November 24, 2007

Just North Of South

BBC correspondent Brian Barron gives his impressions of Yemen in a dispatch today that suffers from a little too much soul-searching over the lack of soles. Barron seems preoccupied with his feet and less interested in reporting on the impulses that pushes Yemen to the forefront of the war on terror. After he finally finds a "decent pair of British size 10", the issues facing Yemen finally come into focus:

Piety prevails today. Yemen seems in the grip of an almost feverish bout of mosque building.

One Sanaa columnist reckons 50,000 mosques have risen across the nation, compared with 12,000 new schools. ...

To the north lie rich neighbours like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, though Yemen remains one of the world's poorest countries. To the south, just across the Gulf of Aden, lies the failed state of Somalia and troubled Ethiopia.

With corruption allegedly on a huge scale, oil revenue dwindling, water resources drying up, and the population predicted to double, Yemen's future looks uncertain.

It is still north of south, if you see what I mean, but only just.

With Yemen so poor, where does the money for all of this mosque-building originate? Barron spends the first two segments of his story talking about his shoes, but he never even asks the obvious question. Yemenis apparently do not have the cash for attending the nation's infrastructure, although Barron reports that its capital, Sana'a, has been expanding at a fast pace past its ancient boundaries. The numbers don't add up.

Either Yemen is not as poor as advertised, or outside money has flowed into Yemen to finance the mosques. Given its paltry GDP -- around $20 billion, or about $1000 per person -- the latter appears much more likely. Perhaps the BBC will send someone back to Yemen to ask about the funding for the expansion of the mosques, and outfit them with a spare set of shoes to keep him or her more focused on journalism.

The reference to Somalia, however, seems rather apt. The poverty of Yemen follows decades of political instability. North Yemen achieved nominal independence in 1918 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but South Yemen remained a British colony until 1967, when it tranformed into a Marxist "peoples republic". After 23 years in which many fled from the south to the north, the two nations merged in 1990, at about the same time as Germany. The political fallout from that merger continues, only without Germany's abundance to assuage the wounds. It took ten years for Yemen and Saudi Arabia to set their joint border, mostly to the Saud's benefit, and that has created a backlash among ethnic Yemenis stuck in Saudi Arabia.

Yemen seems ripe for a collapse along the same pattern as its cross-channel neighbor, Somalia. It has a large number of former mujaheddin from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, men who fought with Osama bin Laden and still have sympathies for al-Qaeda. They have promised not to take up arms against the Yemeni government or cooperate with terrorist "conspiracies", but its poverty may be the only reason Osama has not yet targeted Yemen for the moderate push needed to send it over the brink.


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