Yemen: thousand-and-one challenges

Yemen needs to fight severe safety problems and faces as poorest Arab country millions of political, economical and social challenges. Counter terror programs fail and political powers are steeped in corruption. Can Yemen still be saved? MO*-journalist Tine Danckaers investigated it on the spot.

‘It is thanks to the qat that our country is still standing. Qat is a vital income for the villagers. And it is an important social and innocent pastime’, says Sa’udi the taxi driver, lisping and with full left cheek, as I refuse his offer of some leaves. The passenger’s seat next to him is occupied by a plastic carrying bag full of green, lightly stimulating leaves. Judging from the size of the bag, he is, just like many of his compatriots, an enthusiast chewer. Men ánd women chew, in the streets, in the car and during intellectual meetings, the so called ‘qat-saloons’.

There are many theories about the drugging effects of the qat-leaf. As one Yemeni uses qat as amphetamine, another one uses it to distress.  Men are convinced that qat has the pleasant effect of Viagra, women clearly think otherwise. ‘The Ministry of Health recently launched a campaign against qat, with the underlying agenda to stop its water consuming cultivation in our dry country. The Ministry acts as an example with a code of conduct forbidding the officials to chew’, says a Yemeni doctor who works for an international organisation. Two hours later we are all chewing qat in a saloon in Amram, except for the doctor, but two officials of the Ministry of Health included.

Observers like hydrologist Noori Gamal state that qat will not be eliminated easily. According to Gamal, it is an important source of tax revenue, while an even much bigger part is being sold under the table. Although the truth is exchangeable in Yemen, it is a certainty that qat softens an empty stomach and is cheap. In a country where 43 percent of the 23 million Yemeni live under the poverty threshold, these are two good reasons of existence for the plant. ‘One bundle of qat means 60 rial (22 eurocents)’ says Walia Mohammed Al-Wadee in her mountain village in the Assowda District, central Yemen. That is not enough to survive, the cultivation only brings in a small extra. The other soil is used for the grain that the family grows for own use. Walia collects her food package at the local health centre every month. The centre survives with international donor money.

Dreamed PR-campaign

Until Christmas 2009 a big part of the world hardly knew where to situate Yemen, let alone the challenges the country was facing. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab changed that when he wanted to bring himself and his fellow passengers of flight 253 to explosion in Detroit. The Nigerian had had his training at Al Qaeda in Yemen, which caused him to put the Arabic country as an extremist basis on the world map. It was the dreamed opportunity for president Ali Abdullah Saleh to put his country and the question for international help in the spotlight. Yemen has to deal with many challenges, going far beyond fighting Al Qaeda. There is the rebel war in the north, causing at least 200 000 suffering refugees. There are the ongoing tensions in the south, that wants to split from the country again, or at least demands more autonomy. Additionally Yemen deals with a declining oil sector and a decreasing water stock which –according to the most sinister predictions- could be entirely gone within the next ten years. Yemen has a huge population explosion, high unemployment rates and a high poverty number. Human rights are scarce, freedom of speech and press a joke. Although women are allowed to drive a car and chew qat, their rights are seriously limited. They literally live in the shadow of their husbands and niqabs, are not protected by any marriage age or legally arranged family law, and take very little part in the public and political life. But particularly political reforms, anti-corruption- and democracy programs are probably Yemen’s the biggest challenges.  

Yemen is a complex country, where power relations fall back to complicated tribal connections. President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been governing the country for 32 years now via a patronage system and compromises with Yemeni clans and other groups. Outside the big cities, Saleh’s power is limited and the tribal system takes over. ‘Yemen is just perfect for anthropologists’, says Khaled Fattah with a smile. As a researcher he investigated the relationship between modernism, politicization and the power structures of clans and local sheiks in the Arab world. ‘Yemen is unique’, he says. ‘This is the only country where the three political powers got tribalized. In other words: the Yemeni state is part of the tribes, not the other way round. For social security you should go to your local sheik, not to Sana’a.’

Tourists as means of exchange

‘Yemen seems to survive on arbitrariness. The truth changes sides every hour’, says Gian Carlo Cirri, president of the UN-World Food Program in Yemen. ‘This, combined with a country that finds itself on the verge of bankrupt, makes it difficult to operate. We organized a press mission in Sadaa only last week. Everything was arranged, we got official permission to go, all was safe. Two hours before departure, the Ministry of Information canceled the whole thing and even asked to withdraw all our staff from Sadaa. The reason: acute security problems’.

