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  Book review

The Republic of Yemen: Development Challenges in the 21st Century

by Marta Colburn, with a foreword by Dr Abdul Karim al-Iryani

Stacey International, 2002. Pp. 88. Illus. Glossary. Bibliog. Pb. £12. 50. ISBN 1900988-690.

Yemen: Coping with Terrorism and Violence in a Fragile State 

by The International Crisis Group (ICG), Brussels. 

Middle East Report No. 8, January 2003. (Click here for the report)

Yemen gets a bad press, and the country’s image is not as bright as Yemenophiles feel it should be. As I know only too well, these facts can influence the way governments treat Yemen. It is refreshing, therefore, that two publications have come along which paint Yemen in a realistically positive light, showing the beauty spots as well as the warts.

Despite the difference in emphasis in the titles, the two publications cover a lot of the same ground, with the Colburn book giving kidnappings and terrorist violence their due place, and the ICG report putting great stress on Yemen’s development priorities and her need for support from the international community. Both books give us an adequate potted history of Yemen, to provide a context. The ICG report has the advantage of being put together late enough to include references to the terrorist attack on a French oil tanker near al-Shihr in October 2002 and the killing of three American doctors at Jibla shortly before the end of the year. But both publications are sufficiently up to date to give the reader the feeling that s/he is dealing with current issues.

Ms Colburn’s book is informed by her own long personal experience of Yemen, where she has lived off and on since 1984. She writes with authority about a number of aspects of Yemeni life of which most foreigners would have at best an imperfect understanding. She clarifies, for example, the often uneasy relationship between the tribes and the central Government, helping the reader to understand why the latter’s writ is not always observed by qabilis. Ms Colburn also does well to remind us, in the decades-old words of G Wyman Bury, that ‘The Yemeni is not fanatical. He has his own religious views, but realises from the sects into which his own people are divided, that there are at least two sides to every religious question’. Those words are as valid now as they were in 1915. How I wish that the authors of such phrases as ‘ Yemen - the Cradle of Terror’ and ‘ Yemen - Osama bin Laden’s Ancestral Home’ - which I have read in what purports to be a reputable British newspaper - were aware of that fact and informed their large readership of it!

While the ICG publication is not particularly attractive visually, the layout of Ms Colburn’s book is very engaging, with some splendid photographs and a number of ‘boxes’ which she uses for statistical tables and descriptions of particular aspects of her story. One of the latter, entitled ‘Cold War Road Race’, aroused in me memories that were both painful and pleasant. The author describes the construction of highways in the Sana’a/Taiz/Hodeida triangle by the Chinese, Russians and Americans at the height of the Cold War. As Ms Colburn says, the USA was ‘clearly the loser - despite the engineering feat of scaling the Yislah and Samarra passes - as it refused to pave the road connecting Sana’a, Taiz and Mokha. Its gravelled surface gained the ire of lorry drivers and government officials until it was paved a few years later’. I can say with a great deal of feeling that the Americans incurred the ire of lots of other users of that road, including me! I made my first trip along it in 1971 in the back of a taxi, and I remember to this day how the pain in my backside after five hours of bouncing from one spring to another was outweighed only by my delight in the magnificence of the scenery.

The main message of both publications is that Yemen needs - and deserves - the support of the international community if she is to meet the pretty severe challenges of the future, which centre on reducing poverty and giving an industrious people - at least, they are industrious when not overdoing the consumption of qat - the jobs and resources to forestall any drift there might be towards emigration and extremism. As the authors of the ICG Report say, ‘The role of the international community and the policy choices it makes are critical’. It would be ‘well advised to expand its assistance beyond security in order to help Yemen tackle some of its underlying economic and political problems’.

The role of the USA is particularly important. The Americans have done a lot of good things in Yemen, with Barbara Bodine a driving force during her period as Ambassador in Sana’a. At the time of drafting this review - on April Fool’s Day! -it is as yet unclear if they are going to ruin all the good work by destabilising the Middle East through their military action against Iraq. It is a pity that my own country is associated with that adventure, because we in the UK have so much that we could give to a country, under-aided by international comparisons, that clearly needs it.

The books under review are not totally without blemish. They both contain judgements with which I do not agree - notably, the ICG report’s belief that there are ‘tensions’ in relationships between Zaidis and Shafe’is in Yemen - and one or two errors of fact. I note here only a couple concerning episodes with which I as Ambassador was only too familiar: Ms Colburn has the arrest of eight British and two Algerian nationals coming after the kidnapping of 16 tourists in Abyan in December 1998, whereas six of the ten were already in custody in Aden four days before the kidnapping; and the ICG report has the British Council being bombed in October 2000, rather than my Embassy, where my own office was pretty badly damaged.

But the blemishes are very minor, and I commend the two publications as essential to reaching an understanding of present-day Yemen. If readers have contacts in the British press and broadcasting media, I hope they will feel equally ready to commend Marta Colburn’s book and the ICG report to their attention. Perhaps Yemen will then start to get the understanding and appreciation she deserves.

Victor Henderson