Looking back at the news
agency reports from Yemen over the last 18 months it would be easy to
conclude that the country is in turmoil. Gun battles, explosions — both
large and small, deliberate and accidental — plus, of course, the usual
kidnappings and an aircraft hijacking, dominate the picture.
This is not, however, a picture that most visitors to Yemen would
instantly recognise from their own experience, nor is it one that most
Yemenis, from the tranquillity of their mafraj, would accept as reality.
The events themselves are real enough and are a matter of practical
concern to investors, tourists and anyone who does business in Yemen. But
Yemen, in news terms, is in danger of becoming typecast and we should be
careful not to draw the wrong conclusions.
Although these events are troubling, they pose no significant threat to
the regime. They occur for a variety of reasons, some of which are
non-political. The only common factor is the availability of weapons and a
readiness to use them.
By far the most serious incident was the suicide bomb attack on USS Cole
as it refuelled in Aden harbour on October 12 last year. Seventeen
sailors died and 39 were injured when a small dinghy with two men on board
sailed close to the $1 billion guided missile destroyer and exploded,
blowing a 40-foot hole in its side.
It is still unclear who was responsible for the attack. Local Islamists
were certainly involved, and a number have been arrested. There are also
indications that some of the technical expertise at least came from
outside Yemen — possibly from people associated with ‘Usama bin Laden.
So far, no evidence pointing to bin Laden himself has been disclosed.
The attack on USS Cole could easily have caused serious damage
to YeineniAmerican relations — indeed, that may have been part of the
bombers’ intentions. The ensuing investigation raised issues of
sovereignty for Yemen as well as highlighting differences in detective
methods, with theYemenis eager to secure speedy convictions based on
confessions and the Americans demanding evidence of a quality that would
stand up in US courts. Despite these initial problems, both sides seem to
have reached a sensible working arrangement.
On the morning after the Cole attack a small bomb was thrown
into the compound of the British embassy in Sana’a where it hit the fuel
tank supplying an emergency generator. There were no casualties but damage
was described as ‘considerable’. At the time of writing four people
were on trial in connection with the attack.
The number of foreigners kidnapped showed a marked decline in 2000.
Eight foreigners were taken hostage in six separate incidents and,
although one hostage (a Norwegian) died in a shoot-out with security
forces, this was by far the lowest hostage total for at least five years.
Twenty-seven foreigners were kidnapped in 1999, 42 in 1998, 50 in 1997 and
23 in 1996. During the first half of 2001, five foreigners were kidnapped
in four separate incidents.
The decline is probably due more to a lack of opportunity than a lack
of inclination among kidnappers: there are fewer foreigners in the
country, they are more aware of the risks, and tourists are restricted to
areas considered safe.
On the other hand, there are signs that kidnappers may be adapting to
the new situation. Last January, the Bani Dhabyan tribe abducted the son
of the mayor of Sana’a, complaining that there were no suitable
foreigners available. In May, another tribe, apparently unable to find a
victim on the country roads, abducted a German student nearTahrir Square
in the centre of the capital.
In January, aYemenia plane on an internal flight from Sana’a to Ta’izz
was hijacked by a man who demanded to be taken to Baghdad. The hijacker
appears to have been unaware that the passengers included the US
ambassador, Barbara Bodine, and several American diplomats as well as the
Yemeni ambassador to Washington and a protocol official from President
The plane landed at Djibouti on the pretext of refuelling and the 95
passengers escaped down the emergency chutes. Yemeni journalists noted
with some admiration that Ms Bodine was the only one who followed safety
instructions to the letter, by coolly removing her shoes so as not to
damage the inflatable slide.
The hijacker, like several suspects in the Cole bombing, had
managed to obtain a Yemem identity card under a false name, according to
the Yemen Times. He had smuggled his gun on to the plane by placing
it along with other items in a tray at the side of the airport metal
detector, the paper said.
In another mid-air incident, a Yemenia flight to Damascus turned back
to Sana’a when a monkey escaped from a passenger’s hand baggage. Five
more monkeys were discovered on board when it landed.
