Anguish in the land of Sheba

Originally published in The Guardian, 2 January 1992

Of all the bystanders in the Gulf War, none suffered more than Yemen. Brian Whitaker reports on Arabia's struggling democracy.

THE ROMANS called it Arabia Felix - the land blessed with good fortune. For a few exhilarating months in 1990 it seemed that modern Yemen might live up to its ancient name: in May, the two states - north and south, products of Turkish and British imperialism - were finally unified, a new constitution set the country on a path to freedom and democracy, and oil discoveries were raising hopes of a reasonably prosperous future. Then, in August, Saddam invaded Kuwait.

The Gulf crisis presented Yemen with an almost impossible choice. It had long-standing trade links with Iraq; in particular it depended on Iraq - and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait - for most of its oil. At the same time, it also depended on remittances from Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Whatever Yemen decided to do, it was bound to suffer.

Opting for what it saw as a middle course, Yemen simultaneously condemned the invasion of Kuwait and opposed the Western intervention, arguing instead for a regional - Arab - solution. In this it differed little from several other "neutral'' Arab states, but as the only Arab member of the UN Security Council at the time, Yemen came under special scrutiny. Its stance was interpreted in the West as evidence of secret support for Saddam, and by Saudi Arabia as nothing less than betrayal.

The outcome was that Yemen got the worst of all worlds, suffering more from the war than any other non-combatant country: UN sanctions cut off its Iraqi oil, the US cut off its aid and more than a million Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf were abruptly sent home.

To begin to comprehend the upheaval this caused, in proportional terms one would have to imagine four or five million British expatriates arriving at Dover in the space of a few weeks - jobless and largely homeless.

For months, an estimated 600,000 Yemeni returnees camped out on the hot and humid Tihama plain. The government, arguing that nobody should be treated as a refugee in their own country, provided little comfort - calculating that this would encourage them to disperse. It worked up to a point. Now there are only around 100,000 and the numbers are dwindling slowly. Cholera kills 50-60 children every week.

Luckier ones drifted back to their cities and villages. In Sana'a, the capital, they can be seen every morning, sitting by the kerbside at major crossroads, hoping someone will hire them for a day's work. Most are still there by nightfall.

Others are found in less obvious places:

  • Ali, in his sixties, spends his nights on a mattress in the TV lounge of a modest downtown hotel. Once a successful businessman in Saudi Arabia, he was forced to sell up for a fraction of what the business was worth. Today, he has nothing to live on but the proceeds of the sale.

  • Abdullah, also sent back from Saudi, found a job in the same hotel, working from daybreak to bedtime and sleeping behind the reception desk. For this he's paid 100 riyals a day - enough for one square meal with meat in it. After 12 years of marriage, his wife has left him and gone back to her father. "She loved me when I had money,'' he says. "Now she doesn't care.''

If the Saudis hoped the expelled Yemenis would blame the Sana'a government for their plight, they were mistaken. On the streets, in the buses and cafes, there's vigorous support for Yemen's Gulf stance, coupled with a not-so-sneaking admiration for Saddam. Of course the invasion of Kuwait was wrong, they say. But the what the Americans did was wrong, too. Saddam is a hero. He stood up to them. He didn't win, but nor was he defeated. There was no way he could win - the Americans fought with technology, not with their hands like men.

Interestingly, most of the bitterness is not directed against the Americans (perhaps because they behaved so predictably) but against the Saudi royal family. Effete, luxury-loving princes who spend their time in night-clubs, and proved incapable of defending their own country without American help, figure strongly in popular gossip. And a famous Arabic pun transforms King Fahd's religious title, "Protector of the two holy shrines'' (Mecca and Medina) into "Betrayer of the two holy shrines''. In the Islamic world, there's scarcely a worse insult than that.

While the Yemeni government makes conciliatory noises - "Let bygones be bygones'', as the vice-president said during a visit to London - sentiment at grassroots level is very different. Such feelings, it might be argued, will diminish with time. But in a country where blood feuds cannot be forgotten - even after the passing of several generations - until honour is settled, time is relative. There are also several reasons why Saudi-Yemeni relations will be difficult to repair.

While Yemen was disunited, the foreign policies of both north and south focused mainly on each other. Unification means that attention is likely to centre on relations Saudi Arabia as the principal neighbour. Also, with virtually all its economic links severed by the Gulf conflict, in the international arena Yemen now has greater freedom of choice than at almost any time in the past. One Yemeni economist explained: "The Saudis did us a favour when they sent our workers home. They liberated us, but they haven't realised it yet.''

