its oil is running out, and there's worry that the country could become a place where piracy thrives. Kelly McEvers reports from Yemen's capital, Sanaa.
KELLY McEVERS: The pirates seized the Yemeni-owned tanker just 10 miles off Yemen's coast, after it left the port city Mukalla. The next day, the Yemeni coast guard retook the ship, and the alleged pirates were brought back to port. The men were paraded in front of reporters while the Yemeni national anthem blared from a coast guard boat.
Some of the accused pirates wore nothing more than their underwear.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
McEVERS: Yemini coast guard captain Mohammad Hajri said the pirates will be detained and interrogated, then brought to trial.
This is the fourth group of alleged pirates from Somalia to be placed in Yemeni custody. In February, 10 men were captured by a Russian navy boat and handed over to the Yemeni coast guard. Officials say that group of Somalis was caught with Kalashnikovs, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, ammunition and a small, fast boat. The group now awaits trial.
Yemeni reporter Mohammad al-Qadhi met the accused Somalis in the library of the central jail in the port city of Aden. He says the men told him they started out as fishermen, then grew angry when they saw big, international ships overfishing Somali waters and dumping waste there, too. So they decided to rob a ship.
Mr. MOHAMMAD AL-QADHI (Reporter): They were ordinary people. They were not some people who are strange — just young people. They told me that if there is stability in Somalia, we will not do such kind of things.
McEVERS: This kind of sympathy for pirates is shared by many here in Yemen — officials and civilians alike — despite the coast guard's crackdown. One American Navy commander recently alleged that private citizens in Yemen are selling weapons, fuel and supplies to Somali pirates. And maritime experts worry that pirates are increasingly able to find refuge along Yemen's vast coast.
The sympathy runs so deep here that some officials suggest all this international attention on piracy is just a pretext for big powers like the U.S. to gain control of the Gulf of Aden, a waterway through which millions of barrels of oil pass every day.
Ahmed al-Asbahi is a member of the Yemeni parliament.
Mr. AHMED AL-ASBAHI (Yemeni Parliamentarian): (Through translator) What the international community should do is help bring a real and lasting peace to Somalia. If they do this, then there won't be any piracy. They can do this without bringing their military forces to our waters.
McEVERS: But that kind of peace takes time, says Yemeni political science professor Abdullah al-Faqih. Until that happens…
Professor ABDULLAH AL-FAQIH: Yemen is part of the problem.
McEVERS: That, Faqih says, is because Yemen itself is a failing state. It has a growing separatist movement in the south, an insurgency in the north, a re-emergence of al-Qaida - and on top of all this, a collapsing economy.
Mr. AL-FAQIH: Yemen is dependent on oil revenues. Now with the financial crisis, the oil price is going down. And basically the country lost, you know, most of its credit and financial resources.
McEVERS: What's more, the oil itself is running out. And the government has failed to diversify the economy. Al-Faqih says a total economic meltdown could come very soon. The government already has cut the state budget in half.
Mr. AL-FAQIH: I always think that the state may reach within three to five months a situation where it can't pay salaries.
McEVERS: If the state fails, al-Faqih says Yemen would expand the belt of lawlessness in this region to both sides of the Gulf of Aden, and become yet another place where pirates, smugglers and militants could thrive.
Instead of worrying about how to fix the problems in Somalia, he says, Yemen should worry about whether it will become the next Somalia.
For NPR News, I'm Kelly McEvers, Sonaa, Yemen.