Tribal and regional divisions, official corruption and Saudi machinations continue to bedevil a country that is traditionally unruly and had a civil war only four years ago. That explains why the government of prime minister Abdul Karim al-Iryani, formed barely three months ago, is already tottering.
Yemen’s underlying problems seemed to come to the boil simultaneously during July, causing widespread violence which seemed to spare no one. Government ministers, diplomats and tourists came under attack from armed tribesmen who are angry that the government’s development programme, such as it is, has ignored their regions. And fighting broke out between Yemeni and Saudi forces in a territorial dispute over a Red Sea island, which even not many Yemen’s have heard of. All this took place against a backdrop of riots in which scores of people were reported dead and hundreds wounded.
The disturbances over the new economic hardships followed a structural programme agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last January. Subsidies on basic foodstuffs were cut for the second time in line with the programme. The price of petrol (gasoline), wheat, flour and cooking gas increased about 40 percent in May and June.
Development expenditure on essential infrastructure programmes was also reduced because of a drop-in oil prices. Before the drop-in prices, oil revenues made up 40 percent of the country’s hard currency earnings. The previous government, on the basis of the old prices then in force, fixed this year’s budget deficit in January at 3 percent of gross domestic product. But because of the drop in the oil prices the new government was forced to revise the old figure, in its agreement with the IMF in early July, raising it to 5 percent.
When riots broke out in Sana’a, the capital, and other cities, official spokesmen blamed them on certain governments - code for Saudi Arabia - and the Islah (Reform) opposition party. Islah, often referred to as ‘Islamist’ though not the world’s most radical Islamic organization, was a member of the ruling coalition, led by the General People’s Congress (GPC), until general elections last year. According to GPC officials, the structural economic reforms now being implemented were agreed three years ago when Islah was part of ruling coalation but that does not prevent it from trying to exploit the situation.
But the government cannot really blame the Saudis or Islah for the violent reaction to its austerity measures, Even western diplomats and commentators, who support the government, agree that the demonstrations were a spontaneous protest against the economic restructuring programme which has hit the poor who constitute the overwhelming majority of the country’s 16 million people.
Another source of trouble for the government is the escalating violence against tourists by tribesmen who kidnap them to force the authorities to implement development projects in neglected regions. The number of tourists kidnapped has risen from 10 in 1995 to 20 so far this year. This explains the drop in the number of tourists from 80,000 in 1997 to 24,000 in the first six months of this year.
But far more serious are the attacks against oil pipelines by tribesmen who punch holes in them. In the Marib area, where Hunt Oil produces the bulk of the country’s crude, oil flows had been hit by this practice until late July.
In one sense, the unrest is certain to increase as more cuts in subsidies are in the pipeline. Most Yemenis are not willing to suffer in silence as the rich get richer despite the economic hardships, and official corruption is too blatant and pervasive to be invisible. This may explain why the violence has come closer to the rulers in recent weeks.
On July 30, the security police arrested a man who had shot a hail of bullets from a kalashnikov rifle in the direction of one of the wings of the presidential palace in Sana’a. And about 10 days earlier, two government ministers and the governor of Al Jawf were ambushed as their motorcade returned from the Nothern Province, where they had been investigating local development requirements. Several officials and soldiers were wounded.
The situation has great potential for a tragic explosion. The reason is that the entire population is armed to the teeth. The ratio of guns to the 16 million Yemen’s is the three to one. And in northern Yemen there is the added danger of the ubiquitous dagger. Apparently, every male adult believes he is honour-bound to don one.
As if these problems were not enough for a traditionally unstable country, which also happens to be in the grip of economic woes, Saudi Arabia is determined to exploit the situation to strengthen its 60-year-old territorial claims against Yemen, and to deflect attention from its own growing domestic problems.
The Saudis started a fight on July 19 over the disputed Red sea Island of Duwaima which included nine hours of Saudi naval and artillery bombardment. The fiercest between the two neighbours for five years, the clashes prompted president Ali Abdullah Saleh to accuse the Saudis of ‘poring oil on the fire’ - an unusually sharp remark for a general who has a healthy respect for his much richer neighbour. But Saleh declared that his country was not going to war over the incident and Sana’a and Riyadh exchanged visits, at ministerial level, and the usual letters by the heads of State.
One such meeting produced an agreement to prevent differences from developing into military confrontation. But even then the parties could not bring themselves to calling it an agreement. Instead, the two foreign ministers signed what they dubbed ‘minutes’ of their meetings.
But there is a clear unease in Yemen that Sana’a might be bounced into concessions. The Yemeni Times newspaper organized a conference of Yemeni politicians and intellectuals on the border dispute with Saudi Arabia on July 30 in Sana’a. The conference concluded that Yemen should withdraw from the negotiations with Riyadh until conditions are right.
One thing appears to be certain: the Saudis willl not cease their mischief-making and wayward Yemen will not change.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1998