President Ali Abdullah Saleh leans forward and taps a small wooden baton on his polished shoe, as the sweet white smoke of frankincense swirls in the air. Flanked by four well-dressed aides, his eyes wander past four immense gold and silver horse statues to the big-screen TV in the corner of the red room. A report on Yemen is airing. It is about terrorism.
The eyes of the world have suddenly focused on Yemen. With the US claiming this country is home to at least 20 Al Qaeda operatives and thousands of their supporters, and with suspects in several terror attacks - including the Sept. 11th events - hailing from here, the US and its allies want to know what President Saleh is going to do about it.
In an interview, the president answers this question by listing his recent initiatives: tracking down some 23 suspected Al Qaeda operatives in the desert, closing hundreds of religious institutions suspected of nurturing extremists, monitoring people coming and going from the country, and cooperating fully with US counterterrorism investigations.
But the biggest initiative in counteracting the root causes of terrorism, he says, has been going on since he took office in 1978: developing the nation's economy and democratic institutions.
Yemen is the only Gulf Arab country that has embraced multiparty democracy. It sponsors democracy education, allows women the vote, televises parliamentary debates, and allows broad press freedoms. Since 1990, when the traditionalist and free-market North united with the Marxist South to become the Republic of Yemen, the country has had two parliamentary elections and one presidential election.
"Just 40 years ago," says James Rawley, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) representative here, "Yemen was a medieval theocracy with the Imam running the show. Suffice it to say, progress made since then is rather impressive."
Saleh waves away an offer of sweet tea, and explains: "Choosing democracy was an irreversible political choice. And it was not the ruler - me - who set in motion this experiment, but rather all the political parties who together agreed to it."
While Saleh did not choose the system, many here credit him with advancing it. Saleh ran for office in the north in 1978, after leaders of the north and south had been killed off or run out of the country.
By all accounts - including Saleh's - Yemen's reforms have been riddled with imperfection. "It's like a learning experience - a school," he admits. "We are learning daily and getting better."
Observers say this process of democratization is key to reducing the motivations for terrorism.
"Real security will only be established if the people here feel they have a stake, that there is hope, that their voices are respected," says Mr. Rawley. "If, through democracy and development, this can be provided, then people will go along with the system and not fight against it." Rawley says he is cautiously optimistic about Yemen's ability to rid itself of its extremist image and move ahead.
"Yemen today is what I would call a tutelary, or quasi democracy - a still very flawed democracy," says Robert Burrowes, a political science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"But if it continues to evolve toward democratic politics, as I think it will, President Saleh will deserve ... much of the credit.
"Born a tribesman, poorly educated and a soldier by profession, the president is not a democrat by nature or nurture," Dr. Burrowes adds. But for two decades he has embraced the ideas and implemented many of them. The true test of his legacy will "depend on when and how he leaves office."
Yemen's next presidential elections are set for 2006. Saleh, according to the Constitution, will be able to run again, butwould be forced by term limits to step down in seven years.
Some critics fear Saleh's statements about democracy are hollow - that either he will not step down, or he will try to pass the mantle to his son.
"Democracy in Yemen is a facade," charges Abdulkrim Alkaiwaney, a member of a small Islamist opposition party. He points to the recent government crackdowns on suspected extremists and their sympathizers as evidence that there is little regard for due process.
"Of course the US turns a blind eye," he adds. "They say democracy is of supreme value - until they decide that, for now, getting rid of the Islamicists is more important." Saleh, he says, "is just a regular Gulf dictator in Western democratic camouflage."
Saleh dismisses the criticism, stressing that in recent counterterrorism efforts, he is particularly careful not to overstep his legal boundaries or confuse religiosity with extremism.
Last year he brought all religious studies under the umbrella of the state education system, he points out.
"But I am not going to cancel religious studies or persecute religious parties.... We do not want to teach our children extremism - we do want to allow them the freedom to practice and be proud of their religion."
Many factors make it hard for democratic institutions to take root here, says Robin Madrid, director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Yemen. Poverty, lack of education, and low participation among women are some of them. Low salaries for civil servants lead to corruption, she adds, and the government has only partial control over some parts of the country.
But "whatever else is said about Yemen regarding terrorism, kidnappings, etc." she adds, "it is also a place where people are struggling to make democracy a reality."