by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 25 July
Bolstered by a massive parliamentary majority, Yemen's new
government has hit the ground running, with a bold programme of reforms and economic
restructuring. The question is how far it can run before hitting a wall.
One of its first steps, earlier this month, was to reduce
state subsidies. At a stroke this doubled the price of electricity and increased the cost
of petrol by 31%, phone calls by 25% and flour by 14%. The rises are the latest phase of
an IMF/World Bank package designed to slow inflation, diversify the economy, shrink the
public sector and generally turn Yemen into a land fit for investors.
In the pipeline there are also plans to democratise local
government, privatise state businesses, shake out the civil service and control weapons in
civilian hands. Although these have been talked about for years, Yemen now has a
government - for the first time since unification - which appears committed to pushing
them through. Whether it will succeed is another matter. According to reports in the Aden
newspaper, al-Ayyam, after only two months in office the new non-party prime minister,
Faraj bin Ghanim, is showing frustration at the way some of his instructions are ignored.
Efforts to remove state subsidies have led to riots in the
past and already there are rumblings from the five opposition parties which boycotted the
elections last April. One of the most politically emotive changes - total abolition of
subsidies on wheat and flour - is being held back until next year. The World Bank's
representative in Yemen, Osman Ahmed, argues that in any case subsidies bring little
benefit to the poor because most of the money goes to middlemen. "What needs to be
done is to cut those huge subsidies while protecting the poor," he says.
Dr Ghanim is no doubt calculating that there will be
enough popular elements in the government's programme to make the unpopular ones
palatable. Reform of the civil service is likely to be popular with everyone except the
35,000 who will lose their jobs. Large pay rises are on offer to soften the blow but Dr
Ghanim has probably made some enemies by publicly - but accurately - describing the
country's administrative system as "a major obstacle [to investment] and a source of
A significant test of the government's resolve will be the
gun control law which was debated by parliament last week. According to the interior
ministry, 85% of crimes are committed by people carrying firearms and about 30 people die
as a result every week.
There are thought to be 50 million privately-owned guns in
Yemen - three per person. Getting rid of them is difficult, as previous governments have
found. It's not just a question of machismo. With blood feuds that carry on relentlessly
for generations and a relatively ineffective police force (less than one police station
for every 100,000 people), citizens tend to arrange their own protection.
The heavy weapons owned by tribal militias are an even
bigger problem. Last May two tribes in the Shabwa area fought a mortar and artillery
battle which left 10 people dead and 15 seriously injured. Sometimes the government tries
to "buy back" the weapons in exchange for agricultural equipment, but the
sheikhs know that guns carry more clout than tractors.
To Yemen's urban elite, creating security and stability is
an essential part of building a modern, investor-friendly state. It also epitomises the
long struggle between New Yemen and Old Yemen. The danger is that it will take the
government into that delicate boundary area between state law and tribal law - and in some
places tribal law is more readily accepted.