by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 25 July 1997
Bolstered by a massive parliamentary majority, Yemen's new government has hit the ground running, with a bold programme of reforms and economic restructuring. The question is how far it can run before hitting a wall.
One of its first steps, earlier this month, was to reduce state subsidies. At a stroke this doubled the price of electricity and increased the cost of petrol by 31%, phone calls by 25% and flour by 14%. The rises are the latest phase of an IMF/World Bank package designed to slow inflation, diversify the economy, shrink the public sector and generally turn Yemen into a land fit for investors.
In the pipeline there are also plans to democratise local government, privatise state businesses, shake out the civil service and control weapons in civilian hands. Although these have been talked about for years, Yemen now has a government - for the first time since unification - which appears committed to pushing them through. Whether it will succeed is another matter. According to reports in the Aden newspaper, al-Ayyam, after only two months in office the new non-party prime minister, Faraj bin Ghanim, is showing frustration at the way some of his instructions are ignored.
Efforts to remove state subsidies have led to riots in the past and already there are rumblings from the five opposition parties which boycotted the elections last April. One of the most politically emotive changes - total abolition of subsidies on wheat and flour - is being held back until next year. The World Bank's representative in Yemen, Osman Ahmed, argues that in any case subsidies bring little benefit to the poor because most of the money goes to middlemen. "What needs to be done is to cut those huge subsidies while protecting the poor," he says.
Dr Ghanim is no doubt calculating that there will be enough popular elements in the government's programme to make the unpopular ones palatable. Reform of the civil service is likely to be popular with everyone except the 35,000 who will lose their jobs. Large pay rises are on offer to soften the blow but Dr Ghanim has probably made some enemies by publicly - but accurately - describing the country's administrative system as "a major obstacle [to investment] and a source of embezzlement."
A significant test of the government's resolve will be the gun control law which was debated by parliament last week. According to the interior ministry, 85% of crimes are committed by people carrying firearms and about 30 people die as a result every week.
There are thought to be 50 million privately-owned guns in Yemen - three per person. Getting rid of them is difficult, as previous governments have found. It's not just a question of machismo. With blood feuds that carry on relentlessly for generations and a relatively ineffective police force (less than one police station for every 100,000 people), citizens tend to arrange their own protection.
The heavy weapons owned by tribal militias are an even bigger problem. Last May two tribes in the Shabwa area fought a mortar and artillery battle which left 10 people dead and 15 seriously injured. Sometimes the government tries to "buy back" the weapons in exchange for agricultural equipment, but the sheikhs know that guns carry more clout than tractors.
To Yemen's urban elite, creating security and stability is an essential part of building a modern, investor-friendly state. It also epitomises the long struggle between New Yemen and Old Yemen. The danger is that it will take the government into that delicate boundary area between state law and tribal law - and in some places tribal law is more readily accepted.