Ali Ashal to Yemen Times”Democracy came with unity and we now experience a multiparty society” [Archives:2005/847/Community]

June 2 2005

For many years the Yemeni Parliament was seen as inactive and a puppet in the hands of the state, However, there had been some angry voices recently representing the concerns of the people of late. Whether this has changed really or if it is just a coincidence we don't know, but it's only fair to throw light on some of brave voices that demand to be heard. Member of Parliament Mr. Ali Ashal is one of the active members involved in the oil and minerals committee of the parliament. In an interesting interview, Mohammed bin Salam of the Yemen Times interviewed Mr. Asshal and filled in the following lines…

Q: Parliament has warned against unfairness towards Yemen in recent LNG deals with some companies. How does this unfairness exist? Is this the beginning of a new disagreement between Parliament and the government?

A: Unfairness comes from many sides. We were first surprised by the hushing up condition of this deal. Parliament was kept away as it had been the trend of the ministry. Recently, the government reached an agreement with Total to extend its contract. This agreement was never sent to Parliament although it is concerned directly. The extension of this contract should have been agreed by Parliament in advance or at least sent to Parliament to debate.

What disturbed us is that the Korean Company said that Korea saved 40-45% by signing this contract which means that the company shall save $14 billion in the next 20 years. Isn't this a lot of unfairness?

The Company also mentioned on its website that the price of Yemeni gas is slightly more than 3 dollars/unit, while it is more than 47 in the market. We don't know really the reason why our government is throwing away this asset in this way.

We also feel that Total which was given a share of Yemeni gas in return for the infrastructure and finding markets did not adhere to the agreement. Total did not find us the best possible markets and prices as it is supposed to.

It is said also that Total has bought also a share of our gas. How can it be a buyer and marketer at the same time? Oil and Development Committee in Parliament has written to the Oil Ministry warning of the consequences of reaching any decisions regarding the gas project without Parliament being acquainted with the details.

Q: Do you think the government shall continue its moves to finalize these deals or shall yield to the demands of the Parliament?

A: As far as we know this deal is only a provisional deal. It isn't yet final. So it seems we can make right what we can. Today we have a meeting with the ministerial side about this subject. We feel that the government's orientations don't take the interests of Yemen in consideration.

A recent report by OPEC says that our region is moving towards utilizing gas as an alternative clean source energy. Yemen shouldn't sell its reserves of gas before securing its own needs first for at least 50 years. Only after that may Yemen sell gas.

Q: Why doesn't our government contract directly with gas buyers instead of going through marketers who grab 2/3 of Yemeni gas?

A: Government argues that exporting LNG is very expensive. It cannot provide the necessary infrastructure which need billions of dollars to build. As a result Yemen now owns 27% of its gas while foreigners own more than 70% only for providing the infrastructure and markets.

As Yemen didn't benefit from this gas during the last decade, it is supposed not to extend these contracts which disregard our national interests and are the subject of much slackening and bias. It is said that Total doesn't want to export Yemeni gas in the time being because that might not serve its interests now or its partners'. Total doesn't care whether Yemen benefits or loses now.

Q: As there are trespasses in the gas project, what is Parliament going to do?

A: The current Parliament has proved that it has enough will that had made the common man in Yemen regain his trust in Parliament. You might have heard that this Parliament had succeeded in some previous oil issues in which it had a loud voice. The Government had to yield to Parliament on several cases. The sale of sector (53) was nullified and so was the extension of Yemen Hunt Oil Company's contract. We now hope that we shall study the gas issue till we come to the facts. If it becomes clear that selling gas on these terms doesn't serve our interests, I think Parliament shall have a serious position as it did before in several cases.

Q: Who are behind these deals? Who benefits from them? Certainly these are individuals or powerful centers who stand to benefit from such contra like the one with Total, though they are aware it doesn't serve the interests of Yemen!

A: As Arabs say “The results shows the cause.” When you see the national interests being squandered, you can say that somebody has pursued his personal interests and didn't care for the national interests.

