One Benefit of Being a Backward Country: NO Y2K DISASTER EXPECTED IN YEMEN! [Archives:1999/04/Focus]

January 25 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

By: Walid Al-Saqqaf
Computer Engineer, 
Yemen Times Webmaster.
It will fall on us in less than a year. They call it the millennium bug, which is a misnomer, because it is not a bug, but a programming error.
While all modern countries are furiously trying to haggle with it, more than 95% of Yemenis have not even heard about it.
Before explaining the Y2K’s effects on Yemen, let us look at the problem in general. Y2K stands for “Year 2 Kilo”, Kilo is a Latin word meaning thousand, which is also used as a computer term. Hence, the term means the ‘Year 2000’.
The Y2K originated when computer memory was first introduced in the 1960s. Memory capacity was so valuable at the time that computer scientists were looking for ways to reduce its usage. They thought they could store a year in two digits. In other words, they left the digits representing the century (19 hundred) to be constant, and simply made the two digits representing the year and decade variable. As an example, 1989 is stored as 89, and 1900 would be stored as 00.
Day after day, month after month, and year after year, we continued using this procedure for storing date and continued getting the correct year. During these years, fixing the problem continued to become more difficult. Now after we realized the problem and its effects, we are struggling to find the solution. I am not exaggerating when saying that millions of lines of code had been written based on this wrong date storage method. Now all these lines are subject to malfunctioning. We need to find a way out of an expected disaster before it is too late, i.e., before we move on to the new millennium.
Now that it is clear how a year would be stored with two digits, how will the computer store the year 2000? Computers update the year by adding 1 to the number consisting of the two digits, and place 19 next to them. For example, in the last case of update from 1998 to 1999, it has added 1 to 98 to become 99, and 19 was attached to it to become 1999.
Applying the same to 1999, the computer will add 1 to 99 and will result in 100. But because it can only store two digits, it will store the two rightmost digits 00, and will attach 19 to them to become 1900. In other words, computers will think that we are 100 years in the past!
The problem, therefore, is how to make computers understand that we are in fact in 2000, and not in 1900? This is exactly why the year 2000 or Y2K is a problem.
Some people think that this problem only exists in computers – with monitors and keyboards- alone. However, the unfortunate truth is that this mechanism -using two digits to store years – is used in hardware and software alike. Millions of chips worldwide use this mechanism to store dates. Videos, TVs, digital clocks, and similar electrical and electronic equipment, which display dates, if not fixed, will miscalculate the date starting on the first of January 2000. Factories, companies, airports, banks, and virtually every establishment using electronic equipment which store dates would probably have this problem in its hardware or software, or both. From nuclear plants to small electronic watches, they all have the Y2K problem hiding itself until what they call “Doomsday” – January the first, 2000 – comes.
You might have heard the term “Y2K compliant”. Well, what a Y2K compliant system means is that it is immune to breakdowns or malfunctioning when moving to the year 2000. Companies producing electronic goods and software worldwide are taking this seriously, and are now producing 100% Y2K compliant products.
Among all sectors, the banking sector is expected to be – directly and indirectly – the most severely exposed to the millennium bug. To explain why, imagine a bank having more than 500 computers. The clock has just struck 00:00 on new year’s eve. It is January 1st, 2000. The first thing computers would do is think that it is Monday Jan. 1st 1900 instead of Saturday Jan. 1st 2000. For a bank, date is very important, and almost all its transactions are date-dependent. If computers start using 1900 instead 2000, many things could go wrong. Imagine what happens to interest on deposits or loans. Some accounts may be deleted, taxes may be miscalculated, and in the worst case, the system may go down and refuse to work. 
This would in fact be a disaster for people wishing to withdraw money from their accounts.
Some analysts predict that the actual disaster that will occur to the banking system may not be the Y2K itself, but it might be the fear it will generate among bank customers. In spite of banks’ continuous guarantees and words of assurances that their customers’ accounts will be secure, still people may panic and continue to worry about their money as a result of the Y2K problem. This would probably drive them to withdraw lots of their money (if not all of it). As a matter of fact, many organizations and experts have already warned depositors of the possible breakdown of banking systems and urged them to keep money in hand as a precaution. Well, if large quantities of money are drawn out of a bank, it will definitely face shortages and even go bankrupt. Consequently, other account owners will probably not be able to withdraw money from their accounts. In other words, even if 100% of the machines in the bank are 100% Y2K compliant, the possibility of a run on the banking system is quite high. Thus, banks may be the first victims of the Y2K.
Besides, because more money will be on hand – at homes, offices, etc. – the number of thefts and robberies that would take place in this period are expected to be comparatively high.
Other than banks’ bankruptcy, there are many scenarios presented by analysts and scientists regarding what could happen on January 1st, 2000. They include a complete shutdown of airports, decrease of oil and gas production, failure in stock markets, breakdown in operations of thousands of companies leading to hundreds of thousands of employees being out of work, city blackouts because of electrical generator failures, breakdown of satellite systems leading to the malfunctioning of communication networks, etc.
However, serious experts believe that extreme stories like aircraft falling out of the sky or elevators dropping to the ground floors can be dismissed.
The Situation in Yemen
“What a Pity” is what comes to my mind when investigating what is being done in Yemen to prevent a Y2K disaster. I talked to many banks, the national airline, insurance companies, and many commercial firms. Few people are concerned.
A typical answer from a banker when asked about what is being done to prepare for the year 2000, is: “We are certain that our bank will continue to develop as the world counts down for a new prosperous millennium”. You get a feeling the question did not sink in. So I ask the question again, using a different phrase. “How will your system be operating on the 1st of January, 2000?” You get, “It will be operating as good as ever! Like always!”.
Now, I am not joking, these bankers don’t get it. Some bank managers do not know a thing about the Y2K. Some of them have openly said they did not even hear about, let alone try to fix it. One thought I was talking about a transaction!
Maybe they are right. This is the way it should be in Yemen.
Maybe I am out of place!
Maybe this is reasonable in some ways for a country where some bank branches actually do not even have a single computer installed!
Besides, all banks in Yemen – except the Arab Bank – do not have their branches linked to each other (through a permanent electronic networks). In this case, one might think “If everything is done manually, why panic?” Indeed, why panic!
That also explains why computer engineers in Yemen have no jobs!