An unusually large number of executions — 31 — was reported in the
first six months of 2001. This may reflect either an increase in the rate
of executions or more systematic disclosure of them. All the reported
executions were for murder.
Among those executed was Mohammad Adam Omar, a Sudanese mortuary
assistant at Sana’a university’s medical school who, in a particularly
gruesome and confusing case, had been convicted of raping and murdering
two female students. He was shot on June 20 in front of a crowd of 50,000.
This sad catalogue of events somewhat overshadowed the most
far-reaching development of the last 18 months: the thaw in Yemeni-Saudi
relations after more than 65 years of mutual suspicion and un-neighbourly
In May 2000, Crown Prince Abdullah attended celebrations to mark the
tenth anniversary of Yemeni unification — a move that would have been
unthinkable only a few years earlier, given the kingdom’s hostile
attitude to the union.
Three weeks after the prince’s visit, both countries signed an
agreement which defined, for the first time, the whole of their shared
Parallel with this, the exiled opposition group, Mowj, which had been
set up in the wake of the 1994 war of secession and had continued to
operate under Saudi sponsorship, ceased its activities.
Although there are still some loose ends to be tied up — a German
company, charged with the technical work of marking the border, has met
hostility from local tribes — there is no doubt that Yemen and Saudi
Arabia have made a long-term commitment to warmer and mutually beneficial
The first local government elections since unification, held in
February this year, were intended as a further step in the process of
democratisation which already includes an elected lower house of
parliament and direct presidential elections. In the event, they turned
into a shambles.
With 26,000 candidates competing for 7,000 seats, the organisational
task was on a different scale from the last parliamentary election, where
a mere 1,557 candidates contested 301 seats. The potential for quarrels
between candidates and complaints of malpractice was thus proportionally
More than 100 violent incidents were reported around the country and,
although the precise death toll was disputed, news agency reports
indicated that at least 45 people had died on election day or during the
prolonged and turbulent counting of votes.
Several candidates were among the dead. In al-Baydali, a Nasserite
candidate was killed in a counting centre as he was leading by 700 votes
with the last ballot box being counted. In Ibb, an Islah party candidate
was dragged away and killed after being declared the winner.
Voting was prevented from taking place in 200 polling stations, either
by violence or technical problems such as the non-arrival of ballot boxes.
A referendum held on the same day was officially declared to have given
70 per cent approval to constitutional changes which will extend the
president’s term from five years to seven, and that of parliament from
four years to six.
On March 31, President All Abdullali Salih appointed Abd al-Qader
Bagammal as prime minister. Mr Bagammal, a 55-year-old Hadrami who had
previously served as foreign minister, was regarded as a safe and
pragmatic choice to succeed Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani.
He began his political career in the marxist People’s Democratic
Republic of Yemen, where he served as planning and oil minister during the
1980s. Following the 1986 coup he was imprisoned for ‘working against
the principles of socialism’.
When north and south Yemen were unified in 1990, he joined Salili’s
party, the General People’s Congress, and began a steady rise to the
Mr Bagammal’s appointment was followed within a few days by the most
dramatic cabinet reshuffle in Yemen’s recent history. Seventeen
ministers lost their jobs and were replaced by 22 newcomers — a move
which, in the words of the official media, heralded ‘change and
modernisation’, to be brought about by capable and qualified young men.
The new government included Yemen’s first woman minister —
Professor Waheeba Fare’e, Rector of Queen Arwa University — who was
put in charge of human rights. Another progressive sign was the creation
of new portfolios for the environment and population, but this was
dismissed by one writer in the Yemen Times as a marketing ploy,
intended merely to present a ‘modern and civilised’ image to the
At the swearing-in ceremony President Salih impressed upon the new
ministers the need to curb corruption and fulfil the people’s
aspirations in education, development and industry. The ministers’
performance, he said, would be subject to continuous evaluation.
As often happens inYemen, these changes brought a ray of hope during a
period of gloom surrounding the local elections. But it’s too early to
say whether the optimists or the sceptics will be proved right.