David Newton: “Yemeni-US relations are on the right track.” [Archives:1997/49/Law & Diplomacy]

December 8 1997

Christa Newton: “Yemeni women must be given the chance to serve.”
David and Christa Newton are probably as good American friends as Yemen can get. The couple, calling Yemen their second home, have chosen to come back for their third service in Yemen, their last diplomatic assignment. On the 14th, they will leave us. On this occasion, Yemen Times talked to them. Excerpts:
Q: Let us start with your general personal feelings as you prepare to leave. A: David: We have served in Yemen 3 times for a total of 7 years over almost 32 years. We first came in 1966, then in 1973, and of course, the last time in 1994. Yemen entered late into the modern world. But it has done a lot to catch up. I see a lot of dedicated people taking a lot of difficult decisions. Although sad, it is nice to leave Yemen in a good condition. This time, I think we leave your country on a much more optimistic note.
Q: Can you tell us more about your earlier association with Yemen? A: David: We first came here in January, 1966. In many ways my strong feelings for Yemen developed at that time, because we suffered together with the country during the civil war. So, we sympathize very much with the difficulties which Yemen faced in that era. The second time we came was in January 1973. I was the deputy of the US ambassador. It was a period when Yemen was just beginning to take off.
Q: I understand you personally negotiated some of the USAID projects. A: David:Yes, in those days we went from just 6 staff members to a full size embassy. I had the privilege to negotiate the aid agreement with Dr. Abdulkarim Al-Iryani. So I helped start the program. I was also the person who named the Yemen American Language Institute (YALI), which also started then.
Q: You say you are leaving at a happy juncture. Wouldn’t you say the closing down of USAID is something sad? A: David: We have had the aid program for many years. It actually started just before 1962, before the revolution. The overall US support for Yemen has now reached a total of about half a billion dollars. The worldwide US aid program has been shrinking steadily under the pressure of the budget deficit. One of the consequences is that smaller programs, which have a high overhead cost, are affected. So, unfortunately our aid program will end next September. But I have not given up yet, and I hope my successor and others will not. We are looking for other ways to help Yemen. I am very happy about our demining training program which will start early next year. Yemen suffered enormously from landmines. We have a very good program run by the special forces. The achievement level is 99.6% removal of landmines. Another assistance program is the anti-terrorist effort. Yemen is playing a positive and responsible role against terrorism. But it has itself began to suffer. We think we can help. A big training program, which will run over a number of years, will help Yemeni officials combat terrorism. So, as you can see, although our regular aid program is coming to a close, other programs are starting.
Q: Yemeni-American relations have seen steep ups and downs. How do you see the bilateral relations now? A: David: It is normal for the relations of countries to undergo strains. I believe, however, that Yemeni-American relations today are going in the right direction. Yemen has suffered from the Gulf war and unfortunately, some of the damage can’t be repaired. But I think we are all looking forward. I was struck when I went to Washington this summer to see how much people wanted to help Yemen. Washington recognizes that Yemen is an important strategic country. It can contribute in a positive way to the stability of the region. The climax in our bilateral relations was in 1989 when president Saleh paid an official visit to Washington. Both sides are working to regain that level of warmth as soon as possible. Such an achievement takes many years of hard work at improving relations.
Q: Christa, you have been active among the Yemeni women’s community. What kind of work have you been doing? A: Christa: I have been trying to get people to appreciate Yemen. I like dealing with Yemeni women. I have been especially active among the artist community. There are many aspiring and fine artists waiting for a chance. I would like to see that happen. I am also happy to note that quite a few among those artists are women. I can say that the artistic community here in Yemen is flourishing.
Q: You have also been active among vulnerable segments of society? A: Christa: Yes, that is right. I have tried to lend a helping hand. This includes particularly handicapped people. That was one of the goals when I agreed to have the 2nd art exhibition in our house. My condition was that part of the proceeds goes to these children. I believe that once costs are deducted, we have a little over US$ 4,000 which will go to the Home of the Mentally Handicapped run by Missionaries of Charity here in Sanaa. I would like to mention that the proceeds of the exhibition will be added to a major project initiated by the American Women’s Group.
Q: You were also concerned about the fate of lepers. A: Christa: This happened by coincidence. I met the deputy director of the organization from Taiz. I asked if I could help by making the fact more public. You see lepers are not outcasts. Leprosy is a disease that can be dealt with and healed. Of course, you cannot get back the missing parts, but if the sick people seek medical care in the early stages of the disease, it can be controlled and healed.
Q: I believe you also pushed for a more active and visible female presence in public life. A: Christa: Women, not only in Yemen, but throughout the world, need an opportunity. I believe they have a lot to offer. Education is the main factor. Here in Yemen, education for women has improved, and continues to improve slowly, even in the countryside. Women should be given an opportunity to get education. This reminds me of what that great man, Mahatma Ghandi said: “If you educate a man, you educate a person. But if you educate a woman, you educate a family.” This is what we all have to realize. If women are educated, they can improve the life of the whole family.
Q: Do you really feel the possibility of a big role for Yemeni women or is it just a show to please the West? A: Christa: It is real. I think Yemeni women have become very active, if Yemeni men would give them a chance. Yemen is a country with a history in which women played a visible and active public life. It is not new.
Q: Yemen is undergoing a transformation. How do you see our democratization? A: David: The President of Yemen is wise enough to realize that there really is no other way to govern Yemenis. Yemenis do not accept dictatorship. It required a lot of courage on the part of the president to choose democracy. It means you must accept criticism, opposing opinions, and sometimes very complicated ways of convincing others when you know something really must be done in the national interest. I think Yemen has chosen the right course because Yemenis are very independent. And I think the democratization process is taking the right direction.
Q: Let me ask a very honest question. Do you think this democratization is irreversible? A: David: I think there is a very little risk. I suppose nothing is impossible, but that is remote and highly unlikely. I sometimes joke with friends about Yemen’s situation. Everywhere else in the region, it seems the problem is too much government and too little freedom. Often in Yemen, there is too much freedom and too little government. I would like to encourage Yemenis to realize that freedom brings with it responsibility. Freedom carries with it responsibilities towards other people. Some freedoms can’t be enjoyed individually. They can only be enjoyed collectively. A well-run democratic government can only come about with cooperation from the whole public. There is another point I want to raise. Democracy is an imperfect institution in any country. There certainly are difficulties in Yemen. But democracy here is genuine. It is a local product, emanating from the independent and individualistic nature of the people.
Q: How do you leave Yemen? A: David: I leave Yemen with mixed feelings. Part of me feels sad because I am leaving. On the other hand, a diplomat knows that the time to leave has to come. I think I am leaving at an encouraging time. I want to assure you that this is not the last time for me to see this country. I hope to come back.
A: Christa: I hope that when I come back, I’ll see more women in public office. I feel they have much to contribute. They have the drive and ambition and they like their country tremendously. They should be given a chance to participate more.