A better tomorrow? Maybe. But we’re singing economic blues todayCan you spare a rial? [Archives:2004/710/Front Page]

February 9 2004

By Yemen Times Staff
and New Services

WASHINGTON ) While Yemenis are bracing for certain commodity price hikes, the only solace may be a distant hope that they may someday benefit from a free trade pact with the United States.
The possibility became closer to reality recently when U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick signed a pair of Trade and Investment Framework Agreements with top trade officials from the Gulf countries.
Last year, President Bush proposed a regional free-trade agreement with Middle East countries by 2013.
Zoellick said the recent agreements, dealing with oil suppliers in Yemen and Kuwait, were a step toward that goal.
The initiatives create forums for the United States to work with the two nations on economic reforms and legislation to expand trade and investment flows.
Of the two, Kuwait is the larger U.S. trading partner. Two-way trade with both countries is relatively modest.
The United States exported $1 billion worth of goods to Kuwait in 2002, including iron and steel, chemicals, drilling and oil field equipment, aircraft and food products.
The United States imported $2 billion in goods from the OPEC member in the same year, most of which was oil.
U.S. goods exports to Yemen in 2002 totaled $366 million, including aircraft, oil field and drilling equipment, electrical appliances, wheat and dairy products. U.S. imports from Yemen in 2002 totaled $246 million, including crude oil and coffee.
The United States is in the final stages of negotiating a free-trade pact with Morocco and recently began a similar set of talks with Bahrain. It is also negotiating a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia that Riyadh hopes will pave the way for its entry into the World Trade Organization by the end of this year.
If the door to free trade indeed does open with the U.S., it may be one long-term solution to stem the bleeding from Yemen's reform-ravaged economy. Proposed price hikes of some commodities have some Yemeni so upset, they're even singing about it.
And that isn't appreciated by some officials, according to some reports.
Yemeni authorities have rounded up 17 people for selling recordings of songs criticizing the government over soaring prices of consumer goods, according to a Yemeni opposition website.
The 17, who own stalls or shops that sell cassettes, were detained in various parts of the country and are being held by the “political security,” or Yemen's intelligence department, according to alsahwa-yemen.net, which speaks for the Islah Party.
They include a 13-year-old boy who was taken away from a stall that sells cassettes in Sanaa, it quoted a relative as saying.
Fahd al-Karni, author of the offending cassette, was quoted as saying he had left his home in Taiz province, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Sanaa, after intelligence operatives tried to storm the residence and he received “threats” from a senior officer.
“When we heard all the talk about the Sana'a Conference on Democracy and Human Rights, we thought that, since Yemen had become an exporter of democracy, we could criticize conditions in the country even outside the election season,” the singer said.
More than 820 participants from 52 countries took part in a two-day “Sana'a Inter-Governmental Regional Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the role of the International Criminal Court” last month. The gathering was jointly organized by the Yemeni government and “No Peace Without Justice,” a European NGO.
Karni, who did not say where he was currently staying, added that he “apologized” to those who had been detained or harassed in Sana'a, Taiz, Aden, Ibb and Hodeidah due to his cassette titled “I Deserve it” saying “we have been deceived” by the inter-governmental conference on democracy.
His most recent cassette slams rising prices resulting from reforms aimed at restructuring the Yemeni economy. Sana'a has since 1995 been applying a program prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to cut subsidies and to privatize state industries.
But Culture and Tourism Minister Khaled Abdullah al-Ruweishan was quoted on the website of the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) as saying Karni's cassettes were confiscated because they did not have a sales license.
Karni called on all intellectuals, human rights and democracy fighters and members of the ruling party to defend his right of freedom of expression.
The opposition said that the government is trying to intimidate all people who criticize its acts.
Opposition figures said the arrest shows clearly that the government is already fed up with the left margin of democracy and freedom of opinion. Some lawyers described the act as against the law.
Karni was arrested last year due to staging a play with the same theme in Taiz. He also composed some cassettes critical to the condition in the country, some of which were confiscated.