Yemen Violence Threatens Stability In Arabia [Archives:1998/36/Focus]

September 7 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
By: Dr. Abdu Hamood Sharif*
The Yemen government’s decision to increase the prices of fuel and basic foodstuff by 40% – to comply with terms of an $80 million International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan – produced a sudden popular and, ultimately, bloody eruption across the country.
The outbreak pointed to a deep malaise after 20 years of rule by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It began on the 20th of June with a peaceful demonstration in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, which soon developed into confrontations with security forces. These confrontations have lasted for several weeks, not only in Sanaa, but also in Hajjah, Ibb, Dhamar, Mareb, Mukallah, Hawtah and other cities where crowds vent their anger against state corruption, particularly in President Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress.
Demonstrators chanted “no Iryani after today!”, referring to the Prime Minister Abdul Karim Al-Iryani, who formed a new cabinet last May following the resignation of his predecessor Faraj Ben Ghanem.
Initially, the government seemed unprepared for this “uprising of the hungry,” which began as a reaction to the price hike on basic commodities, but soon evolved into protests against the regime led by Saleh and his family and military clique. In the face of police inability to control the situation, the elite Republican Guard (established on the Iraqi model) and army units finally came in with orders to shoot. As a result, at least 14 civilians in several cities were shot and killed, and many others injured, and hundreds arrested and imprisoned, according to Yemeni and Arab newspapers.
In the provinces of Al-Jawf and Mareb, site of rich oil fields east of Sanaa, the situation became even worse. Army units clashed with armed tribesmen, resulting in dozens being killed or injured on both sides. A pipe-line run by the American owned Hunt Oil Company was blown up seven times by these tribesmen, resulting in leaks of over 30,000 barrels, according to the independent newspaper the Yemen Times. President Saleh acknowledged on July 21st that 52 soldiers had been killed and more than 200 injured since the fighting broke out last June, while opposition groups spoke of more than a hundred deaths among civilians and military personnel alike.
These most recent developments in this south Arabian country of nearly 16 million followed a series of crises that have rocked the country since the unification of north and south Yemen in May 1990. The 70 day civil war from May to July 1994 resulted in the defeat of separatists led by the south Yemeni leader Ali Salim Al-Biedh by forces loyal to Saleh, but the situation has never really improved since then.
Hopes raised by the unification of both Yemen’s were soon replaced by frustration over the pervasive corruption of the entire political system. Aggravating this was the looting of state land in Aden and other cities in the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen by the ruling clique in Sanaa and marginalization of southern participation in the political power.
Nor have conditions in the north been any better. The standard of living in the country has declined from nearly $700 per capita in the 1980s to $280 presently. The health sector is in shambles. According to Carl Tintsman, UNICEF resident representative in Sanaa, approximately 200 Yemeni children die everyday, mainly because of the lack of immunization. The World Bank reported in 1995 that the budget allotted to health in Yemen was 4% of GNP. The military’s share is 28 to 35%.
What was once one of Arabia’s most promising countries, rich in agricultural resources and blessed with a hard working population, is now suffering nearly 15% inflation and over 40% of unemployment.
US policy has been to encourage democratic reform in the country, with some positive steps taken during 1993 and 1997 parliamentary elections. But no transfers of power have really taken place. The parliament turned out to be a rubber stamp, and the power structure remains firmly authoritarian, controlled by Saleh and his relatives.
Amnesty International’s 1997 report on Yemen stated that the Yemeni regime remains a major violator of human rights, including many cases of disappearances, detention without trial and torture. Many who sympathized with the regime during the 1997 elections subsequently have expressed disappointment with its heavy handed policy towards political dissent, and its inability to live up to its promises with respect to political freedom and human rights.
Moreover, there is an almost complete absence of law and order in the country. Occasional fighting erupts even in Sanaa over ownership of land, as the government seems unable or unwilling to enforce public order. In the south, anti-government warfare is spreading, with southern separatist groups claiming responsibility for a number of explosions and clashes with government forces. And, as in the past, in the eastern region of the country local tribesmen kidnap foreign nationals and tourists as a way to publicize their grievances against the regime.
The response of the government has been, in some cases, to reward those who did the kidnapping. In one of those cases, it is no secret that the individual responsible for the kidnapping of the US Cultural Attach Haynes Mahoney in 1993 was appointed to the post of deputy director for security affairs in the province of Al-Jawf.
More than a hundred foreigners, including Americans, British, Germans, Italians, Dutch, Japanese and others have been kidnapped since 1992. The latest and most horrible of incidents was the killing of 3 Catholic nuns on July 27th by a Muslim religious fanatic in the port city of Hodeidah, 225 kilometers west of the capital Sanaa.
While the US has never paid close attention to the events in Yemen, it attaches great importance to the stability of the oil-rich Arabian peninsula region, and Yemen is a back door into that region. If Yemen becomes “another Somalia” under the current regime, as President Saleh himself predicted before opposition leaders on June 25th, it will invite serious trouble to the area, and could jeopardize US forces in the Arab states of the Gulf.
A key to stability in Yemen is the expansion of democratic and economic rights to include all groups and all regions of the country. This means embarking on a program of national reconciliation that would address such problems as the monopoly of economic and political power by the President and his kinsmen and the exclusion of other groups from the political system. It also means ending high level corruption and nepotism.
What Yemenis seem to be trying to express is that they do not mind economic reform as long as its burden is shared equally between them and their rulers. What they do mind, however, is watching their country slide into violence and instability as a reaction to inept and corrupt leadership.
This article was published in The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 1998.

* Dr. Abdu H. Sharif is a visiting scholar at the American University’s Center for Global Peace in Washington DC. He taught political science at Sanaa University until 1995. Dr. Sharif was a Fulbright scholar at George Town University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies until August, 1996. He has long been active in the field of human rights.