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Yemen overview, 1998
Brian Whitaker is Managing Editor of the Guardian Newspaper. He writes regularly on Yemeni affairs and is a member of the Society.
It has been a tough year for Yemen. The economic downturn in the Far East and the slump in oil prices have both taken their toll. Whatever Yemen’s own failings, sheer misfortune has played a large part. Oil production, for instance, is at record levels — 450,000 barrels a day in October — and yet lower world prices mean that revenue is dramatically down. After taking the IMF’s unpalatable medicine for several years, Yemen had successfully trimmed its budget deficit and cut inflation from 71% in 1994 to just 15% in 1997 — only to be blown off course again.

Such problems usually call for decisive government, but there was little sign of that in the early part of this year. Dr Faraj bin Ghanim, the non-party Prime Minister whose appointment came as a surprise in the wake of a sweeping election victory by the General People’s Congress (GPC) last year, had few political allies and spent 11 unhappy months in office. He resigned in April after several weeks’ absence abroad. His successor, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, is a veteran GPC politician and nephew of a former North Yemeni President. Although, as the Yemeni press was quick to observe, the Iryani cabinet is full of old familiar faces, early signs are that Yemen may, for once, have a government which is not only capable of agreeing on some realistic goals but also capable of achieving them.

One of the Iryani government’s first (and most unpopular) actions, in June, was to implement steep price increases on basic goods — flour, fuel etc — which were required by the IMF/World Bank financial package but had long been delayed for fear of the consequences. As expected, this led to a week of rioting in Sana’a and other cities, plus more serious and prolonged trouble from the tribes in Ma’rib and al-Jawf. In the light of this, the government recently postponed another controversial move which would have cut the subsidy on diesel fuel. Currently diesel sells in Yemen for only 50% of the world price. The increase, which was due in September but is not now expected before the end of the year, will particularly hit farmers, who depend on the fuel for agricultural vehicles and pumping water.

Tribal hostage-taking, which reached unprecedented levels in 1997, continued in the first half of this year, with 19 foreigners kidnapped. Among them were David Mitchell, a British Council employee, and his family, who were seized at gunpoint by the Bani Dhabyan tribe and held for 17 days. This had clearly begun to affect tourism, and in August a tribal conference condemned the practice. To concentrate minds further, President Salih issued a decree imposing the death penalty for kidnappers. There were no further incidents until the reported abduction of some Belgian tourists in October.

Instead, the tribes turned to a bigger and better target: the 350-mile pipeline from Ma’rib to Hodeidah which carries almost 40% of Yemen’s oil production. In the space of a few months this has acquired more holes than a golf course. Some of the spills have burned or leaked oil for days, with engineers prevented from reaching them by the security situation.

In the south, meanwhile, there have been almost daily explosions. Typically, they involve small bombs or rocket-propelled grenades and often occur near public buildings. There have been some deaths but nothing on the scale of Northern Ireland. In most cases nobody claims responsibility and all the likely suspects blame each other.

In the midst of these internal difficulties the long-running border dispute with Saudi Arabia flared up again. The Yemeni Minister of Interior accused the Saudis of 73 border violations between 15 June and 15 July but attention focused mainly on islands in the Red Sea. Towards the end of May, Saudi forces moved into an archipelago claimed by Yemen and occupied Dhu-Hurab island, driving out some fishermen. In July, Saudi naval vessels used long-range artillery to attack and occupy al-Duwaima island, killing three Yemenis and wounding nine. Yemen has proposed referring the dispute to the International Court at the Hague, but the Saudis reject arbitration, partly because they are seeking to amend sections of the border defined by the 1934 Treaty of Ta’if. In the meantime, it looks as though they may establish a de facto border anyway. Privately, Yemeni officials blame the Saudis for almost any form of internal trouble: kidnappings, riots, explosions, etc. Independent observers generally accept that there is a good deal of Saudi mischief-making, although there is no real evidence of its extent. A curious item in The Yemen Times recently suggested that economic stringency in Saudi Arabia meant that there was now less money available to bribe Yemenis! A few years ago, according to the paper, Riyadh’s largesse extended to 27,000 Yemeni shaikhs, religious leaders, officials, military officers, journalists and politicians. Today, there were only 11,000 on the Saudi payroll!

International arbitration in Yemen’s other border dispute — with Eritrea — brought a successful result in October with the ruling that sovereignty over the Hunaish islands, which Eritrean forces had partially occupied in 1995, belonged to Yemen. Yemen’s relations with western countries, which took a severe knock in 1990 during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, continued to improve. In the face of protests from Islamists, Yemen stepped up its military contacts with the United States. In February, American and Yemeni forces held their first joint military exercise and a month later the US warship, Mount Vernon, visited Aden — only the second such visit since the British left in 1967.

During the past year several Yemeni newspapers have become available on the Internet (there are now at least nine) and it is striking how some of them have matured since the liberalisation of 1990. The southern-based weekly, Attariq, has also made a strong impact. These are surely good omens for the future. Although the Prime Minister is an avid web-surfer, there is still some ambivalence in government circles about the free flow of information that technology brings. Mobile phone and pager services were cut off in June as a ‘security measure and not restored until August. For the average Yemeni, Internet access is restricted by the high prices that Teleyemen charges: $5 an hour.

In May three members of a BBC television team were arrested after interviewing Shaikh Mubarak Ali Saada of the Bani Dhabyan tribe, who had been responsible for kidnapping four Britons. They were swiftly brought to trial under the press law — and acquitted. The verdict set an important precedent which is likely to enhance press freedom in Yemen.

Next year will bring the first direct presidential elections. Previously the president has been elected indirectly, through parliament. This is unlikely to produce an exciting contest. So far, there is only one obvious candidate: President Salih. However, there is talk of combining the presidential election, due in late September, with Yemen’s first local authority elections, which could stimulate interest. The necessary legislation to democratise local government has still to be approved by parliament and the draft bill was recently watered down after disputes in the cabinet. The debate is about how much power to devolve to the regions, and what the impact would be on national unity (still a sensitive issue after the 1994 war of secession). Some argue that strong local government would promote national unity by allowing regional differences to be addressed. Others fear that it would allow secessionists to re-establish themselves. Presidential and local elections will complete Yemen’s democratic infrastructure, but there is still some way to go before democratic processes are universally regarded as the basic means of decision-making.

Meanwhile, as economic problems continue, the World Bank has recommended cutting the number of government employees from 400,000 to 200,000 by the year 2003 in a move to reduce public sector spending. Although the Bank has allocated £25 million for projects to create alternative jobs, the move is likely to be problematic. Aside from its bureaucratic needs, Yemen requires a large civil service to keep down unemployment and, in some cases, maintain political stability through patronage.

On balance, then, it has been a gloomy 12 months. I wish I could predict a miracle in 1999. I cannot, though a rise in oil prices would make a huge difference. But I don’t expect disaster either: the Yemenis’ resourcefulness in times of crisis should see to that. What the future probably holds is more of the same: a long, hard and tedious slog.

November 1998