North Yemen

Five days a week there is little here except a few buildings and the desert. But on Fridays and Saturdays this place is transformed into an Arabian shoppers' paradise as caravans of Mercedes lorries and Toyota pickup trucks park hubcap to hubcap to display their goods.

This market is said to be the largest and cheapest one in North Yemen, and almost everything sold here - from blankets to grain to gasoline - has been smuggled into the country. Most of it has come across the border from Saudi Arabia.

In the center of the market a cluster of special merchants spread their wares on tarpaulins for browsers to inspect. The selection, which is diverse each week , can be of Chinese, Russian, American, British, Polish, North Korean, Belgian, Italian, or Czech origin. But it's always the same basic item - guns.

Some are antiques, of a sort, preserved over the years since the Turks of the Ottoman Empire first introduced large quantities of firearms into the region. Other nations followed, notably Italy and Britain, whose weapons spread through remote regions of Arabia faster than the political influence they hoped to gain by distributing them.

But the major influx of weapons has come since the 1962 Egyptian-backed coup that unseated the ruling imam and triggered a bloody civil war here. The eight years of fighting were fueled to an extent by Soviet arms funneled through Egyptian troops in Yemen to those fighting to establish a republic. On the other side, Saudi Arabia was supplying the tribesmen in the north who were fighting to reestablish the authority of the imam.

More recently, guns entered and spread through the countryside during the on-again, off-again border fighting in the late l970s between South Yemen-backed guerrillas and North Yemen government forces. During those battles (which intensified into a full-scale invasion in 1979), local tribesmen were recruited and armed - some by the government, some by the guerrillas, some by both.

Some arms continue to come across the Saudi border, but most travel other routes; by dhow from Djibouti to small coastal towns along the Red Sea, through the wide-open eastern desert from South Yemen, and by truck from other Arab states. Those that come by truck are hidden under false floors or in special welded compartments in the chassis.

A fleet of such trucks carrying concealed Soviet-designed Kalashnikov automatic rifles was discovered in the United Arab Emirates in November. The drivers said they were bound for North Yemen and had come from Syria.

Gunrunning and selling in this region are a tradition, established over the years by enterprising merchants - often with tribal ties - who are more interested in earning profits than in undermining the central government or the Saudi regime to the north.

That is not to say the established routes and the merchants have not been used by communist gunrunners working from Aden or subversive elements backed by Libya and Syria. These links are known to have existed, and most likely still do , but most observers here say the presence of so many guns is not in and of itself destabilizing, considering the character of North Yemen and of the Yemenis.

Both the Saudis and South Yemeni-supported guerrillas have, on occasion, supplied the northern tribes with guns and other weapons in attempts to buy allegiance. But in this regard, most Saudi support comes as cash.

Such attempts to buy the tribes have proved fruitless. Historically each tribe has acted in what it perceives as its self-interest regardless of ideologies or previous alliances. During the civil war in the 1960s some tribes were accused of fighting by day for the republicans and by night for the royalists, while accepting money and arms from both sides. Such tactics continue.

One tribe-watcher described the system as ''a state of mutually organized anarchy.''

It is a system that, historically, has effectively resisted subversion and control, and that continues to do so.

''The supplies were probably originally for political purposes - 'We'll give you weapons and then you must be well related to us and so on' - but the Yemeni as a whole is very independent minded. He'll take the weapons and he'll get as many as he can, and then for his economic purposes he'll sell some,'' says a well-informed observer in Sana.

Such deals have gone on for years. There are said today to be at least two guns for every resident in this country of 6 million.

''This has been Yemen's business for the last 60 years. It is a trade like any item you trade,'' Prime Minister Abdul Karim Al-Iryani told the Monitor.

Who is involved?

''Everybody. You can buy a Kalashnikov if you want. For us it is not difficult and it has never been a destabilizing factor for the government,'' Mr. Iryani adds.

Many Yemenis have become almost as accustomed to carrying rifles as they have to wearing the traditional jambiyyam or large dagger which is worn by most men in the country. Like the jambiyya,m the gun has come to symbolize manhood and virility as well as provide a means of protection in a society that reveres battle. The men wear their guns as an article of clothing - a type of noble dress.

''They feel naked without them,'' a diplomat says.

The favorite of the Yemeni tribesmen is the Soviet-designed Kalashnikov, also known as the AK-47, which with its distinctive curved cartridge clip can be seen slung from the shoulders of tribesmen in almost any section of the country outside the three main cities of Sana, Taizz, and Hodeida. (The carrying of firearms is outlawed in these cities.) The Yemenis call the Kalashnikov in Arabic the ''Ali.''

It is favored because of its light weight, its ruggedness, and the speed with which one can squeeze off a burst of automatic fire. (The Kalashnikov is used more often to celebrate a wedding than fight a battle).

A good many tribesmen continue to carry older bolt-action rifles, which, though not so popular at ceremonial occasions, are said to be more accurate in hitting distant, approaching adversaries in the desert.

A few tribesmen in the north carry the American-built M-16 rifle. Some have a version of the standard NATO weapon, the G-3, but both these guns are more expensive and less available than the Kalashnikov.

In December 1982, Kalashnikovs were selling in souks in the northern region for between 4,000 and 11,000 Yemeni riyals ($880 to $2,400) - depending on whether they were the preferred older Soviet-built models, or newer North Korean versions. At Souk at-Taal Kalashnikov bullets were selling for 5 Saudi riyals ($ 1.50) each.

