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 changed.
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 foreigners.
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.