Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Yemen – Happy Arabia

Yemen remains in news these days as it witnesses bad times of conflict and violence. There were times when it was called ‘Fortunate Arabia’ and ‘Happy Arabia. When I was posted to Sana’a in the early 80s (1983-85), the establishment officer, Deputy Secretary (ADP) in Ministry of External Affairs Ram Lal, a shrewd  man, persuading me to accept the posting to Sana’a, said that it was the only hill station in and around the gulf countries. Since it was an out of turn posting, I did not care much. Otherwise also, throughout my diplomatic career, I did not do anything special except normal routine of giving preferences at the time of postings abroad. Like a duty-bound functionary, I accepted whatever came my way. Nevertheless, I have no regrets in this regard. At that time, Yemen was still divided – North Yemen (Shia - Arabs) with Sana’a as Capital city and South Yemen (Sunni -Communists) with Aden as its Capital city. Yemen is a tribal society. The country was unified in 1990 under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh, a North Yemini leader. But it was not a meeting of minds. There was no peace. Internal strife set in. Vested interests like the Al-Qaida and Islamic State entered the troubled waters. Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) brokered peace, ousted Ali Abdullah Saleh and brought in Abdu Rabbo Mansoor Hadi as the President of the country. But the change did not result in peace. The politics of religion, Shia-Sunni question, came to the surface. The Islamic fundamentalists like Al-Qaida and Islamic State, have their own agenda. A sort of civil war between the tribes supportive of Ali Abdullah Saleh and those of President Abdu Rabbo Mansoor Hadi over took the ground situation. Geo-politics and diplomacy, on one side (Abdu Rabbo Mansoor Hadi) supported and abetted by Saudi Arabia and its allies and on the other supported and encouraged by Iran, Russia, China and their allies, made the situation more confrontational and difficult. It continues and the poor Yemenis are suffering. No respite is in sight.

I reached Sana’a on December 10, 1982. Within a couple of days of
With President Ali Abdullah Saleh
 my arrival, there was a big earthquake in the hills outside of Sana’a which resulted in huge loss of life and property, particularly in Dammar region.  I started my diplomatic career from Beijing (then Peking) where I was engaged in administration and establishment work. Sana’a proved a launching pad for me with commercial and labour desk of the Embassy being under my charge. I was not only a junior diplomat but also a novice. My only strength was sincerity and hard work. My boss, Ambassador Ranjit Gupta, was not only a competent and dynamic diplomat but was also a hard task master. He gave me a long rope to do some work. The number two in the Embassy was yet another young and dedicated diplomat, R.O. Wallang. I found him always supportive, patronizing and friendly. Generaly, Attache level officers are not provided Personal Assistants (PA) but it was an exception in Sana’a. My PAs, during my tenure, Davinder Saddi and Purshottam Sharma were good and efficient. I still keep in touch with them. There is much to write about my work and experience in Sana’a but I will do that later separately. Today, I will limit myself to some general impressions about Yemen.

Deputy Secretary Ram Lal was true; Sana’a is surrounded by dry
Kath session with Sheikh Mohd. Tilha
and rocky hills. The weather was moderate.  People were friendly with “Hindis” (Indians). It is said that appearances are deceptive. It is true in Yemen. The society is tribal. One can feel “Islamic brotherhood” in their thinking and living. The rich mingled and socialized with the poor. The rich may be living in a mud-thatched house with no fan-fare. One may find him in the traditional dress of a Sarong-like wrapping and a shirt, sometimes with a turban or an Arab scarf. Almost all adults used to chew on “Kath” (tender leaves of a plant) in the afternoons which is said to be a sort of intoxicant and aphrodisiac. Though Yemen is an Islamic country yet people were not fanatics in those days. I think the fundamentalists and terrorists have taken an undue advantage of their simplicity and poverty. Yemenis were hospitable and God fearing people. Yemen is one of the least developed countries of the world. In the early 80’s, there were no municipal facilities like internal roads, sewerage, water-supply etc. The centre of the town was ‘Tehrir Square’. There were only three major roads at that time – Central Vista (Tehrir square), Sana’a-Taiz and Sana’a Hudeidah. Hal-Sayyad was the largest business house; it was called the Tata of Yemen. Most of their companies and industries were run by experts hired from India. The hospitals were staffed with Para-medical staff from India. There were only two five star hotels – Taj Sheba (managed by the Taj Group of Hotels) and Sana’a Sheraton. Indian company TCIL was engaged in major tele-communications projects. Indian company IRCC bagged a big road project sometime in 1983. Later, in the wake of the earthquake, Indian companies like NBCC and Duggal and Sons got engaged in low-cost housing projects for rehabilitation in rural areas. I had much to do, in view of our deep economic and commercial engagement in Yemen. I learnt the nuances of business diplomacy from Ambassador Ranjit Gupta who was very kind and supportive. Ambassador Gupta is keeping good health and is kicking. I last met him and his gracious wife in Tokyo some time in 2003. President Giani Zail Singh was on a state visit to Yemen on October 30, 1984 when PM Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own security officers. I was staying with President Zail Singh, as local Liaison Officer, in the Presidential Palace. The news of the untoward incident at the residence of PM Indira Gandhi reached me in the early morning of the fateful day. Nobody in Sana’a knew of this. On my own, I immediately contacted the then Chief of Protocol Mohammad Hamid Ansari (now Vice President of India), who was staying at Hotel Taj Sheba with other senior members of the delegation, and informed of the happenings in New Delhi. He rushed to the Presidential Palace and informed President Zail Singh, after reconfirming from Rashrapati Bhawan on the provided Hotline, of the unfortunate events. The rest is history.

India-Yemen relations are historical. Aden was administered by the British from Bombay Presidency till 1935. Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Bose and many other top leaders visited Aden before independence in 1947. Trade relations were excellent even in old days. Dhirubhai Ambani of Relience Group started his business career from Aden and his son Mukesh Ambani was born in Aden. Many Yemenis migrated to Hyderabad and settled there. I observed that Yemenis were friendly and hospitable towards Indians. Let us hope that the current situation in Yemen is a passing phase and things will settle down soon. I wish the Yemeni friends all the very best in the years to come.

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