"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Monday, February 15, 2010


Interesting article about economic possibilities in Yemen's south today, particularly Aden and its port.   The beginning of the article focuses on an Indian entrepreneur named Ravinder Singh, who is amazed at the "manpower with the commitment of Yemenis."   This is nice, if a little condescending (people have to work hard to exist in a country with such meager resources).  But generosity of spirit, or basic decency, makes me assume that he was gearing his comments to a richer outside world of potential investors, who can sometimes see poverty as being the result of sloth.   The article is pretty optimistic, or at least what passes for optimism in Yemen these days.  It paints a different picture- that is, one of people wanting to work and make a life and not rushing off to put bombs in their underwear, and for that it is worth reading.

A few quick thoughts.  Aden is incredibly important to any economic future Yemen might have.  It was once one of the busiest ports in the world, just behind London, and is located in an impossibly great trade route.  It is easy to discount this, as Yemen is lumped in with "the Middle East", and is therefore assigned its own set of assumed properties: barren, isolated- near Syria, maybe?  But historically it is far more connected with the Horn of Africa and with India than, say, the Levant.  There is a reason the British wanted to colonize it- Aden is a great stop between the Suez and India.   If the port can be rebuilt and secured, it could once again become a major cash cow for Yemen (being secured is most important- bombings of the Cole and the Limburgh drove insurance rates to an unsustainable level).

But, of course, there is the tricky issue of the secessionist movement.  It the last year, the southern movement has morphed from a protest about rights to one of breaking away entirely from the government.  I am not going to deal with the possibility of them doing so and using Aden for their own means- while that is possible, it is not a happy scenario.  Instead, I think that economic resurgence in the south and specifically Aden is a great way to keep the country together.

After the 1994 civil war, the victorious north essentially colonized Aden with its Islamist shock troops.  The article talks about how "the city's drab residential blocks and potholed roads testify to years of neglect."  Neglect is true, but it was a deliberate neglect, which is no different than overt oppression.  The drab blocks were kind of an imposed northern realism, echoing the cinderblock gray of the explosively expanding San'a.  This aesthetic misery reflected the political reality, where southerners had enormous difficulties becoming officers in the military- Yemen's surest path for social improvement- and were denied other economic opportunities.  These were the main factors which sparked the movement.

So how does Aden offer a chance?  I think it presents an opportunity for the government to regain trust.  Right now, it can negotiate contracts.  The government would need to bring the leaders of the southern movement to the table while opening up the south's economy.  They have to find a way to allow San'a to get much-needed revenue, but spread the wealth among the people who are actually creating and sustaining it.  The other options are for Yemen to fall apart, or for the government to attempt to violently crush the movement and continue their economic colonialism, which is unsustainable.  I also think that it is incumbent on foreign governments to insist on this when investing in Yemen.

It is a paradox, but the only way for the central government to survive is for it to become weaker.  The south has to have more autonomy if it is expected to stay in the country.  Anything else is disastrous magical thinking.

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