by BRIAN WHITAKER
Brian Whitaker is Middle East Editor of the Guardian newspaper. He writes regularly on Yemeni affairs and is a member of the Society.
Looking back at the news agency reports from Yemen over the last 18 months it would be easy to conclude that the country is in turmoil. Gun battles, explosions — both large and small, deliberate and accidental — plus, of course, the usual kidnappings and an aircraft hijacking, dominate the picture.
This is not, however, a picture that most visitors to Yemen would instantly recognise from their own experience, nor is it one that most Yemenis, from the tranquillity of their mafraj, would accept as reality.
The events themselves are real enough and are a matter of practical concern to investors, tourists and anyone who does business in Yemen. But Yemen, in news terms, is in danger of becoming typecast and we should be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions.
Although these events are troubling, they pose no significant threat to the regime. They occur for a variety of reasons, some of which are non-political. The only common factor is the availability of weapons and a readiness to use them.
By far the most serious incident was the suicide bomb attack on USS Cole as it refuelled in Aden harbour on October 12 last year. Seventeen sailors died and 39 were injured when a small dinghy with two men on board sailed close to the $1 billion guided missile destroyer and exploded, blowing a 40-foot hole in its side.
It is still unclear who was responsible for the attack. Local Islamists were certainly involved, and a number have been arrested. There are also indications that some of the technical expertise at least came from outside Yemen — possibly from people associated with ‘Usama bin Laden. So far, no evidence pointing to bin Laden himself has been disclosed.
The attack on USS Cole could easily have caused serious damage to YeineniAmerican relations — indeed, that may have been part of the bombers’ intentions. The ensuing investigation raised issues of sovereignty for Yemen as well as highlighting differences in detective methods, with theYemenis eager to secure speedy convictions based on confessions and the Americans demanding evidence of a quality that would stand up in US courts. Despite these initial problems, both sides seem to have reached a sensible working arrangement.
On the morning after the Cole attack a small bomb was thrown into the compound of the British embassy in Sana’a where it hit the fuel tank supplying an emergency generator. There were no casualties but damage was described as ‘considerable’. At the time of writing four people were on trial in connection with the attack.
The number of foreigners kidnapped showed a marked decline in 2000. Eight foreigners were taken hostage in six separate incidents and, although one hostage (a Norwegian) died in a shoot-out with security forces, this was by far the lowest hostage total for at least five years. Twenty-seven foreigners were kidnapped in 1999, 42 in 1998, 50 in 1997 and 23 in 1996. During the first half of 2001, five foreigners were kidnapped in four separate incidents.
The decline is probably due more to a lack of opportunity than a lack of inclination among kidnappers: there are fewer foreigners in the country, they are more aware of the risks, and tourists are restricted to areas considered safe.
On the other hand, there are signs that kidnappers may be adapting to the new situation. Last January, the Bani Dhabyan tribe abducted the son of the mayor of Sana’a, complaining that there were no suitable foreigners available. In May, another tribe, apparently unable to find a victim on the country roads, abducted a German student nearTahrir Square in the centre of the capital.
In January, aYemenia plane on an internal flight from Sana’a to Ta’izz was hijacked by a man who demanded to be taken to Baghdad. The hijacker appears to have been unaware that the passengers included the US ambassador, Barbara Bodine, and several American diplomats as well as the Yemeni ambassador to Washington and a protocol official from President Salih’s office.
The plane landed at Djibouti on the pretext of refuelling and the 95 passengers escaped down the emergency chutes. Yemeni journalists noted with some admiration that Ms Bodine was the only one who followed safety instructions to the letter, by coolly removing her shoes so as not to damage the inflatable slide.
The hijacker, like several suspects in the Cole bombing, had managed to obtain a Yemem identity card under a false name, according to the Yemen Times. He had smuggled his gun on to the plane by placing it along with other items in a tray at the side of the airport metal detector, the paper said.