For non-Yemeni citizens security is a vague concept and reliable information is scarce, at least outside cities like Sana’a and Aden. ‘Tourist kidnappings happen mostly in the north of Yemen, in the no-goarea, the border area with Saudi-Arabia’, ensures a Yemeni security expert me. Two days later an American couple is kidnapped. In our hotel the story goes that they had breakfast there only that morning. The news is that the kidnapping occurs at only seventy kilometers away from the capital of Sana’a. The hostage takers- who demand the release of their detained brother- are from a local clan. ‘This tribe is not the most peaceful one towards other tribes, but it is the first time that the Shardah-clan uses these tactics. They are considered to being peaceful towards foreigners and having a certain level of civilization’, says journalist Mohammed Al-Asaadi. One of the many evidences for the thesis that Yemen is perishing into an ever bigger chaos? For the Americans everything ends well after one day of hostage, but it is another slap in the face for the touristic sector in Yemen, an economic sector that was already suffering.

Electricity protests

One day after the kidnapping, half of the old city of Sana’a runs out of electricity, right after sunset. We are invited for an aperitif by Raufa Hassan Alsharki, president of a foundation for cultural development. ‘No internet for this evening. This is probably due to an attack on the plant in Marib’ says Alsharki in a laconic way. Apparently this happens on a weekly basis in Yemen and so the conversation smoothly continues on gender equality, democratization and social change, lit by a quickly fetched battery lamp. ‘Without electricity, no light, and without democrats no democracy. As long as corruption remains at all levels and in the current proportions, women and men will have to do without gender equality and without electricity’, says Alsharki.

The power black-out indeed turns out to be an attack on a big electricity plant in Marib. Since September last year the new plant is the target for aggression by local tribal groups, their way of negotiating with the central government. This time the aggression is a reaction to a military air attack against Al Qaida in Yemen the previous day,  in which according to official sources the wrong target got hit. Instead of Al Qaida militants, a local sheik, the acting governor of Marib, and four others were killed. The Yemeni government points at the Americans for being responsible, since they did the air attack. ‘A typical reaction. If there would not have been a crucial mistake, then Saleh (The president of Yemen) would have taken all the credits for this. Now it’s the other way round. At least if we assume that it is a mistake, and not a staged error’, says a local journalist during an informal talk a few days later.

Marxist or mossad-agent?

Being in Yemen for ten days is long enough to feel the anxiety everywhere. In the north there is a cease-fire between the government and the al-Houthi’s – followers of the zaïdism, a branch of the Shiisme - since February. This cease-fire made an end to the sixth war episode.

Without electricity no light. Without democrats no democracy
According to Hassan Mohammed Zaid,  this is only a break. He is the main person of the Al-Haq party, more or less the political wing of the rebel movement. Both sides take advantage of the break to rest and rearrange the arms. ‘At this moment Saudi bulldozers are crushing a Yemeni village on the border zone between Yemen and Saudi-Arabia. The Yemeni government is aware of this. They allow a neighboring country to break through their sovereignty in order to depopulate the security zone at the border. That is enough provocation to start a seventh war’. The Zaïdi accuse the government of encouraging religious unrest, by supporting salafist Sunni  in the region and to set them on against the Zaïdi. Their demands: recognition of religion and protection against the wahabism of the neighboring country Saudi-Arabia.

The south is also shaken by attacks - already weeks before Unity Day. For the first time, the attacks aim at official targets as well. Both a presidential convoy and local policemen in Aden were under attack. Isolated clashes between security services and armed fractions cause deaths every week. It is unclear who is behind all this: the south secession movement, as the Sana’a government likes to claim, Al Qaeda in Yemen, or non-political tribal elements? In a country that divided, everyone is a suspect.  Also those who are seen in the company of foreigners or political groups too often, get labeled as shifty. ‘Your buddy could be working for a secret agency according to my colleague’, warns a well-meaning European hotel guest me. He is talking about Sali* who also translates for me. And so I ask Sali in a subtle way for which agency he works. ‘There we go again’, he sneers .’Both my fellow country citizens and the internationals in Yemen gave me many profiles: from Islamite over opponent to Marxist and Mossad-agent. Find out for yourself which one I am’.