To our sorrow we are suffering an irrational condition in managing our oil and gas sector. We had drawn the attention to this point many times. Between 30-40% of our resources are being squandered. It is clear that there is collusion with oil companies. The governmental side administers the whole affair as kind of brokerage which becomes the base in initiating some economic projects disregarding the national interests. Those behind these deals look first for their personal interests. Because they know they aren't staying for long in their current posts. They adopt the culture that says that the smart one is that who avails himself of the opportunity as long as it exists.

Q: What about the difference betweens the estimated price of oil in the budget of 2005 which is $22/barrel and the market prices which is about $40 or more? Where does the difference go? How is it spent?

A: We have raised this point before. Parliament had recommended that a special account be opened for such revenues to be deposited in and that they shall be spent only upon Parliament's consent, but the government has always discarded such recommendations.

Can you imaging that revenues from oil make 70% of our 2005 budget? This means that our economy depends on oil. When oil prices are estimated at $22/barrel while it is sold at $45 or more. This means that huge amounts of money are lost.

To our sorrow, at the end of every fiscal year, the government comes to Parliament asking for additional approbations that exceed YR 183 billion to cover expenditures that weren't included in the budget nor in the investment plan. The least to say is such projects are at random projects or that they show expenditure. When a question is raised about the source of revenues they say from the difference in oil prices.

I respect what was stated in the World Bank report that Yemen has never benefited from the difference in oil prices. This could be noticed also by us as the funds are spent unavailingly on things that don't help more development in Yemen. They are spent as unalotted expenditure or as show expenditures and some on unreal projects or on projects that never get implemented.

Regrettably enough, this shows that Yemenis are managed by a mentality that doesn't depend on planning or scientific administration when drafting its budget but on the frames of mind.

Q: President Ali Abdullah Saleh had said when oil was discovered in Yemen back in 1982 that all oil revenues shall be spent according to development plan concentrating on agriculture and the improvement of the infrastructure but even such a plan wasn't implemented. What do you think was the obstacle?

A: Here is the big defect. Oil is a depleting resource and we must create alternatives. Our basic economic constituents should have been enhanced such as agriculture as a basic eternal asset of Yemen. Had this taken place, a qualitative leap forward could have happened and sustainable development could have begun.

Our other sectors such as agriculture, tourism, industry and fisheries didn't evolve into real engines for our economy and we just kept on depending on oil revenues. Our revenues from these sectors are insignificant compared to those of oil.

Our president has great and wide hopes as can be noticed from his speeches but I am sad to say that he has been left down by many technical officials in government.

Great hopes like these should be built on a credible government in which ministers and high officials are chosen according to their efficiency people who can push forward development of this country.

If such hopes are built on a shabby government with such a worn out situation then reform efforts shall only keep marking time.

Q: Are you saying that the President did not succeed in imposing reform?

A: No, I don't say that. Reform isn't a matter made by just a stroke. In a situation with such a wide corruption, the politicians will have to be serious and well aware of time. It might be difficult to fight corruption but it is necessary to depend on the political will. This must be translated into measures and needs to depend on efficient and trustworthy organs and experienced inner circle.

It is illogical to say the one brother the President can do it alone although he is the spearhead. He must get aid to help him in reforming the deteriorating conditions.

Q: Economists say that Marib oil shall decrease by the end of 2005 while President Saleh warned that oil shall be depleted in Yemen by 2013. What's your comment?

A: In fact this may not be correct or precise, scientifically speaking. It is a fact that production is decreasing because no new main fields were discovered and most exploited new oilfields are marginal. But it cannot be said that our oil sector is not going to improve because this needs further exploration. If no new discoveries are made and our current main oilfields continue to be our main source, then oil will be depleted in the near future.

Our President depends on the figures he is given which are given to us also. But nobody can be scientifically sure about this and I believe that some foreign power might be spreading this information.

Q: Is Parliament informed periodically or annually by government about the facts about the real exports and revenues of oil?

A: The government no doubt provides us with these reports about every sector. These reports are characterized by much transparency. As regards the differences of prices, we can only say that the Oil and Development Committee in Parliament cannot be sure about the level of performance.

Q: Is there a kind of strict monitoring on oil exports by Yemenis? Or do we depend on the figures we are provided by the oil companies? Maybe people rumor about companies that report wrong figures.

