by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 22 May 1998
AFTER the melodramatic
disappearance and subsequent resignation of Yemen's prime minister, Faraj bin Ghanim, the
most startling aspect of the new government, announced on May 16, is how little has
Four ministers have swapped places and
there are three newcomers in the enlarged cabinet but apart from the prime minister, only
one - an independent - has left. This suggests that, whatever the outgoing prime
minister's popularity in the country at large, he had not won much of a following among
cabinet colleagues during his 11 months in office.
The new prime minister, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani,
appointed as caretaker on April 29, has now been confirmed in his post. He is undoubtedly
a safe choice. The nephew of a former president, he first became prime minister of
northern Yemen 18 years ago and has served in numerous governments since. He was a key
strategist in the overwhelming election victory won by the General People's Congress last
year. As foreign minister until recently, he enjoyed good relations with the West, though
not with Saudi Arabia.
The new government is likely to err on the side of
caution, though it faces two major problems. One is the economy, which has suffered with
the falling price of oil. The other is internal security - especially tribal kidnapping of
Another priority will be to pave the way for Yemen's first
direct presidential election, due in October next year. Dr Iryani will therefore be
looking for a period of cabinet stability without the squabbles that have paralysed Yemeni
governments in the past. In order to maintain a consensus, the emphasis is likely to be on
modest reforms rather than the more radical change that his predecessor wanted.
The promotion of Abd al-Qadir Bagammal to foreign minister
is perhaps the most significant change in the new cabinet. He is a southerner and a former
Socialist minister of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. After unification in 1990
he adapted more successfully than his erstwhile colleagues, and joined President Salih's
General People's Congress. As minister of planning and development before his promotion,
he was active in reducing Yemen's foreign debt.
Meanwhile the Consultative Council has been discussing
proposals for ending the spate of kidnaps. Last year there were 21 actual kidnappings and
six attempts; this year there have been 16 so far.
One difficulty is that the kidnappers have a variety of
motives, ranging from settlement of genuine grievances to outright extortion. Three tribal
groups are mainly involved: the Bani Dhabyan in Marib, the Serwah/Bani Jabr in Khawlan and
al-Hada in Dhamar.
Military action is impossible without heavy civilian
casualties. Tough new legislation might placate foreign governments whose nationals are
taken hostage, but offenders would almost certainly never be punished - leaving the law
and the judicial system further discredited. Around 150 named kidnapping suspects are
currently at large, with little prospect of arrest.
The latest suggestion is to set up a consultation
mechanism for all tribes, whether involved in kidnapping or not, in order to identify
grievances and tackle them at an early stage.