Trying to brush aside the problem by saying, “We do not use computers, so why worry about the Y2K?” might be okay for some sectors. However, did we ever think of the airport? or the Central Bank of Yemen? Or the Telecommunication Corporation running all local phone networks in the country (PTC)?
To be fair, there are some organizations which are struggling to address this problem. These include some banks and companies which depend heavily on computers and which will therefore be facing dire consequences if their programs are not Y2K compliant by the year 2000.
As an example, I want to use the Arab Bank, which is one of the most efficient banks in Yemen in dealing with this issue. It has dealt with this problem quite smoothly and prepared its system on time. It even held a seminar on the problem, and invited governmental bodies and other banks to attend. But, as usual, attendance from the Yemeni side was disappointing. Then the bank sent questionnaires to be filled-in, but didn’t receive most of them back. Besides the Arab Bank, Teleyemen is also doing a good job regarding the Y2K.
However, even such hard- working organizations are still in their intermediate phase towards becoming %100 Y2K compliant. None of them have totally tested their system. But at least, they are aware of it, and working on it.
Coming to the Government of Yemen, it doesn’t look like it is determined to do something about the Y2K, at least for now. It asked for and received some suggestions on how to fix the Y2K problem. These were submitted to some sectors, which in turn most probably put them aside. After all, in our government’s view, this problem is a year away, and it would be a waste of money and effort trying to fix it this early because doing so seems to be too much long-term planning for our officials.
Therefore, in practice, nothing serious is being done. But then again, why worry? Our Government is barely able to manage things manually. Thus, Yemen will probably not be affected much by the Y2K. Being an underdeveloped country with a record low computer per person ratio, Yemen is expected to go out of this millennium healthy and clean with respect to Y2K problems. Yemen should not and will not worry about the Y2K because it does not depend on computerized systems. Indeed, how can you worry about something that could happen to a system, while you do not have that very system?
Let me push this a bit further. Yemenis on the street have no idea of the Y2K. It is hard enough making them understand what computers are because the majority have never SEEN one. Therefore, the answer to a stupid question about Y2K is: “So what?”, “What does this have to do with me?”, “I don’t care!”
At last, I want to finish with this story. As one urban slick told me, “It is God’s blessing that we are background. That means we do not have to worry about complicated things like this.” Yemen will land on a safe shore whether it is the year 2000 or 3000.
Wouldn’t it be fun watching advanced countries drowning in the Y2K, while we Yemenis safely and merrily go about our qat chews? Given our economic burdens and daily hardships, we have all the right in the world not to worry about anything, let alone something as complicated as the Y2K. After all, here in Yemen, we all are busy trying to meet the bigger and most important challenge: STAYING ALIVE!