Yemen: oil and water running out

Divisions among Islamic sects and poverty characterise a forgotten Arabian State. By Mairead Ryan


Entering the old city of Sana'a through Bab al-Yemen, there is the familiar mishmash of alleyways lined with small shops.   All around tall, narrow, stone and brick buildings of a salmon pink hue. Elaborate decorative elements, with a variety of geometric designs, executed in lighter tones of white gypsum. The lower stories of the houses are darker, built with basalt stone slabs. Window lunettes of alabaster filled with coloured glass complement the masonry work for which Yemeni builders are famous. The traders, all men, wear a length of cloth wrapped around their waists into which are woven patterns similar to those seen in the architecture. A sheathed janbiyya is held centre-waist by a wide brocaded belt.

Along with local cloth from the Tihamah, coastal plains to the west, the large textile market has silks from India and synthetic's from China . We buy saffron and frankincense in the spice souk. Every afternoon the men of Yemen and many women, chew qat, gathering an unsightly green mess in the corner of the mouth to absorb the mild stimulant. Taxi drivers chew as they drive around the chaotic traffic.

A young Dutchman working in development aid is pessimistic about the country's future. “They will run out of oil in 15 years, their water supply is precarious”. 

What about the new Marib Dam financed by the president of the United Arab Emirates, and desalination projects in the South?

“There is no way of channelling water up to these heights and many of the water channels are in a bad state of repair,”he says.
“Much of the land is being used to grow qat which consumes a lot of water,” he continues.

The population of Yemen is around 21 million with an estimated 10 million living abroad. Since North and South Yemen united in 1990, the population of Sana'a has increased dramatically and it is estimated that the ground water reserves beneath Sana'a will be depleted by 2010.  

A recent article in the Yemen Observer reports on a large quantity of weapons and explosives seized by government forces in Sana'a, believed to be heading for the war in Sa'ada, Yemen's most Northern Province and the birthplace of Zaydism, a Shi'a sect whose members constitute one-third to one-half of the population of Yemen. The Ismaelis, another Shi'a sect are a minority group of one percent, with the predominant group being Orthodox or Sunni. In 1995, Zayidi's attacked many of the shrines of the Ismaelis dotted around the Haraz mountains, destroying the six hundred year old grave of a holy man and causing great tension between religious communities.

The country was formerly divided into two separate states the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen in the South, supported exclusively by Eastern Block countries, and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the North financed by Saudi Arabia and the West. Following many years of political struggle unification was declared in 1990 and Ali Abdulla Salah president of the YAR became President of a unified Yemen.  Civil War broke out in 1994, which cost thousands of lives and millions of dollars. Ali Abdullah Salah continues to be President of the Republic of Yemen. The white horse of the government part is invariably coupled with images of the sun, emblem of the Islamic Group who wants Sharia Law enacted.  Prior to the civil war, 10 per cent of the population belonged to the Ba'athist Party. Yemen's apparent support of Iraq during the 1990-1991 Gulf War had a detrimental impact on the level of Western aide and pictures of Saddam Hussein continue to be displayed in many shops and internet cafes. Political stability is relative and tribal loyalties strong.

At 2,800 meters above sea level and surrounded by mountains, Sana'a is protected from the extremes of heat and humidity found further south in Aden. The mountains carved by deep wadi's or river valleys are spectacular. Geologically the Yemeni mountains were formed by the movement of landmasses caused by the Rift Valley and were originally attached to the Ethiopian Highlands. The ancient inhabitants of Yemen had an expertise in canal and dam building, which enabled them to utilise the flash floods or sayl and disperse the water over fields, preventing its loss into the desert sands.  

The mountains are terraced with stone walls, built to prevent erosion of the soil where wheat, sorghum, maize, fenugreek, lentils and coffee are grown. Donkeys are a useful source of transport. In  Hajarah a village in the Haraz Mountains south- west of Sana'a, we encounter nine-year-old Bilqis, named after the Queen of Sab'a or Sheba. She is selling brocaded belts, used to hold the janbiyya, which her mother makes at home. She takes us on a tour of her village and points out the ruins of a synagogue.  I ask if she learns English at school and she tells me she has finished school and is studying tourism. Her father is dead. She had an older brother and a sister. Capable, endearing and intelligent, she already contributes to the family's finances.

Surrounded by hibiscus, oleander, and geranium we speak with the Ethiopian Ambassador in the garden of the British Yemini Institute. When asked about the problem of AIDS, he acknowledges that it is considerable and says that government and religious leaders are encouraging education.

“Ethiopia has 700,000 orphans,” he says despondently. He says qat chewing is a big social problem in Yemen and amongst the Muslim's of Ethiopia who constitute almost half of the population. Ethiopia was Christianized in the early centuries AD and invaded Yemen at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor who wanted to appropriate the lucrative incense trade. Churches were built in Sana'a, in Zafar further south, and in Najran where the Judaised Himyarite King, Dhu-Nuwas carried out a massacre of the Christian population. When Christianity became a threat to the pre–Islamic trade in Mekka a delegation was sent to defile the church in Sana'a, which was achieved by spitting inside the sanctuary. Along with Christianity, Ethiopia exported qat and the coffee plant to Yemen. The initial use of coffee was by Mystics who used it to maintain a state of ecstatic wakefulness when praying.