by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 11 January, 2002
BASKING in American approval, the Yemeni government has begun to assert itself in areas where it once feared to tread. Whatever authoritarian aspirations President Ali Abdullah Saleh may have cherished in the past, tribal and regional fiefdoms have always served as a brake on centralized power. Now, thanks to 11 September, the brakes are off: the war on terrorism" has become a means for strengthening Yemen’s chronically weak central government.
Marib, beyond the mountains to the east of San’a on the fringes of the Empty Quarter, is a vital province, producing 40% of Yemen’s oil, courtesy of the US-owned Hunt Oil.
It is also Yemen’s most lawless province - the scene in recent years of numerous kidnappings, attacks on oil pipelines and skirmishes between the army and tribesmen. American demands to track down Usama bin Laden’s supporters have now given the government an unprecedented opportunity to try to pacify it.
In December, armed with a list of suspects provided by Washington, Yemeni forces tried to arrest three of them in Marib. The suspects escaped, but at least 18 soldiers and four tribesmen died in the ensuing gun and tank battle.
This military fiasco serves as a reminder that making arrests can be far more difficult in Yemen than in the United States. The traditional obligations of tribes to their members and guests are sometimes a major obstacle. One of the wanted men, Qaid Ali bin Sinyan alHarethi, eventually surrendered after tribal negotiations. According to the Yemen Times, he gave himself up following promises that he would be tried in a Yemeni court and not handed over to the Americans - a move that may well displease Washington.
The crack-down on Islamist extremists (MEl 663) has also continued, with the arrest of 80 foreign students and teachers at the Dar al-Hadith Religious Institute in Marib. They were accused of being illegal residents. The group, which includes Libyans, Indonesians, Somalis, Egyptians, Sudanese and Iraqis, are in the process of being deported.
In a further sign of the times, Yemen’s fast-track anti-terrorism court sentenced four men to between 20 and 25 years in jail for kidnapping a German businessman in San’a at the end of November.
This was certainly the swiftest kidnap trial Yemen has seen - it began only three days after the hostage was released - but only one of the defendants was present in court, and he claimed to have been acting as a mediator between the kidnappers and the government.
At an unrelated mass trial, 24 people were sentenced to death for "banditry" in Ibb province. If carried out, these will be the first executions for crimes other than murder in recent years.
Last year, at least 76 people were executed - the highest number recorded since Yemen began announcing executions in 1998.
So far, Yemenis seem willing to accept President Saleh’s argument that this new authoritarianism is necessary to save Yemen from attack by the US. Speaking of his recent meeting in Washington with President Bush, Saleh told Yemeni religious leaders: "Some people criticized my visit to the US, but I went there to avoid any danger to our country ... There were reports putting forward Yemen as a second Afghanistan."
Various tribal chiefs have been enlisted to declare their approval of government policies. In a message to the president, ten dignitaries from Marib, Shabwa and al-Jawf, all regarded as wayward provinces, voiced their support for the armed forces and police, and for "the policy being carried out against violence and terrorism
This may have little to do with Bin Laden directly, but some in America are beginning to see it as a potential success story.
Purging Yemen of extremism, the Washington Post noted recently, "would be an important political achievement in a region that has still not warmed to the fight against Islamic terrorist groups". Yemen, it added, could prove "a good model for pursuing al-Qa’ida and other terrorist organizations in countries beyond Afghanistan
Yemen now looks set to become the first Arab country to ratify all twelve international conventions on terrorism. It has already ratified nine and the remaining three - on financing terrorism, on plastic explosives and on nuclear materials - are in the pipeline.