Generally, the carrying of arms becomes more prevalent the farther north one travels from Sana. Guns are sold openly in almost every major village market in the north. Indeed, in Sana, itself, they can be purchased on a not-too-concealed black market.

Although the carrying and buying of guns is open in most of Yemen, those who sell the rifles are not particularly eager to talk about their business or to have their pictures taken.

Weaving through the throng of turbaned shoppers at Souk at-Taal, one passes pots and pans, sacks of dates, and almond salesmen before rounding a corner and finding the group of 20 or so merchants selling rifles, pistols, gun clips, holsters, and ammunition. These are all spread out on the ground.

Some of the merchants sit in barred cages that look like a sort of open-air teller's window. Business is done in three currencies: Yemeni riyals, Saudi riyals, and the traditional currency in Arabia, silver Maria Theresa thalers, minted in 1870 in Austria.

There is an excitement in this section of the souk, a tension that accompanies the high-priced bargaining and illicit trade. It would make an interesting photograph. But when I lifted my camera, a quick, nervous warning came from behind. ''If you take their picture, they will kill you - straight away.''

A merchant about 10 feet away motioned at me angrily. There was an assortment of rifles and pistols at his finger tips. I put the camera down.Although the government attempts to discourage smuggling, particularly the smuggling of arms, the authorities are unable at present to control the inflow. This is partly because close monitoring of Yemen's open and rugged border areas is impossible.

It is also difficult because of the semiautonomous nature of the tribes in the northern region - many of whom profit from local gun sales and most of whom smuggle in their own weapons. ''The government will find it extremely difficult if they alienate the tribes too much by cutting down on smuggling,'' says a diplomat in Sana.

A clampdown on the activities of the ruling tribal sheikhs would throw serious roadblocks in front of government efforts to gradually and peacefully extend government authority in all areas of the country.

Thus the government will continue to move slowly in establishing customs posts and enforcing customs regulations until the idea becomes more acceptable to the local sheikhs. (This, though customs duties at present are the government's major source of domestic revenue. And indications are that smuggling accounts for a significant portion of the country's total imports.)

A few years ago central government authority was said to extend approximately 50 kilometers (some 30 miles) outside the capital city of Sana - during the day. Today government officials boast that Sana's authority over the country has never been wider. But there continue to be areas of exclusive tribal rule throughout the northern region. Along much of the length of the government-constructed Sana to Sadah northern highway, traffic is monitored at checkpoints manned by armed tribesmen, rather than the Yemeni Army.

Although the total armed strength of the northern tribes is unknown, the tribes are said to include a potential of approximately 30,000 fighting men. Mountaineers, farmers, and Bedouins, the tribesmen are rugged individualists, conservative and basically anti-communist, who will fight for the sake of fighting and who are said to be tenacious, courageous, and, at times, gruesome in battle. They are said to fear their God more than bullets.

''Every man has a gun and every man is a killer - that's what a kabeeliy (tribesman)m means,'' says one observer.

The central government has frequently drawn from these armed northern tribesmen to help beef up its own forces. Earlier this year tribal warriors participated in a successful push against anti-government guerrillas along the southeastern border with South Yemen. The action increased the authority of the central government in the south, but most tribesmen from the north who joined the fight did so primarily for money and the possibility that they could keep their rifles, rather than any desire to serve or strengthen the state. The stronger loyalty is to their families and their tribes.

Some tribes are reported to possess their own artillery, armored personnel carriers, and some light anti-aircraft missiles. A few tribes have tanks captured from the Egyptians during the civil war, but it is not clear how many of these tanks are still operational and in tribal hands.

The armed strength among the tribes has come to serve two purposes: It has slowed the erosion of the tribal system and of tribal autonomy by keeping the tribes militarily strong. It has also helped individual tribes maintain a statusm quo among themselves.

A mini arms race has developed in recent years between tribes. But this is believed by some observers to contribute to a lessening of the potential for large-scale warfare between tribes. The weapons stockpiles are said to act as a deterrent to any escalation of minor feuds between individuals into major confrontations between tribes.

''Anyone who comes in shooting is going to get his head blown off right back, '' says an observer.

According to hospital personnel in the northern region such shootings are not uncommon. But large-scale tribal warfare seems to be on the decline.

So, too, is the possibility of major fighting between the government and the tribes. Though the tribes' supply of arms and ammunition is steady, the government's military buildup has far outpaced that of the tribes. It is said to have more military equipment than its 20,000-man army (including reserves) can absorb. This includes 600 T-54 tanks, 64 M-60 tanks, Soviet MIG and Sukoi fighters, and US F-5 fighters.

The government has attempted to reach out to the tribes and their sheikhs by constructing roads and schools in their regions and by consulting them on government issues. It is all part of an effort to ween them away from the tribal system and toward greater acceptance of the government.

There is no agreement here on whether the widespread presence of guns makes the streets of Yemen more dangerous. The Yemenis say the mere presence of guns does not necessarily mean they will be used. And some say that because guns are so prevalent, Yemenis are well aware of the danger such weapons pose and are thus more careful with them. But hospital workers say they see an inordinate number of gunshot wounds.

A traditional deterrent to the use of arms is the tribal law that continues to hold quite literally to the philosophies of ''an eye for an eye'' and blood money. A Yemeni deemed responsible for killing another Yemeni, even accidentally , could be ordered to pay the victim's family 80,000 to 120,000 Yemeni riyals ($ 17,800 to $26,700). The alternative, under tribal law, is for a member of the slain man's family to kill the responsible man in a like manner.

Next: North Yeman's rocky economic road to moderation.

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