Dark past, bright future

It is Unity Day’s eve. Twenty years unification of North and South-Yemen will be celebrated tomorrow. Although many Yemeni denounce the lack of unity of this country, what is displayed in the streets suggests otherwise. The national flag, imported since the unification in 1990, is not only on commercial facades but also on private houses and cars. ‘I did not hang the flag in five years, but this year I am doubting’, says Sali. ‘Not that I see the unity, nor do I agree with the way this country is ruined by Saleh and his corrupt loyalists, but a split would mean the absolute destruction of Yemen’. According to the official description of the flag, the red symbolizes the bloodsheds of the martyrs and the unity, the white a bright future and the black a dark past.

That darkness is psychologically still not erased in Aden, the informal capital of the South. Aden is the only part of Yemen that was colonized. Until 1967 it was a British royal colony and it formed an important military base in the region. The natural harbor was an excellent connection between the Gulf, India and Europe. After 1967 marxism made its way here and today you can still find both British and Marxists influences.

The city is the opposite of Sana’a. The distance between sexes is much more vague. In this city, women and men drink tea and coffee together in the saloons. Moreover, there are evening clubs where men and women dance together. The niqab has been introduced, but you see women with normal, colorful headscarves as well. And the tea during our women’s-only meeting is served by a man. ‘But don’t be mistaken’, says Sami Qasim, an economist who translates for me. ‘We are indeed in the most multicultural, progressive part of Yemen, but the past still plays an important role. After the secession war in 1994 Sana’a has completely overtaken the control of the South and excluded all the southern players. That is a frustration of big importance in this area’. Sami himself is the son of two convinced socialists who crave for the Aden from before the unification, but he clearly does not share their passion. ‘I can not identify with any political party. I am waiting for an Arabic Obama who can and wants to change things. But we are still far from that’.

No secession, but participation

‘The oil in South-Yemen was found before the unification in 1990. The South brings in eighty percent of the oil revenues of Yemen. No one knows where this money goes, but certainly not to this region’. Noman Qasim is coordinator of a human rights organization in Aden, who also publishes the newspaper Al Tahdeeth. He is one of the many Marxists tinted socialists, who fled after the secession war and now has returned. ‘Saleh promised us shared governance. We had good laws, like the family law. They allowed us to keep it, as well as our jobs and the control over our region. But the traditional North could not cope with the modern South. After four years, the North got greedier and greedier. The secession war was a consequence of the humiliation. That had to end. After the war many of the officials of the South got replaced by non-educated ones from the North. And that plays a role up to today’.

Qasim is clear: He does not think highly of Sana’a, and criticizes the deeply rooted corruption of the central government, but is not in favor of secession. ‘I am not against those of the North, in the end we are all citizens, and North and South are connected in many ways. But I want more self-governance, I am in favor of decentralization, maybe even confederalism’. Very violent incidents against people from the North were reported in the South the past year, only because of their Northern roots. But these incidents are isolated cases, exaggerated in the media, so it goes. In any case, the radical separatist movement is not very strong in the South, especially not in Aden and Hadramout. Al-Hiraq, the secession movement that brings together a number of Southern parties, has difficulties acting as one spokesperson for the whole region.

The backyard of Saudi-Arabia

Armed violence in Yemen is the consequence of a combination of factors: social change, blurring of moral standards, poor governance, conflicts over land and water, growing rivalry between different Islam schools, jihadism, chronic poverty and underdevelopment. According to a report from the research institute ‘Small Arms Survey’ it is probable that these factors will first get worse, before they will improve. And a recent report of the UN-Development Program criticizes the corruption in particular: an untreatable problem in Yemen. And still. Walking through the old city of Sana’a, it comes as a surprise that the beautiful architecture has been spared from the destructions and war during the turbulent past and the current chaos. And also the little mountain villages that I saw, were witnesses of a beauty and connection with history that seems to evoke deep respect. Something must keep this country and its heritage together in some way, right? This remark is welcomed with great enthusiasm during an, again, qat-saloon. I immediately receive a starter’s bundle of qat. ‘We do not take no for an answer, you found the hidden beauty of Yemen, now you also have to discover the beauty of chewing qat’.

‘Everyone is familiar with the challenges, it is time to look for the opportunities’ says Ali Saif Hassan, human rights activist and active member of a progressive think tank. ‘And they exist. It is true that we are the backyard of Saudi Arabia, we don’t have many friends in the region, but we are strategically embedded between the oil rich Gulf states and Djibouti. We could perfectly serve as pass-on for oil. We still have oil reserves for a long time, it only needs to be mined.  That is a matter of attracting investors and creating an advantageous investment climate and new free trade zones (now there is one zone in Aden, td). And our country is also destined for tourism: we harbor an undamaged wealth of historical and natural heritage.

*fictional name 

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