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
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.