by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 7 November 1997
A wave of kidnappings and road blockades by northern tribes has
highlighted the Yemeni government's tenuous grip on life outside the cities. Roads on all
sides of the capital, San'a, were cut when farmers and tribesmen took to the barricades in
an apparently co-ordinated protest against fuel price increases.
A few days earlier the cost of diesel had risen by 67% to
45 riyals (36 cents) a gallon as part of an IMF/World Bank economic package - giving a
foretaste of the possible reaction when wheat and flour subsidies are removed next year
(MEI 25 July 1997).
In the most serious incident, at Dhamar on October 20, at
least three people died when security forces clashed with about 150 protesters - some of
them armed with Kalashnikovs - who had blocked the main north-south highway. At Matna, 20
miles west of San'a, the Bani Matar (of the Bakil tribal group) confiscated trucks
carrying goods to the capital. In the east, petrol tankers leaving the Marib refinery were
held up for several days at tribal checkpoints. To the north, Kawkaban and Thula, market
towns which are popular with tourists, were cut off.
October was also a record month for kidnappings. Sheikh
Shaya Bakhtan of the Al Salim (Bakil) tribe seized four French tourists near Sa'ada,
demanding 6 million riyals ($46,000) and vehicles as a ransom. In Marib province, Sheikh
Mubarak Ali Sa'ada of the Bin Zabyan tribe captured a British aid worker in the hope of
attracting electricity and water projects to his territory. Near Dhamar, two Russian
doctors and their wives were kidnapped by the Hada tribe, which was demanding the
execution of four rapists. Finally, an American working for a Yemeni company was abducted
in Sana'a province and taken to Barat, in Bakil territory.
Although foreigners are regularly kidnapped (and
invariably released unharmed), it is the first time that four separate incidents have
occurred in a single month. Previously the most notable abduction spree was in the run-up
to the 1994 war when the Bakil also disrupted fuel supplies in the north.
This prompted the Yemeni foreign minister, Dr Abd al-Karim
al-Iryani, to claim that the kidnappings were a Saudi plot. Whenever Yemen seeks closer
relations with a European country, he said, one of their nationals is abducted. "A
week after it was known that President Salih would make his first official visit to London
on 11 November, a Briton was kidnapped."
The idea was immediately ridiculed by the Saudi ambassador
in London, but there are enough odd coincidences to intrigue conspiracy theorists: the
four French hostages were taken little more than a week before President Salih visited
France, ten Italians a month before he visited Italy, and the four Russians just as Yemen
was attempting to re-schedule its debts with the former Soviet Union. Five Germans were
taken in March at a time of improving relations, though Salih did not actually visit
Germany until September.
There may, however, be a simpler explanation. Tribal
kidnappers seek to maximise the government's embarrassment in the hope that their demands
will be met. A time when the government is actively pursuing better international
relations is therefore a good time for kidnapping.
Nevertheless, it is widely accepted in Yemen that Saudi
interests - though not necessarily the Saudi government - have paid various tribes to
cause trouble in the past. One or two sheikhs have even boasted about receiving money.
Most abductions are attributed to the Bakil tribal
grouping, which is traditionally at odds with the dominant Hashid, to which the
president's Sanhan tribe belongs. Southern opposition groups thus regard them as potential
allies - as happened before the 1994 war. The suggestion that the Saudi-backed Mowj is
inciting them is not implausible: it would be a logical tactic for the southern opposition
front because the government has more qualms about suppressing disturbances in the north
than in the south.
Meanwhile in Aden on October 27 four bombs exploded
without causing injuries or damage. Mowj condemned the explosions and blamed the
government, suggesting the bombs were a pretext for more arrests. Mowj also said that two
suspects held in connection with previous bombings in the city had died in custody.