Yemen Grapples With Costs of Unification
Border disputes with Saudi Arabia and sharp cuts in aid after Gulf war dim new republic's economic prospects
TWO years after Yemen's north and south unified, this ancient land of the Queen of Sheba is facing a myriad of modern problems in making the union viable.Skip to next paragraph
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At the time of unification in May 1990 the situation looked promising for the new republic dominating the entrance to the Red Sea. Oil exploration was going at a frantic pace, and the country already had become a modest oil exporter. In addition, the community of aid-giving nations appeared ready to further help a country that was on the road to democratization and a liberalized economy.
Perched on the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen had been divided for three centuries, its last 25 years of separation pitting the pro-Western North against the Marxist South. Open warfare broke out in 1972, followed quickly by an Arab League-brokered cease-fire and an agreement to unify. But it was not until Soviet influence in the Middle East waned with the end of the cold war that north-south hostility fully eased and the Yemen republic was established two years ago today.
The new Sana-based government laid out a 30-month transitional period as a precursor to the country's first multiparty elections this November. Optimism was strong, but the Gulf war changed the whole picture.
While the Yemeni government's reasons for choosing to side with Iraq can be debated, the effects cannot. Foreign aid, primarily from the Saudis, was reduced from $560 million in 1989 to $390 million in 1990, and Saudi Arabia sent back an estimated 800,000 Yemeni migrant workers. Unemployment increased by more than a third and is expected to rise to 40 percent, according to government statistics, leaving an economy already burdened by unification additionally strained. Yemen's fragile democracy
To outsiders and its inhabitants, Yemen appears to be on a precipice. If political and economic reforms gain headway, Yemen could be on its way to a prosperous and possibly influential future in the region. But both internal and external pressures could bring down the fledgling democracy.
The two Yemens were each under one-party rule after their revolutions in the 1960s. Unification brought a legalization of political parties, of which there are at least 38, ranging from religious conservatives to radical leftists.
The former communists from the south are now the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), the junior partner in the new government to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's People's General Congress (PGC). Relations between the two governing parties have been contentious and the YSP is unpopular in the north.
"Unity has shifted the bases of power," explains Abdulaziz Saqqaf, professor of finance at Sana University. "So now no one group can control the country by itself."
The PGC, even when it was the only party in North Yemen, had to rule by consensus. And although it has established a military presence in most regions, it still has to contend and negotiate with the powerful voice of the autonomous tribes in the north.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo is readily apparent. Newspapers decry corruption in the government. Students who supported unity and reform complain that their living standards have fallen.
But the most powerful sign that all is not well is the increase in political violence. The government has tightened security after several attacks on officials this year, the most recent of which was a May 15 bomb blast near the house of Prime Minister Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, the former president of South Yemen.