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An Audience with the Tyrant of Yemen

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The former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was reported killed in the capital of Sana’a, on December 4, 2017, when he seemingly was changing sides in the on-going and brutal civil war in that country. I actually met Ali Abdullah Saleh in December 2006, when I was president of the Foundation for Economic Education.

I was part of a small delegation of American “experts” invited by the Yemeni Chamber of Commerce to offer policy and institutional ideas to make Yemen more business-friendly, transparent, and attractive to direct foreign investment. We delivered a series of presentations in the capital city of Sana’a and in the port city of Aden.

This was a “lost cause” due to the imbedded corruption and rent-seeking spiders’ web of manipulative connections between Yemeni politicians, bureaucrats, and private sector special interest groups that crushed almost all competition, innovation, and consumer-benefitting improvement. The country is also one of the most orthodox Muslim countries on the Arabian Peninsula, which results in another layer of rigidity and intolerance to most change. Not surprisingly, Yemen was plagued with pervasive poverty long before the destruction of the current civil war between competing political factions wanting the power to plunder others for their own purposes.

A Palace Audience with Yemen’s Tyrant

During our 2006 time in Sana’a, we were “privileged” with an audience with Ali Abdullah Saleh in the presidential palace. Saleh had ruled Yemen since the late 1970s as dictator, ruthless power-luster, and wealth-plunderer with respect for no one’s life other than his own. We were led into the “throne room,” in which Saleh sat on a truly “royal” throne placed on an elevated platform, so he could look down upon all those honored with some time in his presence.

His countenance was of arrogant aloofness, of the “sacred personage” having to allot part of his far more important time to those of far lesser importance and status than his great self.  Of course, refreshments and food were brought to us as we, this private American delegation, sat in two rows of high-backed chairs facing each other, and having to turn our heads, respectively, 90 degrees, left or right, to rest our eyes on this, the most important person in the land, with our necks cranked upwards at the face higher than ours on that elevated platform.

The servants who came into the room laden down with those drinks and delicacies, showed all the body language of timid and frightened “subjects” fearful of raising the notice and ire of he who could at any moment order their arrest, imprisonment, torture or death.

As our hosts in the Yemeni Chamber of Commerce explained to their “president” the purpose and importance of our visit to his country, his face grew more and more bored and impatient. He already knew why we were there, what we had said in the presentations delivered the day before, and, of course, he intended to change nothing that did not clearly and visibly enhance his power to bestow favors and privileges upon those in his entourage of lackeys, dupes, and hangers-on through whom his grip on absolute control was secured and maintained for the purpose of his own pleasures.

Ali Abdullah Saleh’s eyes darted back and forth between the faces speaking to him or introduced to him among our delegation. Those eyes had a calculating coldness and cruelty that had developed into a capacity to read the important from the unimportant, the dangers from an opponent and the weaknesses of a sycophant who could be used and abused for his power-retaining designs.

Several of the people in our delegation, having been introduced, thanked Saleh for his “generous hospitality” in enabling the Yemeni Chamber of Commerce to host our visit to his country. And with the hope that the ideas and suggestions presented for improving Yemen’s business environment might, if implemented, bring forth more direct foreign investment that could help to accelerate the nation’s economic growth.

A Regulatory Labyrinth and Aden’s By-Gone Commercial Past

The labyrinth of regulations made this highly unlikely. In the port city of Aden one saw the cultural and architectural residues of the city’s past from when it was a British-administered territory from 1839 to 1967. I met some businessmen old enough to still recall that earlier time, and the hustle and bustle of the ships that stopped there for refueling while carrying cargos to and fro between Europe and East Africa and Asia, and the prosperity that international commerce had brought with it.

In Sana’a the oppressive presence of more doctrinaire Islam was visible with virtually no woman being seen in public without being covered from head to foot except for the eyes and hands, and always in the presence of a male companion or other females. In Aden, the women may have worn scarves over their heads most of the time, but their faces were usually unmasked and the rules concerning the mixing between men and women were noticeably more relaxed. A little bit of Western cultural attitudes and influences still seemed to go along way, even with more than half a century after the British Union Jack had been lowered for the last time from the flag poles.

