Playing big brother to Yemen, Saudis breed resentment

Antipathy to the kingdom runs high as demonstrators seek to topple Saleh; Riyadh determined to stop spread of anti-government sentiment.

By JUDITH SPIEGEL / THE MEDIA LINE
March 6, 2011 21:41
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh 311 Reu. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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SANAA, Yemen – If there is anything that symbolizes the uneasy relationship between poverty-stricken Yemen and its bigger, enormously wealthy neighbor, Saudi Arabia, it’s the matter of Yemeni brides.

For many young Saudi men the costs of a dowry and wedding to a local woman is prohibitively expensive.  So, they trek down to Yemen to find a bride, or since Sanaa tightened up visa restrictions in the past year, invite a woman and her father to Saudi Arabia to find a partner.

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“A Yemeni wife is much cheaper” says Karam Taher, a 22-year-old Yemeni who is now studying in Sanaa but has lived most of his life in Saudi Arabia.  The dowry for a Saudi runs about $20,000, and then there’s the costs of providing her with gold jewelry and hosting a wedding party that can run to $100,000. “In Yemen they can have a wife and a very elaborate wedding for much less.”

In impoverished Yemen, fathers are all too willing to marry off their daughters for more than they could ever hope to get from a Yemeni man. But the women herself often ends up a loser. The Saudi husband enjoys his bargain-basement bride for a few months and then abandons her to the streets or prostitution, according to the US State Department’s 2010 report on human trafficking.

As Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, battles to preserve his 32-year-old rule, the antipathy many Yemenis feel for their neighbor to the north factors into the equation. Riyadh is determined to stop the spread of anti-government sentiment that has infected Bahrain, Oman and Yemen. But meddling too much in its neighbor’s internal affairs could backfire.

 “The Saudis see Yemen as their backyard. They want to be the only foreign power that has influence there,” Gregory Gaus, professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont and author of a book on Saudi-Yemen Relations, told The Media Line. “They see it as a place from which their enemies can pressure their country.”



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In the 1960s, it was Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who dispatched troops to fight in Yemen’s civil war and then in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the Soviet Union in South Yemen. Nowadays, the Saudi kingdom fears Al-Qaeda and Iran gaining a foothold in the chaos.

While Saudi Arabia has a tradition of trying to influence Yemen, Yemen has just as often resisted even if the two sides are hardly equals even if the two have roughly the same size populations. Saudi Arabia, with a fifth of the world’s oil reserves has a per capita gross domestic product of $24,200, almost 10 times Yemen’s $2,600.

In Yemen’s last civil war, in the 1990s, the Saudis supported the southern secessionist movement and when Saleh took Iraq’s side in the first Gulf War in 1991, Saudi Arabia wreaked revenge, revoking residence rights of Yemeni migrants and forcing hundreds of thousands of them to return home. Yemen not only lost the remittance income, but had to provide housing, food and jobs.

Gaus cites rumors that Saleh receives $2 billion a year in aid from Riyadh, but he says he believes that figure is inflated. Such support is unlikely to be of much help to the embattled president.

“In the current situation they are happy to support Saleh, but how much they can do is in question. They can give him some money, but they can't really help him out militarily against the protests in Sanaa itself.”

Many Yemenis believe Saudi Arabia had a hand in the killing Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, the ultra-popular president who ruled North Yemen from 1974 until 1977.

Who killed him and why has never been officially clarified, but most Yemenis have no doubt about the reason: He was working to make Yemen a prosperous and democratic country, and the Saudis did not want such a backyard, many believe. These days demonstrators seeking to topple Saleh often carry photos of Al-Hamdi.

Since around 2000, however, the Saudis have seemed to make their peace with Saleh, who they now see him as the least bad option, says Gaus. Now their man is in deep trouble.

“Just when they kind of came to terms with dealing with Saleh and a united Yemen, the guy seems to be in real trouble,” he says. “The Saudis as a default position do not like upheaval, and upheaval in Yemen is something that they think foreign powers [Iran] might be able to exploit.”

Nevertheless, for Yemenis, the Saudi kingdom can do no good. The Jeddah Treaty of 2000, which finally drew an exact border between the two countries after centuries of disputes and wars, is resented by many in. Parts of what many regard as northern Yemen was incorporated in Saudi Arabia.

“He sold our land and our people to the Saudis and he received $7 billion in his Swiss bank account for it,” says Abdulrab Ahmed, who lived in the kingdom from 1982 until 1990 and from 2000 until 2009 when he was deported and these days participates in the protests against Saleh. “They treat Yemenis like slaves,” he told The Media Line. 

Even the fact the Yemenis rely on Saudi Arabia for jobs does little to assuage popular resentment. Gaus says that there are now hundreds of thousands Yemeni’s working again in Saudi Arabia. “They tend to have decent jobs, better than many of the South Asians, running stores and being plumbers and the like,” he says. “They’re not treated that well by the authorities, but no worse than other foreigners and better than some. They certainly have better jobs than they could find in Yemen”.

But, like all foreigners in Saudi Arabia, Yemenis need sponsors to support their stay in the kingdom. These sponsors can make life difficult. As they did in Abdulrab’s case. “My sponsor only wanted to cooperate in extending my residence permit if I would marry my daughter off to him. I refused. He took over my shop and the Saudi authorities deported me.” 

Indeed, in the streets of Sanaa, many believe Saudi Arabia is the reason for many of Yemen’s problems.

 “Saudi Arabia is afraid of Yemen because a strong Yemen with a truly democratic republican system would threaten their oppressive kingdom," says Muna Safwan, 33, a journalist and one of the regular female demonstrators at Sanaa University. “This is why they support Ali Abdullah Saleh and the tribes -- to keep Yemen the way it is.”

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