I’ve recently finished reading Atlas Shrugged. In short, it is a philosophy wrapped up in a novel. A story. The philosophy is Objectivism. There are only two types of people in this novel. There are those who produce, and those who consume. The story is about what happens to a society that abandons rational self interest for collective whim. Producers and Looters.
I kept thinking a lot of Yemen as I read this. Lots of similarities. A country that has stopped. It’s arteries incapable of delivering anything. No fuel. No transportation. No production just consumption. No exports, just imports. No innovation. No creation. A country in technological and sociological regress. A country, just like the fictional dystopian United States in the novel, that is run by crooks and looters who lie to themselves before they lie to you, that they have the best interests of the country at heart.
In the novel, the people who can, the people who can create, lead, achieve, and succeed are hampered by a government. So they went on strike and disappeared from society. They would rather remove themselves from a society that is ruining itself, rather than be part of it or even try to reform it. In their eyes, collaborating with a corrupt system, with whatever altruistic intentions, with whatever desire to reform it from within, is tantamount to colluding with it. it made you part of the problem. It made you complicit.
This made me think of the many leaders in all fields in Yemen who had a reputation of being ‘good’. Of not being ‘part’ of the Saleh system that is now eating up Yemen like a cancer. Dr Abdul-Karim Al-Eryani was one of these kinds of leaders. He is renowned for his goodness. He had respect. He had a reputation of being one of the good guys. The puzzling thing for me was, why were there so many good guys happy to work for Saleh? Why did Dr Al-Eryani work for Saleh’s government? Is it really possible to maintain integrity whilst supporting corruption?
The following is a translation of an article that a twitter friend tweeted and I picked up:
The year of 1980 saw the beginning of the entrenchment of the Sanhaan cartel lead by Ali Abdallah Saleh as a political entity in Yemen after its eradication of the Nasserite counter coup led by the Free Officers which was the last attempt by the civic political powers of the land to prevent a monopolization of power by this Sanhaan-centered (and this is by no means meant pejoratively, merely a statement of fact) gang. A cartel.
It was a final attempt to claw their way back from a state of political exclusion imposed on them on August 24, 1968. The epicenter of this counter movement against this newly established monopoly of Sanhaan power? It was Taiz.
But what is the significance of August 24, 1968? The answer to that question, or the beginning of this story begins with Yemen’s very brief encounter with liberation from autocracy and its embracing of democracy in the revolution of September 26, 1962. It was the revolution that ended over 10 centuries of a sectarian autocracy that kept Yemen in a suspended state of medieval preservation.
It was not long after the success of the toppling of this autocracy, less than 5 years in fact, on the 5th of November 1967 that a coup aimed at turning back the clock on this newly found Republic made its presence felt. It was a regressive movement, a royalist based movement. The then president of the young Republic, Ibrahim Al-Hamdi attempted to neutralise it from the political scene and end its threat. The cartel’s response, in which Saleh played a crucial and leading role, was to neutralise not only his threat, but his very existence. He was assassinated over lunch on October 1977.
In October 15, 1979 the remnants of the much venerated Hamdi’s comrades made a final desperate attempt at returning Yemen to the more progressive path charted by Al-Hamdi, which had been derailed by his assassination. This was what was known as the Nasserite counter coup. They called it Al-Khutwa Al-Tas-hihia, or The Remedial Step. It failed.
Ali Abdallah Saleh chose the first anniversary of this failed uprising against his newly established rule, on October 15, 1980, to create a government lead by the now late Abdul Karim Al-Eryani. What this government signalled was an end of power-sharing between the Zaydia (who had monopolised power for the past 10 centuries in Northern and Central Yemen) and the Non-Zaydia elements of Yemen (ie the Shawafi’). For the first time since the revolution that overthrew the absolute monarchy of the Zaydia in September 1962, a clear signal was sent of the end of the power sharing formula introduced. For the first time since 1962 was the President, the Prime minister, the President of the Peoples’ Assembly, and the Head of the Supreme Court were all of the Zaydawi Doctrine ideology and school of thought. This brought power back into the hands of the very same pre revolution monarchist group but without the form of the previous monarchy. The minority not only grabbed back power, they grabbed back the right to share it. The message sent couldn’t be clearer, especially to the non Zaydi majority: We are back in business and this will cost you.
What this newly repackaged narrow bandwidth cartel of a government signaled was the restarting of a period of state sponsored political, financial, and economical exclusion of the Shawafi’ of Yemen. It was a start of their humiliation and impoverishment. A start of the stripping and dispossession of their wealth which they had accumulated over centuries as expatriates in trade abroad in countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Zanzibar, Madagascar, India, and the Protectorate of Aden.
The fact of the matter is: This was done under the government of Dr Abdul Karim Al-Eryani.