To treat the soured Yemeni-Saudi relations produced by the Gulf War in isolation is to ignore the sense of history which figures large in Yemen's national consciousness, and stretches back 3,000 years to the Queen of Sheba. Unlike the wandering bedouin of the desert, Yemenis have long been a settled society. In ancient times they achieved stupendous feats of engineering like dams and watercourses, built the tallest houses in the world, and laid terraces on the mountain slopes to trap every last drop of rain for their crops. In short, Yemen was a civilisation when the House of Saud was just a tent.

Suddenly, this century, everything changed. Through chance rather than toil, Yemen's neighbours became richer than anyone could imagine. It is unlikely ever to be an easy relationship with Yemen, as the poorest but most populous country of the peninsula lying shoulder to shoulder with the largest and wealthiest. No doubt there are elements of jealousy here - the natural attitude of an impoverished aristocracy towards the nouveau riche. But there is also a sense in which history and fate have dealt Yemen a great injustice.

Such feelings inevitably come into play when discussing the most explosive issue between Yemen and Saudi Arabia today: the fact that the two countries share what is probably the longest undefined border in the world. For almost 1,000 miles the notional frontier runs through mountains and desert, mostly on the fringes of the Empty Quarter.

Only a small part of this line has ever been agreed. That was in 1934 when, after a brief war, the Saudis captured an ethnically Yemeni area in the far north. The ensuing treaty was supposed to be renewed every 20 years but apparently lapsed in 1974.

In practical terms, the exact location of the border had little importance until the mid-1980s when Yemen discovered its first oil close to the notional line. More has been found since, and one recent estimate puts known Yemeni reserves at 4,000 million barrels. At that level, the benefits to Saudi from acquiring the oil would be marginal, but the cost to Yemen from losing it would be incalculable, depriving the country of its only real hope for economic recovery.

Less drastically, perhaps, if the border question remains unresolved, foreign oil companies could be deterred from further exploration under Yemeni auspices. This may be what the Saudis are trying to achieve: they have already begun their own exploration close to, or possibly inside, the disputed area and earlier this year,[1991] Saudi forces reportedly chased out a party of French geologists working in the Hadramawt region. Further confusing the issue, the Saudis are said to have paid some traditionally Yemeni border tribes to accept Saudi passports. As one Western diplomat put it (not very diplomatically): "The Saudi objective in all this is to keep Yemen on the wobble.''

A further, but related, issue is that the Saudis would like a land corridor to the Arabian Sea (and thence to the Indian Ocean). Strategically, Saudi oil exports are potentially vulnerable to a military blockade. Their tankers have to pass through one of three narrow waterways, none of which the Saudis control directly: the Straits of Hormuz in the Gulf, and the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab at each end of the Red Sea. A pipeline to the open sea in the south would thus provide extra security.

Yemen's foreign minister, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, says: "They have asked Oman, they have asked [the former] South Yemen. In principle there is no objection if they want to put a pipeline but we understand they insisted on full sovereignty for that corridor. That's the sticking point. Oman said the same.''

A further difficulty, as some see it, is that Yemen now has multi-party democracy. In the Arabian Peninsula, where states are normally run along the autocratic lines of a 19th-century family business, this is perceived as no less revolutionary - and threatening - than the old Marxist regime in South Yemen. The Saudis are especially paranoid in this respect. Even the modest innovation of a "consultative council'' that King Fahd promised for his own people (mainly to please the Americans) during the Gulf crisis has not yet materialised.

Yemeni democracy also poses a question for the west. The Harare Declaration at the Commonwealth conference last summer, and similar statements by President Bush linking offers of economic aid to progress towards democracy should have made Yemen a prime candidate for assistance. But so far, the promise is at variance with the practice: for strategic reasons, the United States finds itself propping up the monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Since the end of the war, the US has restored some of its aid, previously running at $23 million a year. Foreign Minister Iryani says: "Western aid is back essentially where it was - but where was it before? Yemen has not really been rewarded so far on its moves towards democratisation.

"Yemen is a fledgling democracy. We would like it to be a fully- fledged democracy. It needs economic support or the future of democracy might be in danger without economic progress - it could become meaningless or be subdued at any time. ''

Ultimately, aid for Yemen may not just be a question of strategy versus charity . One American analyst recently explored a scenario in which Yemen, left unsupported, could drift into a conflict which would leave Saudi Arabia seriously weakened. The solution, he argued, was "constructive engagement'' with Yemen: diplomatic help in resolving the border issue fairly, plus financial help targetted at economic rather than military development.

At the moment, Yemen insists that it wants to settle the frontier peacefully. The Presidential Council speaks of "the goodwill of all Yemenis towards their brothers and neighbours" and the foreign minister declares: "We are ready to negotiate".

But if aid is not forthcoming and economic problems eventually threaten Yemen's stability, the most obvious way for some future government in Sana'a to restore unity and regain popularity would be through a public quarrel with the Saudis. Aid to Yemen could prevent that, and in the process provide security for Yemen and Saudi Arabia alike.