Sanaa, Yemen (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise visit Tuesday to poverty-stricken Yemen, a key al Qaeda battleground and planning center in recent years.
The secretary -- who is visiting the Persian Gulf region -- was speaking with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and was to meet with legislators and members of the political opposition, civic and nongovernmental groups and a former child bride.
The trip was held under tight security. It was not announced until Clinton reached ground and landed in the capital, Sanaa.
Clinton told reporters that the United States wants to take a two-pronged approach to helping Yemen.
One is with military assistance to fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al Qaeda affiliate there, and the other side is to provide help for social and economic development in a poor nation running out of oil and water.
Aid earlier was heavily weighted toward the military, and now the United States wants to balance civilian and defense help.
"We are not just focused on short-term threats but on long-term challenges," she said, which include declining oil production and a disappearing water problem.
"To that end, we have balanced our aid package so that it is not so disproportionately consisting of the funding necessary on the counterterrorism agenda but also includes other priorities," Clinton told reporters after landing in Sanaa.
"Above all, the United States is committed to the people of Yemen," she added later.
Government forces have clashed with Houthi rebels in the north and dissidents in the south. John Brennan, the Obama administration's top counterterrorism adviser, said last month that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a greater threat to Americans than Osama bin Laden's group based in Pakistan.
"Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now the most operationally active node of the al Qaeda network," Brennan said during a forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim who moved to Yemen and has become a key figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has been linked to the suspect in the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre of 13 people in 2009 as well as the suspect in the 2009 Christmas Day "underwear bombing" attempt. That's when a Nigerian man allegedly tried to detonate an explosive device sewn into his underwear as his flight headed toward Detroit.
Yemen tightened security at all airports late last year in the aftermath of a plot to send bombs from Yemen to the United States hidden inside printer parts, the country's National Civil Aviation Security Committee said. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the failed bomb plots.
The central government of Yemen is regarded as America's top ally in the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
A recently leaked diplomatic cable showed Yemen's president was willing to deceive the public about airstrikes against al Qaeda sites.
Saleh lamented the use of cruise missiles that are "not very accurate" and welcomed the use of aircraft-deployed precision-guided bombs instead.
"'We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,' Saleh said," according to the leaked cable from January.
Last month, a U.S. Embassy vehicle parked in front of a restaurant frequented by Westerners in suburban Sanaa was attacked. There were no injuries.
Clinton's regional visit, which started over the weekend, is intended to highlight citizens' participation in society and opportunity for young people in a part of the world where a majority of the population is under 25.
In a pre-trip briefing with reporters, State Department officials said the secretary will discuss regional security issues, including Iran, Iraq, the Middle East peace process, Lebanon, as well as Yemen.
She visited Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, addressing the issue of economic sanctions on Iran's nuclear program and saying the "most recent analysis is that sanctions have been working."
She will also visit Oman and Qatar and will focus on social issues, including child marriage and domestic violence, as well as on innovation and business development.
In Qatar, Clinton will participate in the Seventh Forum for the Future, a joint initiative of the countries of the broader Middle East and North African region and the industrialized countries of the Group of Eight.