The hulls of derelict, sunken ships littered parts of the harbor, with nearly empty wharves and docks along the waterfront. On a hill over looking the port was a two-thirds finished hotel owned by a Western chain. But there was no paved access road from the main street running through the center of Aden up to the hotel site. There was only a dirt road winding up the hill, with numerous potholes.

I happened to meet the local hotel representative overseeing the construction and who was assigned to be its senior manager, if it was ever completed. He told me that building a paved road up to the hotel required various permissions and permits from a number of government ministries, each one involving layers of bureaucracy to obtain final approval for the road to be built.

Every bureaucratic layer of approval in each of the relevant ministries required knowing the right people at the right level and seeing that the “right amount” of appreciation was shown in the form of cash and gifts as the supplicant climbed to the next higher bureaucrat’s desk in the regulatory process. The problem was that even if one seemed to successfully get through the ascending “steps” of the regulatory maze, including to the senior minister who needed to be appropriately bribed, Ali Abdullah Saleh would frequently remove or reshuffle the ministers between departments and places around the country to keep any potential opponents or alternative power-centers off-balance as part of his technique of maintaining his control over the government.

And, so, like in the children’s board game of “Shoots and Ladders,” you were pushed back down nearly to the beginning of the corrupt, bribe-paying process all over again, with the necessity to start once more climbing up to the final approval level from the newly installed new senior minister. The hotel project manager told me that after going through this process over-and-over again for almost five years, the home office had informed him that if the hotel could not be completed, along with the needed paved access road, within six more months, they would just write off the whole thing and leave the two-thirds completed building unfinished. I never found out what happened, but I doubt if it had a “happy ending.”

Primitive Marriage Rites and a Would-Be Islamic Martyr

If Aden still possessed a diminishing, flickering afterglow of its British past of commerce and trade and personal autonomy in actions and attire, the rest of the country languished in medieval stagnation and dogma. In Sana’a I met young Yemeni businessmen, some relatively fresh from four to six years in the United States after earning a B.A. degree or an MBA. One such young man in his mid-20s told me he had recently returned from New York with his MBA in hand and now was going into his father’s business.

He also told me he was about to get married. I said that it certainly was a long time for his fiancé to wait, since he had not been home once during the six years he had been in America. He told, no, the engagement was relatively recent, since his mother and aunt had arranged the marriage only six months before his return to Yemen. I asked when he first met his bride-to-be. He said he would meet her on their wedding day. His mother and aunt had promised him that she was not too unattractive! The young lady (whose age was not shared with me) clearly had little or no say in her own marital fate, this having been decided by her family and his relatives.

One afternoon while in Sana’a, we were taken on a tour of the ancient walled part of the city that dates from nearly 2,000 years ago. With a military armed escort carrying automatic weapons, we walked through narrow winding streets with delightful incense in the air and fascinating silverware shops with beautifully crafted daggers and swords, snuff and jewelry boxes, and necklaces and earrings, all handmade with the artistic detail and care that only comes from age-old talents passed down from father to son.

The minarets rising above the centuries-old streets and buildings, the numerous craftsmen offering their wares in shops and on the streets, the carrying of goods through the narrow walkways by hand-pushed carts or on people’s backs, and the beggars with their hands out, here and there, in the doorways, all created a feeling of being transported back in time to the imaginary world of Aladdin and his magic lamp. It also provided the realization that, here, in the twenty-first century, were many people still living as if the last three or four hundred years of human material and social progress had never occurred.

While walking along the tour, a young boy, perhaps 12 years old, attached himself to us. One of the people in our party asked his name. In passable English, he replied that his name was, “Abraham.” He was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Looking around at the buildings, he pointed to a wall containing a huge tattered poster of the leader of the terrorist group, Hezbollah, who was holding in his hand a Kalashnikov, AK-47, assault rifle. Abraham proudly said that that is what he wanted to be: a martyr for Allah fighting the Zionists and the infidels.

Drug Addiction, Work Lethargy, and Passive People

Driving back to our hotel from the walled old city in the mid-afternoon, I noticed something that I had seen several times before when taken around Sana’a. Groups of men were languishing at street corners, sometimes sitting on the sidewalks with huge round-shaped bulges often the size of an American baseball on one side of their face.

