Yemen overview, 1999


Brian Whitaker is Managing Editor of the Guardian newspaper. He writes regularly on Yemeni affairs and is a member of the Society.

Relations between Britain and Yemen in 1999 were dominated by the saga of Abu Hamza al-Masri and the Islamic Army.

Abu Hamza is a preacher at Finsbury Park mosque in London who believes that Yemen is ripe for jihad and provides an ideal training ground for mujahideen. He also believes that Yemen holds a strategic position in the Islamic world and must be prevented from falling under the influence of the ‘United Snakes of America’.

While apparently staying just on the right side of the law in Britain, Abu Hamza has issued a series of press statements on behalf of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan, a small armed group linked to veterans of the Afghan war. Among other things, these statements have called for the overthrow of the Yemeni government in favour of an Islamic state and have warned foreigners to leave Yemen or be killed.

Towards the end of last year, 10 young men arrived inYemen from Britain — sent, according to the Yemenis, by Abu Hamza to carry out bombings against British and American targets in Aden.Whatever their intentions (and despite their protestations of innocence), several of the men certainly had connections with Abu Hamza — one was his son, another his stepson — and several, at least, made contact with the Islamic Army.

A late-night car chase in Aden led to the arrest of six of the 10, which in turn prompted Abu al-Hassan al-Mihdar, the ‘commander’ of the Islamic Army, to kidnap 16 mainly British tourists in Abyan on December 28 last year. Shortly after the kidnapping, Abu al-Hassan called Abu Hamza in London by satellite telephone and discussed what to do with the hostages.

Next day, security forces surrounded the area and a gnn battle ensued in which four of the hostages and two of the kidnappers died. It was the first kidnapping in which foreign hostages had been killed, and the British press was highly critical of the Yemenis’ handling of the rescue.

After a lengthy and rancorous trial in Aden, the men from Britain received jail terms of up to seven years, though three were later released and returned home. A parallel trial in Zinjibar led to the execution of Abu al-Hassan and the jailing of several accomplices.

On June 2, Abd al-Aziz al-Saqqaf publisher of theYemen Times, died tragically at the age of 46 after being hit by a car while crossing the road (see obituary). Dr Saqqaf’s influence as a campaigning and outspoken moderniser went far beyond the pages of his newspaper, and thousands attended his funeral, including the vice-president and prime minister. Fears that the Yemen Times would collapse without him proved unfounded, and his son, Walid, has continued to develop and improve the paper. Several other newspapers ran into legal trouble during the year, including al-Shura and al-Haqq, both of which were suspended by the courts.

At the time of his death, Dr Saqqaf had been the driving force behind the Emerging Democracies Forum, an international conference which Sana’a hosted at the end of June (see p. 41). It is, perhaps, an indicator ofYemen’s progress in democratisation that only one other Arab country (Morocco) was among the 16 states represented.

After the fine words at the conference,Yemen’s first direct presidential election, on September 23, turned out to be an anti-climax. President Ali Abdullah Salib triumphed as expected, with 96.3% of the votes, against a little-known member of his own party

This bizarre situation arose because of a constitutional tangle which months of inter—party discussions had failed to resolve. Yemen’s constitution says there must be at least two candidates in a presidential election but also stipulates that prospective candidates must be approved by at least 10% of the members of parliament. Only two parties — the President’s GPC and the Yemeni Islah Party — had a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to approve candidates, but Islah decided not to contest the election and declared its support for Salih.

The outcome was that of the 31 names initially put forward, only two were approved by parliament: Salih and Najib Qahtan al-Sha’abi (son of a former PDRY president) who formally switched his allegiance from the GPC to Independent for the election.

Although it is improbable that any alternative candidate would have had much prospect of unseating Salih, the credibility of the President’s victory would certainly have been enhanced had he faced a more serious challenger. Nevertheless, the indication of popular support provided by the election may prove useful if it makes central government less beholden to disruptive elements, especially among the tribes.

Violent incidents continued throughout 1999. By the end of October, 18 foreigners had been kidnapped (most recently the director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and her parents) but all were released unharmed. The main Ma’rib oil pipeline again came under attack from northern tribes. Bomb explosions —usually small ones, late at night — also continued, particularly in the south.

The two most serious incidents appear to have been non-political, though the Islamic Army claimed responsibility for both of them. On August 4, a man set off a grenade in the old salt market of Sana’a, then opened fire, killing six people and injuring more than 40 — allegedly after a dispute over the price of a watch. On August 28, a massive explosion and fire destroyed the City Center supermarket in the diplomatic quarter and caused damage over a wide area. The supermarket’s owner, who died in the blast, is said to have started it deliberately in the hope of claiming insurance.

Speaking to parliament at his swearing-in ceremony, President Salih 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 said. In fact there have been indications for several months that the government is taking a tougher line on law and order and may even be preparing, in some cases, to confront tribal power head-on.

The campaign to confiscate privately-owned guns (including licensed weapons), 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 gnard dying in the process.

In Yemen, however, attempts to impose discipline can sometimes turn to farce — as happened in September when a guest at a wedding party in Sana’a fired into the air in accordance with Yemeni tradition. Police returned his fire and surrounded the area. Troops then arrived with two tanks, one of which burst into the party by driving straight through a garden wall.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the government also launched a campaign to curb qat chewing, with the announcement that the president would in future be devoting his spare time to healthy exercise and learning to use computers.

The opposition to qat comes mainly from two normally incompatible elements: religious radicals who object to it on moral grounds, and secular modernisers who blame many of Yemen’s economic ills on ‘this evil plant’, as the Yemen Times called it. 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 Whether the campaign will succeed is another matter. Qat is a national institution;Yemenis have been chewing for more than 700 years and all previous attempts to clamp down on the country’s favourite substance have ultimately failed.

If the lingering picture from this brief review of the year is one of continuing struggle and muddle, it is unfortunate — but that, broadly, is the reality. It is not, however, quite the whole picture. There are, here and there, occasional glimpses of a stronger will and greater ability to confront the problems — though nothing is going to be cured overnight. It would be unfair not to mention the economy in this context because the government has won high praise from the World Bank for refusing to be deflected from its strategy in the face of plummeting oil prices.

Now that oil prices are rising again there are signs that the efforts to stabilise the economy over the last four years may shortly begin to pay off and there is even talk of a possible budget surplus. That, at least, gives a hope for slightly better times in 2000.

December 1999