Row with ambassador

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 28 October 2005

Yemen’s see-saw relations with the United States took a sudden turn for the worse earlier this month following comments by the US ambassador in Sanaa shortly before President Ali Abdullah Salih is due to visit Washington.

The ambassador, Thomas Krajeski, reportedly remarked during a newspaper interview that Yemen’s progress towards democracy had stalled ñ an observation that few inside the country would dispute.

The Yemeni government responded angrily, declaring itself ‘astonished’ at the ambassador’s comments which "are not helpful to the good relations between the two friendly countries and constitute interference in Yemen's internal affairs," according to an unnamed authorised source quoted by the official news agency, Saba.

"Democracy in Yemen is a matter that concerns the Yemeni people alone," the source continued. "We wonder what kind of democracy Mr Krajeski wants for Yemen ... Does he want a democracy along the lines of that established by coalition forces in Iraq?" 

In contrast to the noises that emanated from in Washington after the September 11 attacks on the United States - when the more hawkish elements called for Yemen to be targeted along with Afghanistan - the ambassador’s remarks were extremely mild. 

According to the reported interview with al-Ayyam newspaper, he acknowledged the country’s achievement in holding free elections and setting up a human rights ministry but continued: "There is recently concern in Washington that instead of pressing ahead on the clear path to more democracy, progress has stopped in Yemen."

One of his main points appeared to be that Yemen’s cooperation in the "war on terror" did not mean the US would turn a blind eye to abuses such as the "harassment and arrest of journalists" and the closure of newspapers.

‘Our political regime appears hypersensitive to any criticism delivered by the US even if it is constructive,’ a columnist in the Yemen Times wrote. ‘It behaved like a child who loses its temper very quickly and never likes to be criticised even if he/she does something wrong. When Krajeski said that democracy progress has stalled, hell broke loose ... Hey guys, wake up. The ambassador was right ...’

Curiously, far more sweeping criticisms of Yemen’s performance from the EU have attracted less attention in Sanaa. During discussions in Brussels last month, the EU highlighted a host of issues including human rights, women’s rights, press harassment, prison conditions, lack of economic reforms, mishandling of aid money, high levels of military spending, corruption, and lack of security for investors.

Last week, Yemen’s planning minister conceded that the country is unlikely to reach most of the Millennium Development Goals set for 2015. An estimated 43% of Yemenis are currently living below the UN’s official poverty rate of $2 per day.

The minister pointed out that despite an ever-growing population, international donor support for Yemen has halved since the 1980s. This is undoubtedly a problem, but some Yemeni economists argue that the main obstacles to achieving development goals are corruption and the mishandling of national resources.

In the latest Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, Yemen scored 2.7 points out of a possible 10. This is a marginal improvement on last year but still an abysmal figure, placing it 103rd among the 159 countries in the survey.