by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 3 July 1998
A WEEK of riots and
demonstrations against price rises in Yemen has left more than 50 dead. On June 18 the
government announced increases of 40% on petrol, 35% on wheat and flour, and 25% on
cooking gas in the latest phase of the economic restructuring package agreed with World
Bank/IMF three years ago. The increases - which were a factor in the resignation of Prime
Minister bin Ghanim last April - had been delayed for weeks, partly because of security
After inflammatory sermons at the Friday
prayers in the capital, Sana'a, protesters marched through the streets; rubbish, tyres and
a car were set alight. Police used teargas and fired into the air to disperse the crowds.
At an emergency cabinet meeting the government decided not reverse its policy.
There was serious unrest in other parts of the northern
Yemen - Ta'izz, Dhamar, Ibb, Rada'a, Amran, Khamir, Sirwah, Ma'rib and al-Jawf - though
the south was relatively quiet.
Government officials were still insisting that no more
than five people had died when the bodies of 21 soldiers arrived in Sana'a for burial.
Most of them had been killed around Ma'rib in clashes with armed tribesmen.
Ma'rib is the main oil-producing centre in the north, and
the tribes had been attempting to prevent fuel from reaching the capital by blockading the
road. Casualties on the tribal side are estimated at between 20 and 30.
Earlier phases of the economic package - which will
ultimately remove state subsidies on basic goods - have also caused trouble. Last October
at least three people died when armed tribesmen blocked major roads
on all sides of the capital after the price of diesel went up.
The World Bank argues that removing subsidies ought to
have little effect on the average consumer because the money is usually creamed off by
middle-men. Some businesses have been taking advantage of the latest increases by raising
prices more than is strictly necessary.
The protests have been directed partly against the new
prime minister, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, but mostly against what one preacher called
"the Bank of Death". In reality, Yemen had little option but to accept the IMF's
In 1994 the country's balance of payments deficit was $760
million and revenue was not even enough to cover government employees' salaries. A rescue
package brought new loans of $500 million, and later $1.8 billion, plus cancellation of
most of Yemen's existing debt (mainly with the former Soviet Union).
The price of this was economic reform - and by last year
the budget deficit and inflation had been reduced to an all-time low. Since then, then
economy has been blown off course again because of a fall in the price of oil (on which
Yemen depends heavily) from $18 to $13 a barrel.
According to the new government's programme, presented to
parliament last month, lower oil prices caused a drop in foreign revenue to $236 million
in January-March, compared with $378 million in the same period last year.
The government had ample time to prepare its security
plans in advance of the price increases. Disturbances were inevitable, but the aim was to
quell them within a week. To reduce opposition among key personnel, military and civil
service salaries were increased by 15% at the time the price rises were announced. About
160 people were arrested in a security clamp-down.
As MEI went to press the worst of the trouble appeared to
be over, though there were reports that a pipeline had been blown up near Ma'rib. Last
week's Friday prayers passed off peacefully, with a large security presence around the
main mosques. The government has banned demonstrations without prior permission but at
least one opposition party has threatened to defy the ban.
Blame for much of the trouble is attributed to Islah, the
conservative/Islamist Islah party, which has announced that its goal is to bring down the
Iryani government. But the view among opposition parties of all complexions is remarkably
similar: that economic reform will not work without political reform and the elimination
of corruption. One party has called for a high tax on the popular drug, qat, in order to
keep food prices down.
Meanwhile, nine Italian tourists, including four women,
were briefly kidnapped by the al-Marazeeq tribe near Bir Ali, close to Aden. The
kidnappers demanded a car and the building of a school, which they claimed had been
promised during a previous kidnapping but not delivered.