THE DIVIDE! [Archives:1998/21/Focus]

May 25 1998

By Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf*
I often engage in extended talks and conversations with locals from various classes and regions. I also meet foreigners – whether those who live in Yemen (diplomats, business people, etc.) or those who are on short-term visits. One of my major observations has been their visible divergence regarding the assessment of the performance of the Yemeni regime.
In general, Yemenis are more critical and more pessimistic. Overall, foreigners are more positive. Some are even upbeat. Each side gives convincing and good arguments.
Is it possible for 2 contradictory conclusions to be reached in assessing the same situation? Yes. But is it possible that the two contradictory conclusions are equally valid and possibly, equally correct?
Well… Read on!
The way Yemenis evaluate their regime and system is different from the way some ambassadors, foreign officials and dignitaries in charge of Yemeni affairs evaluate it. The divide separating the 2 assessments is striking, to say the least.
I have to hasten and point out here that many foreigners are now steadily inching towards the views of the locals. They are beginning to see the many shortcomings of the regime, although they are still giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Yemenis see this regime as increasingly problematic. They see the need for serious reform in order to put things in the right course, but they do not see those reforms coming. The Yemeni public – almost at all levels and from all regions – believe change is necessary and urgently needed. There are economic difficulties. There are political grievances. There are military anxieties. There are cultural complications. There are social upheavals.
In short, many Yemenis have a lot to complain about. We are not talking here about political opposition groups who are pushing to share in the power structure. We are talking about ordinary citizens who worry about lack of adequate levels of law and order, deterioration in educational and health services, absence of jobs, break-down in infrastructure and utilities, etc. At the same time, they see ruthless politicians and their circles (sheikhs, military and security officers, senior bureaucrats, etc.) getting richer and richer without earning it. They see lots of nepotism, favoritism, and double standards.
In short, they do not give the performance of the present system high marks.
However, most foreigners do. Of course, not all of them share the same level of upbeat feelings. But, by and large, foreign diplomats and visiting officials have a more positive attitude.
There are many answers, including the following:
1) Regional Spectrum:
Foreigners compare Yemen with other countries in the region. The fact that Yemen is in a bad neighborhood, in terms of democracy, stability, etc., allows its more open system to stand out. In other words, foreigners would say, “But you are better (from their political perspective) than this or that country.”
Yemenis do not buy that logic. “The fact that there are worse regimes does not make ours any better,” they almost automatically answer. Indeed by comparing Yemen to worse cases, foreigners are not proving ours is better. They are only showing there are worse regimes, which is not much of a consolation.
Besides, some of those regimes which are less politically open do provide well – from an economic view point – for their citizens.
2) Process:
Foreigners also assess the Yemeni regime’s performance in the framework of a time process. The sort of ‘Things are moving in the right direction’ argument. They argue that with time, the regime has moved in the right direction.
Yemenis again fail to see the validity of this argument. For one thing, there is a worldwide trend to be more open and more tolerant. This is nothing unique to the Yemeni regime. It is just playing along with the current. In fact, Yemenis see their own evolution as superficial and not substantive. They do not see positive accumulation.
Besides, whenever the chips are down, the regime has shown its true colors. Moreover, many Yemenis would argue that a regression has taken place in the recent past.
Also, the kind of achievements that foreigners evoke are either of superficial nature, or they touch the lives of only a small minority of the population. The majority of the people are not involved.
Finally, Yemenis argue their point on the basis of the situation today. What may happen ten years in the future is not exactly a major consideration. For a person who is hungry today or shackled today, the prospects of a possibly better future are not that pressing.
3) Career:
Foreign ambassadors and officials working on or with Yemen have a personal stake in establishing good working relations with the regime. The development of their careers is at stake.
They see their association with Yemen as part of a long career in different countries. It is a stepping stone. If their association with Yemen is a good one, it is good for their diplomatic career, or whatever.
So, it is in the interest of their career to promote Yemen and prop up the regime. A better relationship between their country and Yemen is good for their career. Thus, they become advocates of Yemen’s regime, minimizing its excesses, and over-blowing its achievements. Some of them end up becoming more royal than the king.
Of course, there are exceptions. There are those who are more candid and honest with themselves, and see the promotion of their careers by using correct information.
4) Personal Perks:
There are also personal gains to be made by diplomats and foreign dignitaries working on Yemen. If the diplomat is in good standing with the regime, he/she is then allowed to engage in self-enrichment or various forms of personal perks.
This means they can engage in business, promote certain companies, beef up their collector items of artifacts and archaeological relics, etc. In fact, if a foreign diplomat is in excellent relations, they are assisted in shipping out many ancient pieces out of the country illegally – courtesy of their friends in power. Many Yemenis are taking note of such corruption in diplomatic circles.
Let me hasten to say that this category covers a small portion of the diplomatic community and those working for international organizations. The truth remains, however, that some of our guests in the international community are quite corrupt. Unfortunately, they make a double mistake – they pay back the regime by showing unwavering support.
5) Lying Low:
A fifth reason for the appeasement policy of resident diplomats and visiting officials is that they are worried about the reaction of the Yemeni authorities if they are critical. So, they speak in general about some progress, in spite of difficulties.
The lack of credible assessment is due to their decision to lie low while they complete their term in the country. Some of these diplomats will even point to the fate of one European ambassador from a major donor country. He ran in trouble because he spoke openly against the ‘mishandling’ of money by one of the shark ministers. The ambassador was recalled by his country, cutting short his term. But his career blossomed as the officials back at home saw him as a man of honor and integrity.
Whatever the reasons may be, we have an enormous divide separating the assessments, and hence the positions, of the locals and foreigners. What has been the effect of this divide, and how has it shaped the convictions of the two sides? How has it affected the attitudes of each side towards the other?
There are four observations I want to raise in answering those and other related questions.
1. Some Foreigners See Light:
First and foremost, it is important to note that more and more foreign visitors and resident diplomats are worried about the situation in Yemen. They have started to appreciate the assessments of the locals, who are, after all, more affected by the performance of the regime.
The disenchantment with the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, given its failure to make real progress towards its own declared objectives, is growing among foreign visitors and resident diplomats.
2. Yemenis Bank Less and Less on the Outside World:
Yemenis used to count on the outside world for more than it could ever deliver. Most Yemeni intellectuals thought that the rest of the world would bring real pressure to bear on the rulers of Sanaa in order to entice them to live up to the new rules, rather than give them lip service.
Increasingly, however, Yemenis are convinced that correcting conditions at home is their headache. Such a conviction also means that corrective tools to be used will be solely Yemeni.
3. New World Order Carries Lots of Hypocrisy:
A third conclusion that came out of the divide separating the assessment of Yemenis and foreigners is in the increasing Yemeni belief that foreigners are politically selective or hypocritical in interacting with different regimes. Selfish interests of the large countries determine their attitude towards Third World governments. It is not determined by the performance of the Third World politicians.
Thus, the USA, for example, can come down heavily and strongly against one country on grounds of human rights abuse, and will simultaneously turn a blind eye towards the abuse of another country because of its interests.
Many foreign diplomats and visitors feel more positively about the regime in Sanaa than the majority of the Yemeni people. Yet, one has to report that foreigners have started to correct their assessment, and play-down their enthusiastic support for the regime.
This development has brought the foreign views and conclusions closer to those of the Yemenis. But the divide remains!
* Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf is a leading opinion-maker. As editor of the Yemen Times, Professor at Sanaa University, Member of the Consultative Council, and father figure for a lot of NGOs, he helps shape the direction of public opinion.