Democratic Reform In Yemen Unlauded

IN June the Republic of Yemen, just across the Gulf of Aden from troubled Somalia, installed a new government. The event was the culmination of a process that began with the joining of Marxist South Yemen and conservative North Yemen into one nation on May 22, 1990. It included, in April 1993, the first fully free elections - with universal suffrage - ever held in the Arabian Peninsula.

Yemen would seem an unlikely candidate for democratization. The People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen (PDRY), shortly after its independence from Britain in 1967, became closely allied to the Soviet Union and was a communist state in name and fact. Its capital, Aden, was a major Soviet naval facility.

The PDRY went to war at least twice with the Yemen Arab Republic to the north. Ultimately, however, a deteriorating economy and the loss of its Soviet patron forced it to consider joining North Yemen.

The north was also an unlikely area for political progress. A backward monarchy, once described as "rushing headlong into the 13th century," was overthrown in a coup in 1962, and a period of unrest and civil war, marked by Saudi and Egyptian intervention, followed. Arab League mediation ended the conflict in 1979 and, under the leadership of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, North Yemen began to develop cooperation and, ultimately, unification with the South. North Yemen, for most of its recent existence, de pended heavily on the export of coffee and remittances from approximately a million Yemenis who worked as artisans and laborers in Saudi Arabia. The remittances became less important with the beginning of oil exports in 1987, and oil has continued to grow as a major source of income. Five United States companies are exploring and producing in Yemen: Exxon, ARCO, Hunt, Philips, and Occidental.

Neighboring Saudi Arabia pays close attention to developments in Yemen. When Yemen condemned non-Arab (American) involvement in the Gulf war, the Saudis, angered, cut aid to Yemen and, by June of this year, had expelled an estimated 850,000 Yemenis. Their return caused a serious drop in remittances, placing a further burden on a basically poor economy.

Saudi Arabia appears to have accepted the democratic changes in Yemen and Yemen assurances that there will not be an attempt to promote the democratic system elsewhere in the Gulf. Saudi Arabian concern today appears mainly related to the course of oil development.

Oil is found along the long frontier with Saudi Arabia, a border largely undefined. Oil companies, conscious of this, have tried carefully to avoid exploration in disputed areas. Some of the best prospects, however, lie in such territory, and in May, 1992, Saudi Arabia issued letters to six oil companies warning them against operating in disputed regions.

Official US interest in Yemen today is modest. Full diplomatic relations are maintained, and the Agency for International Development has assisted Yemen in formulating a national investment code.

Observers from the International Republican Institute, an element of the quasi-official National Endowment for Democracy, participated with those from private organizations and other countries in monitoring the recent election.

In other circumstances, the US would trumpet the accomplishment of a nation that has joined the march of democratization and free enterprise. US policy, however, is sensitive to Saudi sensitivities and the fact that Yemen was "on the other side" in the Gulf war.

The only official notice of Yemen's remarkable election was a four-paragraph statement issued on April 28, not by the State Department spokesman, but "the Office of the Spokesman."

To the extensive arguments about whether poor, developing countries can adapt to democracy can now be added the case of the Republic of Yemen, an accomplishment that deserves more than cursory congratulations.

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