Yemeni-Russian Ties: 70th Anniversary [Archives:1998/45/Law & Diplomacy]

November 9 1998

Mr. Nikolai Gribkov, the Russian Ambassador to Yemen, first joined the diplomatic corps in 1971. He worked for ten years in the Arab Maghreb countries. 
Gribkov, 50, is a man of languages. He speaks half a dozen languages fluently, including, of course, Arabic. He worked as a liaison and PR man in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, following four years of service in Africa. 
He started his service in Yemen in 1995. Nikolai is at the end of his tenure here in Yemen, having started in 1995. He plans to leave in 2 weeks. 
Marking the 70 anniversary of relations between Yemen and Russia, Mohammed Bin Sallam of Yemen Times talked to Mr. Gribkov and filed the following interview. 
Q: How do you evaluate the present Yemeni-Russian ties? 
A: The relations between Yemen and Russia are quite strong, historic and distinguished. Moscow and Sanaa first signed a friendship agreement in 1928. Since then our countries bilateral ties went through very active and not-so-active periods. Unfortunately, there is not much of activity at present. 
The somewhat unstable period through which Yemen passed during 1990 to 1995 had something to do with the slump in commercial relations. Not only that, but also Russia’s conditions after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the beginning of the democratization process were not exactly helpful to activating its relations with Yemen. This has also cooled down trade and commercial exchange. 
Russia is now going through a difficult transitory period, which is affecting both its internal conditions and foreign ties. This is one of the main factors for Russia not putting foreign ties at the top of its priorities. 
Q: There is some improvement now, isn’t there? 
A: During the last 3 years, things have started to improve. The first and most important step in this direction came with Dr. Abdulkarim Al-Iryani’s visit to Russia in October 1996, during his tenure as Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. He met with many Russian officials, including the then Foreign Minister – now Prime Minister – Yevgeny Primakov. With that visit, a new chapter in Yemeni-Russian relations was opened. 
Dr. Al-Iryani was followed by a Yemeni parliamentary delegation, headed by Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussain Al-Ahmar, in December 1996. In March, 1997, a Russian parliamentary delegation came to Sanaa, headed by the Speaker of the Duma. 
A short but very important meeting was held by President Ali Abdullah Saleh and Mr. Primakov about a year ago in Amman, Jordan. Discussions touched on all issues of mutual concern for our two friendly nations. 
So political ties are excellent, and always have been. Contacts, consultation, and coordination between Yemen and Russia – whether on bilateral relations or regional and international issues – have continued in an exemplary manner. 
These ties are being consolidated day after day. 
Q: Do you see commercial ties improving in the near future? 
A: Several Russian businessmen have been visiting Yemen to look into the future prospects for trade exchanges between the two countries. The potential for trade relations to be restored to their former levels is rather good. 
Q: Could you briefly enumerate the various stages which Yemeni-Russian ties have gone through? 
A: Our bilateral relations were mainly characterized by commercial cooperation. It started with Yemen importing oil from Russia. Things then developed further with Russia importing cotton, hide, coffee and other raw materials from Yemen. While Yemeni got most of its manufactured goods from Russia. 
The turning point, however, came with the Yemeni September 1962 Revolution. All the Yemenis I have met highly appreciate the huge and unlimited assistance provided by Moscow during the Revolution. 
When Sanaa was besieged for 70 days, arms, food, medicines and clothes were airlifted directly from Russia into Sanaa. This aid played a big role in the Yemeni Republicans’ victory. Without Russian help, Sanaa would have fallen into monarchists hands, and all Yemen plunged into darkness again. 

Dr. Mohammed Saleh Al-Hilali is Director of East and Central Europe Department in the Foreign Ministry. Mohammed Bin Sallam talked to him. 
Q: When did contacts with the former Soviet Union start? 
A: Contacts were first initiated in 1926 when several meetings were held in Anqara between the Imam’s Ambassador to Turkey, Qadhi Ahmed Al-Anisi, and the Soviet representative there. Al-Anisi expressed Yemen’s wish to establish diplomatic relations with Russia. The first Soviet ship docked at Hodeidah in May, 1928, carrying food supplies. 
Q: Could you tell us something about the now famous agreement between the two countries? 
A: The ” Friendship and Trade Agreement” was signed in November, 1928, by the Imam’s representative, Yahya Al-Qhadhi and the Russian, Ginady Stakhov. That agreement was the basis for all Yemeni-Russian cooperation. 
Diplomatic, cultural and social relations were then established. Since then, about 50,000 Yemeni citizens studied in the former Soviet Union. We can confidently say that the former Soviet Union greatly contributed to establishing the base for Yemen’s development process. It also opened the door for more cooperation between Arab countries and Russia. Yemen was the first to start the process. 
The agreement acquired added importance in view of international circumstances that prevailed after the WWI. Western colonial greed and designs on the region became apparent immediately after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Britain was aiming at occupying all of Yemen with some competition from Italy on the western shores of the Red Sea. 
The Yemeni-Russia agreement made Britain seriously reconsider its position. The colonialists tried all sorts of machinations to disrupt the implementation of the agreement. 
Q: How did the agreement help the former Soviet Union? 
A: It helped alleviate the Western embargo imposed on the former Soviet Union, and it lessened the British influence in the region. 
Although the agreement was renewed twice in 1939 and 1955, Russia did not did not place much hope on it due to the backward nature of the Imam’s regime. The Russian trade delegation was withdrawn from Sanaa in 1938. 
Some improvement in relations did take place in the 1950s when Imam Ahmed started a rapprochement process with the Eastern Bloc. This was done in order to face an increasing American and British influence in the region. 
Crown Prince Al-Badr visited Moscow in 1956. A Russian military team came to Sanaa in 1957 to train the Yemeni army. 
Q: What was Russia’s role in the Yemeni revolutions? 
A: Russia’s role in protecting the September 1962 Revolution was crucial. It was the first non-Arab country to recognize the new Yemeni republic. They built the Sanaa airport in 1963. 
Field Marshal Abdullah Al-Sallal first visited Moscow in 1964, and signed another trade cooperation agreement. 
Q: What was achieved by this agreement? 
A: Projects started during the Imam’s reign were completed and new ones were initiated. The port of Hodeidah was modernized, the Hodeidah-Taiz road was constructed, Al-Thawra General Hospital was established, schools were funded in Sanaa and Taiz, Bajil Cement Factory was completed, a military airport was built in Hodeidah, and prospecting for minerals was begun. The 1967 arms deal was instrumental in defending Sanaa during the 70-day siege. 
Q: What about Russia’s role in the October 1963 Revolution in southern Yemen? 
A: Even greater Russian support was given to the revolution to dislodge British occupation of the south. 
Q: When was the agreement renewed last? 
A: The Friendship and Trade Agreement was signed for the third time during President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s visit to Moscow in October, 1989. 
Q: How do you assess the present ties between the two countries? 
A: It is sad that relations have been less important in the 1990s. But I am happy that the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister plans a visit to Moscow in 1999. This will hopefully revitalize relations, once again.