In memory of Dr. Al-Saqqaf (1952-1999) [Archives:2006/952/Viewpoint]

June 5 2006

The founder of the Yemen Times, Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf passed away in a car accident seven years ago on the second on June. Brain Whitaker*, who had made acquaintance with him since the early days of the Yemen Times, has written a few words in his tribute.

Nadia Al-Sakkaf

Abdulaziz al-Saqqaf was a courageous warrior whose weapons were paper, ink and computers. As editor and publisher of the Yemen Times, he insisted on taking the country's ostensibly liberal press law at its word ) and regularly suffered the consequences.

Dr Saqqaf, a lecturer in economics at Sana'a University, launched his paper in 1991 during the political spring that followed Yemen's unification and first steps towards democracy.

At the time it was just one among several dozen new titles thrust optimistically upon a bemused ) and 60 per cent illiterate ) Yemeni public.

Largely because the Yemen Times was published in English it could get away with saying things that other papers could not, but the authorities did become apprehensive when they realised that it was being read by virtually every foreign diplomat and businessman in Yemen.

In those early days Saqqaf ran the paper from a cramped upstairs office just outside the walls of the old city. The first time I met him, after listening to his views on the Yemeni economy, delivered at high speed in an American accent, I asked him for a copy of the paper.

'You'll have to pay for it,' he said seriously 'You see, I'm a capitalist.' I handed over the money ) slightly less than 10p in British money.

A few years later the paper was clearly flourshing. I met Saqqaf again in his large new offices and he handed me a bundle of back issues. 'Don't you want me to pay for them?' I asked, reminding him of what he had said before.

'Ah!' he replied. 'But in those days I was a poor capitalist.'

Harassment of the Yemen Times took many forms. In 1994, shortly after the war of secession, Saqqaf was briefly imprisoned without charge and the paper's computers were seized.

Another time, the paper's landlord became nervous and decided to throw them out. One day when Saqqaf was out of town, the landlord invited the entire staff to lunch at the Sheraton hotel and, while they were eating, changed the locks on their offices.

Co-opting critics of the government is an old Yemeni tactic, and in 1997 Saqqaf was appointed to the upper house of parliament, the Consultative Council. Frustrated at its ineffectiveness, he resigned a few months later, accusing the President of using the council 'as a dumping ground for individuals he wants to appease, but whom he doesn't care to keep on active duty elsewhere.' He was, however, persuaded to return.

Journalism in Yemen, as in other emerging democracies, can be a dangerous profession. There was always something in Saqqaf's boldness and, indeed, his bravery, that pointed towards a tragic end.

On June 2, 1999, he had lunch at a restaurant with a number of people, including Mohammed al-Tayyeb, the Minister of Labour, and Dr Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, a member of Consultative Council. While crossing the Haddah Road on the way back he was hit by a car and died shortly afterwards.

Brian Whitaker joined the Guardian in 1987 and has been Middle East editor since May 2000. While working for the paper he took a part-time degree in Arabic at Westminster University. He also has his own website devoted to Arab culture and politics:

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