The kidnappers' toll

The kidnappers' toll

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,10 March, 2000

THE POLISH ambassador to Yemen became the latest kidnap victim on March 1 when armed members of the Qiyari tribe abducted him from a busy street in Sana’a. Next day, a Dutch man and a Yemeni working for a project to develop small industries were shot dead at their office in the capital by a Yemeni fellow-employee, apparently after an argument.

Sana’a is considered one of the safest parts of Yemen for foreigners, but the two incidents highlight the ineffectiveness of the government’s campaign to disarm civilians and the failure of the death penalty to deter kidnapping.

Since the beginning of 1996 Yemen has witnessed 38 kidnaps involving 147 foreigners. Despite increased security measures, the number of incidents has remained constant since 1997, averaging 10 or 11 a year, plus several failed kidnap attempts.

The number of individuals kidnapped fluctuates widely because large tourist groups are abducted from time to time. The record year was 1997, with 50 foreigners taken hostage. Last year there were only 27 - probably because there are now fewer organised tours. Only half of the incidents since 1996 involved tourists: the remainder were foreigners working in Yemen, and their families.

Italians head the list of those kidnapped since 1996, with 37 taken hostage, followed by the French (26), Germans (22) and British (20). Nine Americans have been kidnapped. Other victims have come from the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Russia, Korea, Sudan, China, Canada and the Ukraine.

Following the Polish ambassador’s abduction, the Yemeni government repeated its claim that "foreign hands" (i.e. Saudi Arabia) are behind recent kidnaps. The aim, officials say, is to destabilise Yemen by damaging its international relations, by destroying the tourist industry, and ultimately by driving away the foreign workers on whom Yemen depends for its economic development.

Evidence for such a conspiracy is hard to find, though there have been some odd coincidences. In 1997, four French people were kidnapped shortly before President Salih visited France, ten Italians a month before he visited Italy, and four Russians just as Yemen was attempting to re-schedule its debts with the former Soviet Union. In the same year, five Germans were taken hostage at a time of improving relations with Germany, and a Briton was also kidnapped a week after it became known that the president would make his first official visit to the UK.

Last week, eight men, including two Saudis, went on trial in Yemen, accused - among other things - of plotting to kidnap foreigners. Only one of the Saudis was in court, and none of the men appears to have actually kidnapped anyone.

In practice, the damage to Yemen's foreign relations caused by kidnaps has generally been short-lived, but the impact on tourism has been serious. The British government, for example, currently advises against travel to Yemen and, although plenty of individuals seem willing to visit the country, tour operators have dropped it from their list of destinations as result of the official warning. Other European governments have taken a more relaxed view, though the United States recently hardened its travel advice to match that of Britain.

One side-effect of the "foreign conspiracy" theory is that it allows the Yemeni government to re-direct some of the blame for its inability to halt the kidnaps. Conspiracy or not, virtually every kidnap can be explained in terms of specific grievances. Demands for better local facilities are one common cause; another is the release of prisoners (who may well be regarded as having been "kidnapped" by the state). The Polish ambassador’s abduction, for example, was sparked by the arrest of Shaikh Khalid al-Qiyari at Sana’a airport for unspecified security reasons on his return from Jordan the previous day.

Experience in other countries suggests several steps towards a solution. The first is to publicise the outcome in each case to demonstrate that the kidnappers have obtained no benefit from their actions. The second is to convince the tribes that kidnappers will be suitably punished, regardless of their social or political connections. But in Yemen, perhaps because of the nature of state-tribal relations, neither of these has been rigorously followed.

On many occasions the government has agreed to some, at least, of the kidnappers' demands in order to secure a release (even if it reneged later). When the Polish ambassador was released after three days, one new agency reported that the tribe had been given five cars, five men and five knives to hold as guarantees until their arrested shaikh was set free. Although the government does not directly reward kidnappers, mediators are sometimes given a "hospitality fee" which may be passed to the tribe concerned.

Since the death penalty was introduced for kidnapping in August 1998, 53 foreigners have been kidnapped and in one incident four of them died. Numerous people have been arrested, though only one kidnapper has been executed: the leader of the Islamic Army, who had also been convicted of murder. One problem with applying the death penalty more frequently is that it could put hostages at greater risk. It is also an extreme response to a situation where, in the past, kidnappers have not even been systematically arrested and imprisoned.

Measures to deter kidnappers do not, however, remove the grievances that motivate them. Underlying many kidnaps are grievances about the distribution of national resources which will are likely to continue until government funds are allocated in a way that is both transparent and patently fair.