Plumbing for Prosperity, Yemen Resurrects 2,700-year-old Port

In the aqua-blue waters of a port that has been operating for at least 2,700 years, there is flotsam that makes one realize why Yemen sometimes has the flavor of a place where time has stood still.

Two men in a small wooden rowboat fish for dinner. Six Iraqi ships, which have been stranded in Yemeni waters since the 1991 Gulf war, float about the harbor, unable to return because of international sanctions on Iraq. Further out, the carcass of a 1986 shipwreck rusts offshore.

But Yemen is trying to reestablish Aden as one of the world's leading ports. YemenInvest, funded mostly by a Saudi family of Yemeni origin, has put up $500 million to resurrect a port that could bring jobs and cash to depressed southern Yemen.

Long history of trade

With its natural, deep harbor and strategic spot along East-West trade routes, Aden once served as a major point in the frankincense trade that provided fragrances for Greek, Roman, and Egyptian pagan rituals. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it was a major conduit for East-West boat traffic.

And an oil refinery built by the British, who occupied the area until 1968, earned revenue by attracting oil tankers from the Persian Gulf states. As recently as the 1950s and '60s, Aden competed with New York as one of world's top bunkering ports.

But the Suez Canal crisis in 1967 - which closed the link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean for nearly eight years - decimated Aden. At that time, South Yemen became a communist state, driving out most of Aden's business expertise. Even after the Suez reopened in 1975, ships shied away from Aden's outdated facilities and the political uncertainty.

Building world's deepest port

But Yemen's "free-zone" project aims to make it cheaper for foreign shippers to transport goods by not imposing tariffs and taxes. Industrial and commercial profits won't be taxed for 15 years.

"It makes it a bureaucracy-free zone," says Tom Kelleher, an Irishman assigned by the UN Industrial Development Organization as the project's chief technical adviser.

The core of the plan is the construction by 1997 of a 60-foot deep container-ship terminal, which Mr. Kelleher says will be the deepest in the world. The port would eventually have a warehousing distribution complex and an industrial complex, which might provide up to 25,000 jobs.

Thirty percent of Yemenis are out of work. The government struggles to find work for some 1 million nationals expelled from Saudi Arabia when it didn't side with US-led allies in the Gulf war.

Needed: new skills, new image

To bring the ships back in, Aden first has to bring its facilities up to 21st-century standards. An English and computer-training school is already in session.

And despite Yemen's Islamic conservatism, even tourism is being touted, hoping to bring vacationers to steamy beaches and compete with other Red Sea resorts like Israel's Eilat and Jordan's Aqaba.

One big hurdle to overcome is the view of the country as unstable - with a civil war erupting just two years ago. Doing business in Yemen can be "like trying to grow grass in concrete," says a Western diplomat in Sana, Yemen's capital. "Investors are very suspicious of the place."

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