Yemen's Parliament Courts the Saudis

THREE weeks after the first open election in the history of the Arabian peninsula, the Yemeni parliament elected a powerful sheikh as its speaker, a move that could signal improved relations with Saudi Arabia and an end to Yemen's isolation.

Sheikh Hussein Abdullah al-Ahmar, the paramount chief of the powerful Hashid tribal confederacy, has close ties to Yemen's wealthy but disgruntled northern neighbor.

Since foreign aid began to dry up three years ago, Yemen has been in financial trouble, making the sheikh's connections with the Saudis of critical importance, diplomats and Yemeni observers say.

Yemen's fledgling democracy is exceptional. At a time when the Arab world is struggling to reconcile the growth of political Islam and popular pressure for participation in state affairs, Yemen is building a political system that includes women, minorities, and religious parties.

The territory that is now Yemen was divided 300 years ago when the Ottoman Turks carved out a stretch of desert bordering the Red Sea. After the Turks withdrew in 1918, the traditional ruler Imam Yahya established a line of rule that was ultimately crushed in a military rebellion in 1962, when the Yemen Arab Republic was established.

To the south, the port of Aden was ruled as part of British India until 1837, when London established a protectorate that extended northward and eastward into the Arabian hinterland. Nationalist agitation ultimately forced the British to withdraw, paving the way for pro-Soviet Marxists to take control in 1971.

Several attempts at unification during the next two decades were frustrated by ideological differences and civil conflicts.

But the southern leadership was impelled to seek the merger when the Soviets began to stanch their aid, and the two republics formally accepted a constitution for a unified Yemen. Presidents Ali Abdullah Saleh of the north and Ali Salim al-Beid of the south became interim president and vice president until elections.

The merger was a tremendously popular move among Yemenis because the authoritarian single party systems of both states were dissolved to allow for a free press and multiparty democracy, including votes for women and Yemeni Jews. The process culminated in the April 27 ballot.

With the new speaker elected, parliament will deal as a matter of urgency with both economic and constitutional reform. Meanwhile, President Saleh and Vice President Al-Beid, whose positions are expected to be confirmed by parliament in coming weeks, will oversee the process of appointing new ministers.

The democratic process is not without problems, however. Critics of the new government say Saleh is eliminating the possibility of a strong parliamentary opposition by taking potential dissenters into his own party.

"During the campaign the real work of the government was to find the most popular sheikh and buy him into the party, which is why the PGC [Saleh's People's General Congress] did so well in spite of being very unpopular before the election," says one concerned diplomat.

"Now President Saleh is using his old policy of absorbing all centers of power, which means there could be no real opposition," he said.

There are signs that Yemen's democratic shift is bringing an end to its isolation.

The country faced stiff diplomatic and economic reprisals for criticizing the coalition attack against Iraq during the Gulf war. The United States Agency for International Development cut its aid to $3 million in 1991, down from $20.5 million. The Saudis expelled roughly 1 million Yemeni workers, causing a loss of billions of dollars in remittances, and slashed aid. Only the European Community kept its aid program at pre-Gulf war levels.

Earlier this month, David Mack, the American under-secretary of state for Middle East affairs, arrived here for a two-day visit. He told reporters Yemen's moves to improve relations with its neighbors would make it "more realistic to improve Yemen-US relations."

There are also signs that the Saudis may be warming. Last week the Saudi minister of education, Abd al-Aziz al-Abdullah al-Khuwaiter, delivered a letter to Saleh from King Fahd.

The minister - who heads the Saudi team negotiating the tense border dispute between the two countries - apparently indicated privately that Saudi aid to Yemen may be renewed, Yemeni sources in Sana said.

Speaker Ahmar, who is also leader of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform - Al-Islah, seems confident his election will help renew those ties. "Things are starting to return to normal and the door between us and our Gulf neighbors has been opened," he said.

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