Guest of the G8

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International28 May 2004

When leaders of the industrialised countries meet in Georgia for the G-8 summit next month, one of their more surprising guests will be Ali Abdullah Salih, president of Yemen.

Among key topics on the agenda is the American ‘Greater Middle East’ initiative which aims to promote democracy in the region but has aroused considerable Arab suspicion.

A preliminary working paper for the summit, leaked last February, suggested that democratisation and economic development in the Middle East would help to protect G-8 members against terrorism, crime and illegal migration.

Besides Yemen, Bahrain Jordan, Algeria and Saudi Arabia have been invited to the summit. Egypt and Tunisia reportedly turned down invitations, though Yemen has said it will definitely attend.

Yemen’s inclusion among a limited number of invitees is seen as a reflection of its new-found importance in the eyes of the United States. Little more than two years ago, Washington hawks were hinting that Yemen could be targeted after Afghanistan in a second wave of the ‘war on terror’.

Since then, Yemen has largely succeeded in convincing the US that on the issue of terrorism it is an ally rather than a potential foe.

In a recent interview, former prime minister Abd al-Karim al-Iryani claimed that ‘up to 90%’ of al-Qaeda cells in the country have been rooted out and dismantled.

‘I believe that Yemen has been the most successful country in the Middle East fighting terrorism,’ he said.

Yemen has also pioneered a unique programme for ‘re-educating’ Islamic militants which appears to have met with some success and is now arousing interest internationally.

As elsewhere, though, Yemen’s efforts to combat terrorism (and please the Americans) have alarmed human rights organisations, especially over the numbers of people detained for long periods without trial.

There is also growing concern about heavy-handed attempts by the Yemeni authorities to control the press. For several years after the start of democratisation in 1990, Yemen’s press was among the freest in the Arab world, but that has changed recently.

The latest annual report from the French-based Reporters sans Frontieres says Yemeni journalists ‘are personally and legally harassed and threatened to discourage reporting on sensitive topics such as corruption, human rights violations and links with the United States in its fight against terrorism.’

So far this year, according to the Yemeni Journalists’ Syndicate, five journalists have been arrested by the Political Security Organisation and tried (three of them convicted), while four others have been beaten up and/or threatened. Twelve newspapers of different persuasions, including the leading official daily, al-Thawra, have been prosecuted.

Copies of the London-based daily, al-Quds al-Arabi, have reportedly been confiscated from news-stands and printing of the Yemeni weekly, al-Tajamm’a was prevented by an administrative order.

Last week, three journalists were given suspended prison sentences for an article about homosexual activity among Yemeni schoolgirls which appeared in al-Usbua last year. The article was said to have violated Yemeni morals and customs.

The information ministry is also planning to bring charges against al-Ahya al-Arabi, the newspaper of the Arab Nationalist Socialist Ba’ath Party, for ‘insulting a brotherly country’ in an article attacking Saudi Arabia. The writer of the article has already been dismissed from his job as a customs official.

Meanwhile, the editor of al-Shura, an opposition weekly, says he has received death threats for publishing reports discussing the political succession in Yemen. He told the Yemen Times: ‘We will continue our fight against corrupt crooks at the power centre who are annoyed by the reports that have touched their interests.’