Yemen’s Transformation: Meaning of the Process [Archives:1999/21/Viewpoint]

May 24 1999

The real meaning and purpose of the democratic transformation and the economic reform is to remove traditional master-client relations in Yemen’s power structure, as well as market distortions in the economy. Thus, the success of the nation’s evolution will be measured exactly in those terms. Unfortunately, our political leadership does not understand the meaning of the intended change. Not only is there a problem with understanding the process by bringing about a substantive change as envisaged by the transformation, there are even complications because of the ingenuity of our politicians in creating new patron-client relations and new market distortions. 
Let us get down to specifics. Yemen’s traditional patron-client relations persist, and new ones are created every day. The President of the Republic has become some sort of “waliyu-ne’emah”, which generally translated means ‘He is the source of wealth.’ This is amply evident from the direct gifts he showers on his followers, as well as in the posts he confers on them, which they use to amass wealth. Many businessmen get contracts and company agencies because they are connected to the power structure, not because they are good businessmen. Many journalists continue to issue their papers not because they have a profitable media, but because they are paid by the politicians. Many officials command influence and hold posts not because they earned them, but because they serve the master/s. 
In other words, a lot of people who would have gone under if they were to depend on their own abilities or on market dictates, thrive because of the master-client relations. The master continues with this game because he gets people who will roll under his feet and fight his wars as surrogates. They do all the dirty and illegal work he asks of them. The clients continue with this game because they get resources and influence, which they would otherwise not get because they can’t earn them. 
The ultimate effect of this arrangement is that Yemen is held back and cannot make real progress. Efficient and capable Yemenis are marginalized, or even pushed out of service. The system is thus managed in a non-optimal manner leading to mismanagement and inefficiencies. Nepotism, favoritism, corruption, and other ills become the norm. 
Political democratization and economic transformation aim to create a level-plain in which all players compete on an equal footing. Accountability and transparency become standard tools to make all players, including top politicians, play by the rules. 
After nearly a decade of trial and error in our evolution, it is clear that our decision-makers have not yet understood what the process intends to deliver. As one visiting pro-democracy activist once noted, “Your leaders did not fully comprehend where this political transformation is leading.”A clear manifestation of this lack of understanding of the process has to do, for example, with elections. Our rulers see elections as a ritual which they have to go through. They apply the mechanics of the process, but forget its soul. They forget that the basic goal of elections is to bring about change, new blood, new momentum and new vision. They forget that elections are a tool to return the power of decision to the people. 
Hence our nation is saddled with the same old ailments, but dressed in new clothes.