Wildest place in the Middle East?

I can’t imagine why the Yemeni government’s news agency decided to publish this article, unless to show the disaffected citizens of Sana’a and Aden how fortunate they are. It’s an extraordinary description of life in Jawf province, just over 100 miles from the capital, which borders Saudi Arabia as well as Saada province (the seat of the Houthi rebellion).

Around half a million people live there among the remains of 4,000 years of history. Despite this evidence of ancient civilisation, Jawf today – as local officials readily admit – is a "basket for concerns, and a tragic image of negligence". 

In Jawf there’s equality of sorts: women – like the men – are armed, with ammunition belts slung around their waists. "Jawf's girl carries gun when she reaches the ninth grade, at 15, and carries [a] gun [at this age] fearing of revenge," a female teacher said. 

The provincial capital, al-Hazm “city”, has one paved street, without lighting. There are two restaurants and four barbershops. “If you come to these restaurants after 12pm, you will not find anything to eat so that you are forced to return to al-Harazi shop and cafeteria to buy biscuit and juice as lunch.”

Only four per cent of population has access to electricity. “Hazm citizens say that [the] generator is expiring and always has faults leading to repeated electric blackouts.”

Forty-nine per cent of school-age children do not attend school and the 51% who do attend face shortages of books, teachers and buildings. Hundreds of teachers are either absent from work or trying to leave.

Since the 2006 elections, Khab Sha'af district has had no local council “due to tribal differences”. The council’s last secretary-general was assassinated and his post remains vacant. Three parties are contesting for Jawf – "the National Front, neighbours and Imamate", according to the deputy governor, Mansour bin Abdan. “Every party has its special agenda on the governorate."

In the absence of effective government, tribesmen look to their sheikhs to solve problems – or take matters into their own hands. Blocking roads is a familiar tactic. “Last May, 10 armed men who carried light and heavy arms pitched a tent near the road and put a barrel in the middle. They did not leave the road [until the] ministry of interior responded to their demands.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 August 2009.