The American way
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 11 January, 2002
in American approval, the Yemeni government has begun to assert
itself in areas where it once feared to tread. Whatever
authoritarian aspirations President Ali Abdullah Saleh may have
cherished in the past, tribal and regional fiefdoms have always
served as a brake on centralized power. Now, thanks to 11
September, the brakes are off: the war on terrorism" has
become a means for strengthening Yemen’s chronically weak
Marib, beyond the mountains to the east of San’a on the
fringes of the Empty Quarter, is a vital province, producing 40%
of Yemen’s oil, courtesy of the US-owned Hunt Oil.
It is also Yemen’s most lawless province - the scene in
recent years of numerous kidnappings, attacks on oil pipelines and
skirmishes between the army and tribesmen. American demands to
track down Usama bin Laden’s supporters have now given the
government an unprecedented opportunity to try to pacify it.
In December, armed with a list of suspects provided by
Washington, Yemeni forces tried to arrest three of them in Marib.
The suspects escaped, but at least 18 soldiers and four tribesmen
died in the ensuing gun and tank battle.
This military fiasco serves as a reminder that making arrests
can be far more difficult in Yemen than in the United States. The
traditional obligations of tribes to their members and guests are
sometimes a major obstacle. One of the wanted men, Qaid Ali bin
Sinyan alHarethi, eventually surrendered after tribal
negotiations. According to the Yemen Times, he gave himself
up following promises that he would be tried in a Yemeni court and
not handed over to the Americans - a move that may well displease
The crack-down on Islamist extremists (MEl 663) has also
continued, with the arrest of 80 foreign students and teachers at
the Dar al-Hadith Religious Institute in Marib. They were accused
of being illegal residents. The group, which includes Libyans,
Indonesians, Somalis, Egyptians, Sudanese and Iraqis, are in the
process of being deported.
In a further sign of the times, Yemen’s fast-track
anti-terrorism court sentenced four men to between 20 and 25 years
in jail for kidnapping a German businessman in San’a at the end
This was certainly the swiftest kidnap trial Yemen has seen -
it began only three days after the hostage was released - but only
one of the defendants was present in court, and he claimed to have
been acting as a mediator between the kidnappers and the
At an unrelated mass trial, 24 people were sentenced to death
for "banditry" in Ibb province. If carried out, these
will be the first executions for crimes other than murder in
Last year, at least 76 people were executed - the highest
number recorded since Yemen began announcing executions in 1998.
So far, Yemenis seem willing to accept President Saleh’s
argument that this new authoritarianism is necessary to save Yemen
from attack by the US. Speaking of his recent meeting in
Washington with President Bush, Saleh told Yemeni religious
leaders: "Some people criticized my visit to the US, but I
went there to avoid any danger to our country ... There were
reports putting forward Yemen as a second Afghanistan."
Various tribal chiefs have been enlisted to declare their
approval of government policies. In a message to the president,
ten dignitaries from Marib, Shabwa and al-Jawf, all regarded as
wayward provinces, voiced their support for the armed forces and
police, and for "the policy being carried out against
violence and terrorism
This may have little to do with Bin Laden directly, but some in
America are beginning to see it as a potential success story.
Purging Yemen of extremism, the Washington Post noted
recently, "would be an important political achievement in a
region that has still not warmed to the fight against Islamic
terrorist groups". Yemen, it added, could prove "a good
model for pursuing al-Qa’ida and other terrorist organizations
in countries beyond Afghanistan
Yemen now looks set to become the first Arab country to ratify
all twelve international conventions on terrorism. It has already
ratified nine and the remaining three - on financing terrorism, on
plastic explosives and on nuclear materials - are in the pipeline.