fortune and Yemeni guns
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in The Guardian,
30 December 1998
THE HOSTAGE tragedy in Yemen highlights the often tenuous control
of the government over its people. President Ali Abdullah Salih might give the appearance
of a strongman, having been in power since 1978 - longer than Thatcher, Major and Blair
put together - but he has stayed there less by the iron fist than by tactical alliances
with the country's quarrelsome factions.
Among them are the tribes, especially influential in the
north, who have their own traditional laws and recognise government authority only when it
suits them. Often, they have their own militias, too. For several months, tribal fighters
in Marib oil province have been confronting the security forces with some success. Since
June they have blown at least 19 holes in the pipeline on which Yemen depends for 40 per
cent of its oil revenue.
A complicating factor during the early 1990s was that
Yemen also became a haven for the 'Arab Afghans', as they became known - Muslim volunteers
from various countries who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
In Yemen, under the name 'Jihad', the Arab Afghans formed
a loose alliance with various southern Yemenis who harboured grievances against the
Marxists who ruled southern Yemen until 1990 and who later formed a power-sharing
government with President Salih's supporters in the north.
Much of the remoter part of Yemen is lawless in the sense
that it conducts its affairs beyond the purview of the state and its legislation. That
does not mean, however, that behaviour in these areas is unregulated; citizens are
expected to meet the standards set by convention, tribal law and Islam.
The state has learned from painful experience that
intervention brings risks, and tends to keep interference to a minimum.
Individual Yemenis, too, tend not to look to the state for
protection; by age-old custom, personal security is a matter for the individual and his
household. This is reflected in the traditional architecture, where each house is also a
fortress: the ground floor has one small entrance and no windows; upper floors are reached
by a narrow staircase, which always winds to the right as one goes up, and gives defending
swordsmen an advantage over intruders.
The tradition of self-defence, at the more decorative end
of the scale, is represented by the jambiyya, a broad, curved knife worn as a token of
manhood at the front and held in place by a broad, brightly-coloured belt.
According to one Yemeni doctor, the most common knife
injuries are stomach wounds inflicted by wives seizing their husbands' jambiyyas during an
Further up the scale is the pistol or Kalashnikov carried
by those involved in blood feuds, or for protection when travelling through remote or
unfamiliar places. By tradition, guns are also fired into the air at Yemeni weddings.
Needless to say, accidental deaths are common.
Important or wealthy figures routinely employ armed guards
at the gates of their houses, or to accompany them on journeys. In the case of an
important sheikh, this may extend to a private militia, which can be supplemented by
reserves from the tribe when needed. Within the tribal area such forces fulfil to some
extent the law and order role that elsewhere would be assumed by the state. In a few
cases, wealthy individuals also operate their own prisons.
According to the interior ministry there are about 50
million privately-owned firearms in Yemen - more than three per person. At a famous market
outside Sana'a, one can purchase anything up to a rocket launcher or an armoured car.
People carry guns because others carry them, and because
the authorities do not or cannot provide adequate protection.
The inadequacy of law enforcement is due partly to the
lack of means and partly to the lack of inclination. Yemen has less than one police
station for every 100,000 people. As in many poor countries, the police are badly paid and
thus less resistant to bribery.
The ineffectiveness of the police has three main effects.
One is the difficulty of making arrests, particularly in the more serious cases where the
police are outnumbered and out-gunned. The second is that the military tends to become
involved at the first sign of serious trouble - this can often make a bad situation worse.
The third effect is that the law tends not to be enforced where there is substantial
resistance to it. In some cases the law is seen as interference with people's right to
carry on traditional activities such as smuggling, while others involve people whose
status is such they feel the law need not apply to them.
The suggestion yesterday from Yemeni government sources
was that Jihad elements, rather than tribal bandits, were behind the kidnapping of the 16
tourists - which may help to explain the unusually violent outcome.
Although there are strong suspicions that Jihad has links
with Osama bin Laden, one of its key figures in Yemen was Tariq al-Fadli, a sheikh from a
prominent southern Yemeni family which had been dispossessed under the Marxists. Sheikh
Tariq gathered around himself a number of Afghan war veterans, members of his own tribe
and religious opponents of the Marxists.
He was said, at one point, to be seeking 12,000 'heroes'
to help him 'save Muslims in Bosnia, wage war on the authorities and bring down the
regime, which he considered intimate with unbelievers.' Sheikh Tariq and his 'Afghans'
were implicated in the Aden hotel bombings of 1992. They were eventually besieged at his
home in the rugged Maraqasha mountains, 12 miles from the coast of Abyan. Despite the
army's Third Armoured Brigade being sent to arrest the sheikh, the forces could not reach
his well-protected stronghold.
Sheikh Tariq escaped and resurfaced in Sana'a. Although
reported to the public prosecutor, he was never tried. During the war of 1994 he fought on
the president's side and later emerged as the leading sheikh of the south.
For several years the authorities have waged a less than
vigorous campaign against Jihad and the 'Afghans'. On one hand, under pressure from
western governments, they want to be seen to be doing their bit to combat terrorism.
But on the other, they lack the resources - and, in the
view of some observers, the will - to do so effectively.