by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 14 October, 1999
PRESIDENT Ali Abdullah Salih of Yemen has embarked on his new five-year term with a promise to fight corruption and chaos. "There is no value to any laws if they are not implemented," he told parliament at his swearing-in ceremony.
Despite the manner of his election, pitted against a no-hoper from his own party (MEI 609), there is no doubt that Salih enjoys wide support and that politically he is probably stronger now than at any time since he came to power in 1978.
The question is whether the president will use this strength to push through reforms in the face of localised resistance, or whether - as often in the past - the country will simply muddle along from one crisis to the next.
There are already some signs of a new and unusually determined attitude on the part of the government - though how long it will last is anybody's guess. The campaign to disarm citizens, which began in June, has been followed by efforts to close dozens of private prisons run by tribal leaders. In one operation, near Ibb on October 22, five such prisons were destroyed, a soldier and a tribal guard dying in the process.
The government has always been wary of confronting tribal power head-on, and this latest move is particularly bold. One interesting problem will be the prison run by Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, speaker of parliament and leader of the Islah party (which supported President Salih in the recent election). Last year a prisoner died in the sheikh's custody.
The execution on October 17 of Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, in connection with the kidnapping of 16 western tourists and the deaths of four of them, is another sign of the government's tougher stance. It will serve as a warning to other kidnappers who previously have gone unpunished, but it also indicates that the authorities are not unduly concerned by the threats of reprisals from surviving members of the Islamic Army.
Meanwhile, the official campaign against qat-chewing, launched last May, has also been stepped up rather than fizzling out as might have been expected by now. In the latest moves, chewing has been banned on all Yemenia flights, working hours of state employees have been extended well beyond the traditional start of chewing (1pm), and the police and military have been banned from chewing on duty.
Largely unnoticed, the austerity measures over the last few years have also succeeded in stabilising the economy, which has taken an upward turn in the last few months. Thanks to rising oil prices, there is even talk of a possible budget surplus this year.
However, 80% of Yemen's official foreign exchange and 70% of its tax revenue comes from oil, so there is a pressing need to diversify. Tourism is widely believed to offer great potential - hence the need to prevent kidnappings. But executing hostage takers is unlikely to help much in the long run: the real need is to develop the tourist infrastructure in a way that ensures local tribes have a stake in it.
Despite these efforts two - far more challenging - problems are looming which could prove catastrophic if Yemen fails to tackle them in time: population and water.
Yemen has one of the highest population growth rates in the world - about 3.7% a year - which means that the current population of 17.6 million will double in 20 years. Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, Yemen has the fastest depletion of aquifers in the world. The water table in Sana'a is dropping by 5-7 metres per year and could be exhausted in 10 years. Each of these problems compounds the other: the faster the population grows, the sooner the water will run out.