At first I thought this might be some disease or other illness causing a facial disfigurement of many in the population. Instead, I was told this was a narcotic widely used in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula called Khat, which is the leaf of a plant that is placed in the mouth, chewed and kept inside the cheek. At first, it creates euphoria and mental and physical drive. But after several hours it creates lethargy and depression-like symptoms. To compensate for the latter effect and restore the euphoric feeling, more and more of the Khat leaves are added to those already in the mouth, creating that peculiar distortion in the shape of the face.

In the second half of the day, as a result, it seemed that a good portion of the population was reduced to a dazed stupor, unfit for concentrated and focused work. Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government, I was informed, viewed this docility on part of the population as a useful way of keeping the “the people” under control.  I was also told, “off the record,” by some people at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a that a few years earlier, and with no official fanfare, an American ambassador to Yemen had been recalled due to a discovered addiction to Khat that made him viewed as a “security risk.”

Religious Dogma and “Death to the Zionists”

It would be unfair of me to not emphasize that we were shown a courteous and generous hospitality by all who hosted us and attended our presentations in Sana’a and in Aden. But beneath it all were the cultural roots and institutional structures of a society that had never escaped from a primitive tribalism, a social order of hierarchical benefactor and obedient servant in a web of favoritism, privilege, bribery, connections and factional loyalty. The ideas of individual rights, of individual autonomy and direction of one’s own life, of freedom of action and personal reward independent of the extended clan and tribal group into which one was born, were clearly words heard in visits to “the West,” but which had found no receptive soil in which to grow in the harsh collectivist terrain of Yemen.

This was reinforced by a religious dogma and rigidity of ritual, conduct, subservience, and near totalitarian control of mind and deed. On one of those nights of gracious entertainment at the home of one of our hosts, I got into a serious conversation with one of those young Yemeni businessmen who had earned his MBA at a prominent American institution of higher learning.

I asked him about the aggressive attitude of seemingly many in the Arab and Islamic world against Israel and the Jews. He assured me that he and “everyone else” in Yemen had nothing against the Jews. Indeed, before the conversion to Islam after 630 A.D., many of those living in what is now called Yemen had been practicing Jews, he insisted. The Jews, like the Arabs, were children of Abraham, but they had refused to accept the truth of Mohammad’s message.

No, it was not Judaism to which the Arab and Islamic world was opposed, it was Zionism, the insistence of imposing a “Jewish State” in the Arab world.  Jews who wished to live in an “Arab Palestine” would be free to do so – under Arab and Islamic Law, of course. But the “Zionists” had to be driven into the sea, and their blood would run red in the rivers of Palestine and in the Mediterranean Sea, if they resisted reestablishment of the “true faith” in the “occupied lands” of the Arab people. He said all this in a calm and deliberative and even-toned voice that made it more disturbing than if he had raised his voice and waved his arms.

Recognizing the place of a guest in another’s home I held back from offering a description of the lives of Jews in Yemen in earlier centuries, when they were not allowed many types of contacts with Yemeni Muslims, had special taxes and surcharges imposed upon them, and were restricted in the occupations that they could follow as long as they refused to convert to the “one true faith.” Nor did I mention the violence in parts of Yemen against Jews in 1947, or the dozens who were killed in riots in Aden at that time. Or the terror that resulted in the expulsion of more than 50,000 Jews from Yemen after the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. Nor did I remind him that the same pattern of violence, murder, property destruction, and expulsion was repeated in most other Arab countries at that time in the 1940s, whether or not the Jewish citizens of those countries were “Zionists” or not.

The civil war that has enveloped Yemen in the last several years, with the accompanying violence, cruelty, and mass killings, and the intervention of other countries into that civil war in pursuit of their own regional “great power” politics, are all indicative of a land that “time forgot” in the grip of religious intolerance, a culture of political plunder, a society of clannish tribalism, and a philosophy of collectivism in which the individual is little and has no recognized life truly and only his own.

It shows what humanity is reduced to and how life is lived when a people have not been touched by the ideas of the Enlightenment and a philosophy of freedom.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).