This government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, born of a coup and an assassination, had seized the centres of political and military power. What they did not have was economic power. Coming from a backdrop of Northern Yemen which had for centuries been subsistent on a Spartan existence based on self-sustaining agriculture, a smattering of a handiwork industry, and the loots of war. The economic powerhouse was almost entirely in Taiz. So much so that when the Sanhaan Cartel led by Saleh needed to finance their grab for power, the financier of their coup, didn’t come from their midst, or even across the border as some claim. The financier came from prominent merchant in Taiz. Some say it was Hayel Saeed. Others say it was another equally prominent merchant. This is what is famously referred to as “The Cursed 30 Million”, in reference to the alleged amount given to Saleh to enable him to finance his coup.
How did Saleh and the Zaydia political establishment go about to change this economic disadvantage to their greatest advantage?
The answer lies in the historic conflict in Yemen over the ages between the people of the Highlands of Yemen versus the people of Lower and Coastal regions of Yemen. It is a story of the conflict trade routes. These trade routes, these arteries of life, if not wealth, bringing goods to, through and from Yemen between the Far East and near Western regions. Yemen’s historic role, the one that made its fortunes, the fortunes which gave it the name of Arabia Felix, Happy Arabia, was based on these trade routes. This was in the past. Now, Saleh moved to turn the conflict into a conflict over who has the power to control the routes of all imports into Yemen. This is the first fact. As Yemen entered it’s modern age, it had lost all of its monopoly of these trade routes. The West found its own way to the East. Yemen went from trading and exporting to that of importing and consuming. Controlling what came in became a far more lucrative and powerful tool then controlling what, if anything went out.
The second fact was that Yemen, at the time of Saleh’s ascension to power, was as the former autocrat the Imam had left it. Al-Hamdi had indeed initiated a period of astonishing rapid development, but he had died before any of it matured. Sana’a saw most of this development followed to some extent by Taiz. The rest of Yemen continued in its preserved open museum status of the medieval ages it always was under the Imam. To this day, Yemen remains ripe for development and investment in almost every field.
So what to do? How should this ripe for investment cake that is Yemen be acquired? How shall it be sliced? More pressing to the Saleh regime: How can these economic subversion be done in a way that neutralises the economic powerhouse of Taiz and Ibb who were at the time the very people who had this wealth?
The answer came in the government’s Rationalisation of Import Decree. The idea in fact, was the brainchild of Abdul Aziz Abdul Ghani who had wanted to implement this concept in his own government, but swiftly recanted upon closer scrutiny, after realising the devastating impact such a policy would have on the people of Yemen in general, and the people of Taiz and Hodeida in particular.
The policy found its way back, and the responsibility for pushing it through this time, fell on Dr Al-Eryani who implemented it to the letter.
The Rationalisation of Import Decree was very simple. Stripped to its essence, it was a law that no imports were permissible without authorisation. And of course, there was only one way that that authorisation can be obtained: Through the express permission of Ali Abdullah Saleh alone. He was the source of these ‘authorisations’. Not even Dr Al-Eryani had the power to issue a single import authorisation.
The immediate effects of this monopoly was seen and felt over the ports of Mocha and Hodeida with almost immediate effect. It was impossible for traders at any and all levels to make the trip to Sana’a and to have access to the President Saleh, to obtain this personal authorisation which wasn’t written in law, but enacted as a fact. This was the origins of Saleh’s famous patronage system. A system which was open to those favoured by his regime and bestowed on the members of the right party, the right tribe, the right Sheikh, the right military attaches. Any merchant or businessman, who wanted to do business, now had to obtain this authorisation. The price of each authorisation depended on the percentage of the value of the import. Some imports at the time were in the tens of millions of Yemeni Riyals. The exchange rate at the time was 3 Yemeni Riyals to the US dollar. It was the most effective and quickest way to make money off of necessities and off of people’s backs. The business elite of Modern Yemen was born almost over night and they owed it to Saleh’s authorisations.
The second way to make money was to ban the import of certain items altogether, with or without authorisations, under the Rationalisation of Imports Decree. The excuse given was that it was necessary to keep foreign currencies in the country. In reality, what it did was devastate the ports of Hodeida, Mocha, and eventually Aden. It strangled their development and vitality. Instead, the door to illegal but protected importing of these very same goods, via Dubai, and placed in the hands of the tribes of Bakeel, Hashed, Khowlan and Mareb. Land locked Sana’a was, in effect, turned into the only viable port in Yemen. It was only a matter of months that many of the local merchants, producers, and traders from Hodeida, Taiz, Mocha and Ibb had left their localities and moved to the power source: Sana’a. With their migration to Sana’a, the economic powerhouses of Taiz, Ibb, and Hodeida went silent. What replaced the migrating merchants that headed to Sana’a, were Saleh cronies who’s corruption and role was to frustrate what remained of these businessmen and gave them two options: To cease to exist through complications that would strangle their business, or that they join the system by joining the illegal black market and to pay the tribes protection and authorisation money.