In another mid-air incident, a Yemenia flight to Damascus turned back to Sana’a when a monkey escaped from a passenger’s hand baggage. Five more monkeys were discovered on board when it landed.
An unusually large number of executions — 31 — was reported in the first six months of 2001. This may reflect either an increase in the rate of executions or more systematic disclosure of them. All the reported executions were for murder.
Among those executed was Mohammad Adam Omar, a Sudanese mortuary assistant at Sana’a university’s medical school who, in a particularly gruesome and confusing case, had been convicted of raping and murdering two female students. He was shot on June 20 in front of a crowd of 50,000.
This sad catalogue of events somewhat overshadowed the most far-reaching development of the last 18 months: the thaw in Yemeni-Saudi relations after more than 65 years of mutual suspicion and un-neighbourly strife.
In May 2000, Crown Prince Abdullah attended celebrations to mark the tenth anniversary of Yemeni unification — a move that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier, given the kingdom’s hostile attitude to the union.
Three weeks after the prince’s visit, both countries signed an agreement which defined, for the first time, the whole of their shared border.
Parallel with this, the exiled opposition group, Mowj, which had been set up in the wake of the 1994 war of secession and had continued to operate under Saudi sponsorship, ceased its activities.
Although there are still some loose ends to be tied up — a German company, charged with the technical work of marking the border, has met hostility from local tribes — there is no doubt that Yemen and Saudi Arabia have made a long-term commitment to warmer and mutually beneficial relations.
The first local government elections since unification, held in February this year, were intended as a further step in the process of democratisation which already includes an elected lower house of parliament and direct presidential elections. In the event, they turned into a shambles.
With 26,000 candidates competing for 7,000 seats, the organisational task was on a different scale from the last parliamentary election, where a mere 1,557 candidates contested 301 seats. The potential for quarrels between candidates and complaints of malpractice was thus proportionally increased.
More than 100 violent incidents were reported around the country and, although the precise death toll was disputed, news agency reports indicated that at least 45 people had died on election day or during the prolonged and turbulent counting of votes.
Several candidates were among the dead. In al-Baydali, a Nasserite candidate was killed in a counting centre as he was leading by 700 votes with the last ballot box being counted. In Ibb, an Islah party candidate was dragged away and killed after being declared the winner.
Voting was prevented from taking place in 200 polling stations, either by violence or technical problems such as the non-arrival of ballot boxes.
A referendum held on the same day was officially declared to have given 70 per cent approval to constitutional changes which will extend the president’s term from five years to seven, and that of parliament from four years to six.
On March 31, President All Abdullali Salih appointed Abd al-Qader Bagammal as prime minister. Mr Bagammal, a 55-year-old Hadrami who had previously served as foreign minister, was regarded as a safe and pragmatic choice to succeed Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani.
He began his political career in the marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, where he served as planning and oil minister during the 1980s. Following the 1986 coup he was imprisoned for ‘working against the principles of socialism’.
When north and south Yemen were unified in 1990, he joined Salili’s party, the General People’s Congress, and began a steady rise to the top.
Mr Bagammal’s appointment was followed within a few days by the most dramatic cabinet reshuffle in Yemen’s recent history. Seventeen ministers lost their jobs and were replaced by 22 newcomers — a move which, in the words of the official media, heralded ‘change and modernisation’, to be brought about by capable and qualified young men.
The new government included Yemen’s first woman minister — Professor Waheeba Fare’e, Rector of Queen Arwa University — who was put in charge of human rights. Another progressive sign was the creation of new portfolios for the environment and population, but this was dismissed by one writer in the Yemen Times as a marketing ploy, intended merely to present a ‘modern and civilised’ image to the outside world.
At the swearing-in ceremony President Salih impressed upon the new ministers the need to curb corruption and fulfil the people’s aspirations in education, development and industry. The ministers’ performance, he said, would be subject to continuous evaluation.
As often happens inYemen, these changes brought a ray of hope during a period of gloom surrounding the local elections. But it’s too early to say whether the optimists or the sceptics will be proved right.