First Published: 2006-05-02

Donors turn up heat on Yemen over reforms

Major donor countries are linking aid to tangible change in public freedoms, fight against corruption in Yemen.


Middle East Online

By Christian Chaise - SANAA

Is Sanaa no longer one of Washingtons best pupils?

Major donor countries, concerned that the reform process in Yemen has stalled, have stepped up pressure on the Sanaa regime by linking aid to tangible change.

"The donors have made it clear that there has to be change," whether pertaining to public freedoms or the fight against corruption, a Sanaa-based diplomat said, requesting anonymity.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh "has been pressured a lot by the international community on reform and good governance," he said.

It seems a long time since Saleh was invited by US President George W. Bush to take part in a G8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, in June 2004 in order to endorse Washington's "Broader Middle East" initiative for democratization of the Arab-Islamic world.

Two years later, Washington no longer sees Sanaa as one of its best pupils.

Ambassador Thomas Krajeski publicly aired US concern that Yemen had halted progress toward democracy in an interview with the private newspaper Al-Ayyam last October.

Yemeni authorities deny dragging their feet on reform, but Krajeski said that his remarks were prompted by "an increasing harassment of journalists and closing of some independent newspapers, causing all of us concern about Yemen's democratic commitment and the pace of democratic reforms".

"We remain concerned" by the situation in terms of liberties, chiefly press freedom, he said.

Attacks against journalists have increased in recent months, and authorities have failed to arrest any suspects in the assaults.

A draft press law, which one diplomat described as "a law that protects the government against journalists," is also under consideration just a few months before presidential elections scheduled for September.

Another diplomat noted, however, that Yemen and Kuwait are the only two countries in the Arabian peninsula "where there is an opposition press that can go very far in its criticism" of government policies.

Information Minister Hassan Ahmad al-Lawzi insisted in remarks to AFP that the government "condemns" attacks against journalists and that press freedom will be "protected."

Another black spot in Yemen's record is corruption, which both foreign diplomats and Yemenis see as spreading rather than decreasing.

Washington was not long in making its displeasure known.

During a visit to the United States in November, Saleh was informed of its decision to deprive Yemen of financial assistance which would have made it eligible for the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), an aid programme for impoverished nations launched by the Bush administration in 2002.

The development assistance programme was proposed for countries "ruling justly, investing in their people and encouraging economic freedom." Some countries that did not meet the criteria required to qualify for MCA assistance were selected to receive "Threshold Programme Assistance."

The MCA programme links aid to the performance of a country, gauged on the basis of 16 indicators, including one related to civil liberties and another to "control of corruption."

Yemen was picked as a "threshold" country in 2004 before being suspended last November.

"Because of increasing concern over government corruption and a perceived decline in commitment to individual freedoms, they (Yemen) were suspended pending improvement," one diplomat said.

The immediate loss for Yemen ranged between 20 and 30 million dollars. But in the longer term, it forfeited potential aid of hundreds of millions of dollars by losing its eligibility for MCA assistance.

The following month, the World Bank announced a one-third reduction of its aid to Yemen - from 420 to 280 million dollars - for the same reasons.

In early February, Germany, the United States, Britain and the Netherlands - Yemen's top donors -- told the Sanaa government they wanted to see "change" and a quick implementation of concrete steps toward reform.

All of which did not sit well with the Yemeni president.

During a visit to Beijing last month, Saleh pointedly remarked that China does not meddle in the internal affairs of the countries it helps, and on his return to Sanaa, he rejected "dictates and conditional support."


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