Deep into 'bandit country'

February 26, 1999

Gerd Nonneman meets amiable Kalashnikov-carrying Yemenis in a country struggling towards unity

I returned from Yemen just as the news of the fatal hijacking erupted last December, and before the current court case involving several British citizens accused of terrorist acts began. I had gone there to research the book I am writing on the country's political and economic development. I had visited northern Yemen before, and had become captivated by the spectacular scenery, the independent-minded tribal people and the nature of politics in such a society.

This time I covered pretty much all of the country - from the highlands around the capital, Sana'a, to the deserts of the east, the hot, flat Red Sea coast and, for the first time, exploring what used to be South Yemen, including the fabled Hadhramout, hidden in a 100-kilometre-long canyon.

The radical socialists took over the south in 1967, when Britain, the colonial power, left the colony of Aden, along with the hinterland of small "independent" sultanates.

The new regime swept away the sultanates and turned the country into the only Marxist Arab state. For a long time the south became difficult to access for westerners, while, with Soviet help, the socialist experiment unfolded, rocked by internal instability. The end of the cold war and yet another south Yemeni civil war in 1986 bankrupted the system and pushed it towards liberalisation. This also made possible the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990 and the formation of the Yemen Republic.

Uniting the two states, systems and economies was never going to be very easy. Tensions were expected - the south was even poorer than the north. The great hope was that an economic upturn would smooth things over. But the Kuwait war of 1990-91 brought disaster: when Yemen did not go along with militant action against Iraq its aid was cut, and hundreds of thousands of Yemenis working in the Gulf states were forced to leave.

The country has struggled with this ever since, especially since the price for its modest oil exports also collapsed.

The tribal hijackings of foreigners are part of this story. The central government has never quite controlled all of its territory or its society. In part this is because of the age-old tradition of independence among northern tribes. But it is also because central government has not had the resources to build the infrastructure and services that would serve both to control people and give them what they required from the state.

The economic crisis since 1990 has only worsened this. As a consequence, tribes often refuse to recognise the government's right to dictate to them. When the state fails to fulfil economic or other promises these groups either take things into their own hands or decide to put pressure on the government by taking hostages.

The tribal rules of the game, though, mean they are honour-bound not to harm these hostages. Indeed, when released, they are often given valuable presents. The hijacking that led to the killing of four tourists was not at all typical: it involved non-Yemenis and was carried out by a small group with radical Islamist aims.

It shocked people in Yemen as much as here. Yemenis are devout Muslims and there is a large Islamist political party; but the kind of violent radicalism shown in this incident is quite unlike the majority of even the supporters of that party. Its head, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Ahmar, is also the paramount sheikh of the largest tribal confederation in the country and the speaker of parliament.

I met Sheikh Abdullah, an urbane and yet thoroughly tribal figure with great charisma, to whom these sorts of outrages are an anathema. Yemenis throughout the country, in fact, are striking in their openness and friendly, unassuming attitude, they are always eager to share stories and a good laugh. Of course, almost all men, especially in the north, bear arms - at least the jambia (a large dagger carried on the belly), but often also a pistol and, especially outside the main cities, an old Kalashnikov or even older rifles. My own Bedouin guides, who were necessary for some of the desert driving, added hand grenades to this armoury. In a dusty desert village market late one evening I got talking to a bright, young headmaster of the local school, who helped with an errand. He too had a gun slung over his shoulder, explaining it simply by saying: "I am a tribesman."

Not once did I feel threatened by any of these people. Of course, in order to avoid hijackings I often travelled in convoy, using armed drivers, my Bedouin guides, or on occasion, engaging a military escort. It is, after all, a country that is not completely settled. Yet given reasonable precautions, and especially if you speak Arabic, you get the friendliest welcome and the most fascinating experience. I forget just how often I was invited by strangers to share their meal or stop and tell my story over a cup of sweet tea.

Typically, too, this open and unassuming attitude is found from the lowliest village dweller and the leatheriest-faced old retainer, to the members of the former royal families I met, and all the way up to those government ministers with whom I sat down and chewed Qat (a mild stimulant) while talking freely. The prime minister, Abdulkareem al-Iryani, an Anglophile and widely respected technocrat, fits the same mould.

Yemen needs all the help it can get. The main aim of the radical splinter-group involved in the "Aden-Abyan Army" is precisely to blot the country's international image, deter tourism and investment and thereby wreck the economy, thus hoping to bring down the whole regime. The country and its people deserve better. Yemen is not the "bandit country" some commentators would have it be.

Gerd Nonneman is senior lecturer in international relations and Middle East politics at the University of Lancaster.

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