A: As a legislative organ, Parliament lack the technical means to verify allegations. We monitor policies. We do hear that the revenues of exports doesn't reach the public treasury but there has been no proof of these allegations. However, if such information proves to be true, then it will mean that we are a very careless state.

About companies that misreport data, there is in reality a lot of collusion by some governmental parties, especially when oil costs are calculated because that is usually deducted. Corrupt officials might endorse such misreported data.

It happened that an ex-Yemeni official reported that the American company misreported data and as a result Yemen lost 20 million dollars. The company later returned that amount of money and said it was a mistake, but that efficient official was replaced at the governmental organ by someone else.

Q: Do you agree to lifting the support given to oil products prices?

A: When I say that such support should be lifted I must provide alternatives. We spoke with the governments on two importation sectors: why doesn't the government provide electricity by utilizing gas which should reach every place in Yemen. The industrial sector could then shift to such energy instead of fuel.

There are also other countries that provide support for certain sectors or products such as milk and agricultural products.

The government did not lift support of oil products till now, although it is already decided, because it fears the reaction.

Q: How do you evaluate positively and negatively 15 years of unity of Yemen?

A: The unity of Yemen is most importantly characterized by the fact that it ended the chronic rift in the Yemeni society. Yemenis were the victim of instability and anxiousness because of the division of the homeland and this was the cause of a lot of tragedies in our long history before unity.

Unity has brought us to terms with ourselves, this is something that must be highlighted.

After 15 years of unity there are qualitative changes. Democracy came with unity and we now experience a multiparty society. We now decide by ballots. People learn how to participate politically despite some shortages. All of this wasn't possible before the unity of Yemen.

Yemenis now have rights that never existed before. However, the democratic margin is somewhat decreasing. Dialogue is needed to protect the democratic margin in society. No doubt the southern governorates are experiencing a prosperous time, at least some of them.

The private sector has created a kind of development despite the rise of prices and inflation.

In general, after 15 years of unity I believe there are many accomplishments and achievements.

Q: How do you explain the deterioration of health and educational services?

A: No doubt, these are some of our sufferings. What is spent on these is very meager when compared to regional standards and in other countries which are less equipped than Yemen. Reports received by Parliament speak about much negligence.

Q: There are reports that tens of thousand of students leave schools because of poverty? Isn't it that a factor that made millions of students leave the schools?

A: No doubt there are a lot of students dropping out of schools especially girls. There are families that can not support a student in school and need him doing some work outside school. There are also other social causes for this but I think the main reason is the economic conditions.

Q: Do you think that Yemen is in real need of radical political reform? Is Yemen unity endangered as the opposition says?

A: To say there is a danger to unity is bogus. Our unity is due to the grace of God. As I told you, unity has eliminated the division in the Yemeni conscience and Yemenis aren't going to abuse their unity.

Regarding reform, it is now a local and regional slogan. It is important, necessary and wanted. As I said the democratic margin is decreasing and so is political participation. We need to emphasize the principle of the peaceful change of authority. The opposition also complains about the brutality of the state. All of these should be subject to dialogue. We have to confuse that we need radical changes. There are deformities in our political process which should be abolished. Some of them are relevant to the constitution or laws, and others are relevant to mechanisms. Our canonization of democracy and human rights might be good but the implementation is to the contrary.

Reform might be the door to reforms in the constitution and laws but the most important thins is that regarding reforming implementations mechanisms.

Q: Every high official speaks about the spread of corruption who do you think is responsible?

A: It is known in the science of management that responsibility rises with authority. And God deters by authority what isn't deterred by the Quraan. It is indisputable that those organs that are authorized to make things right need themselves to be reformed. The will to change is in the hand of that who has authority.

Q: Do you think that the authorities have the will to reform?

A: Any rational authority or responsible government is keen to reform because it serves its own interests.

Q: Any final thing you want to add?

A: I hope first that this interview shall be published in full. I would like on this occasion to congratulate every Yemeni on the 15th Anniversary of the Yemeni Unity which arrives during a very critical state. I hope Yemenis shall manage their affairs wisely whether in the authority or in the opposition. They should rise to the level of responsibility needed. We have to meet the challenges in front of us all.