x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A Hadhrami legend tells how a new Yemen could be born

Now that Yemen has started a new era, it should look to its past for a lesson in reconciliation and the benefits of peace.

Yemen's presidential election last month was not the end of Yemen's revolution; young people and political forces will continue to seek genuine change. But the vote was evidence of a consensus on compromise, instead of an "all or nothing" confrontation. This was Yemeni wisdom finally winning out.

It would be good for Yemen if this spirit were to expand, including the Houthis, the Salafis, the southern movement, the fragmented army and all those who joined the infighting over this arid land bereft of opportunities and emaciated by disease and poverty.

I won't mention Al Qaeda here. Chances of Al Qaeda members embracing Yemeni wisdom are nil.

It is however time for other Yemenis to emulate their forefathers and vow to never again resort to arms. By making that pledge they would be espousing the spirit of both Islam and the Arab Spring.

They would also signal the ascendancy of the ballot box, which is a fair adjudicator, unlike Ali Abdullah Saleh's despotism, excesses and divide-and-rule tactics.

The Hadhrami people of eastern Yemen recount this legend: their tribes carved out a home in an unpopulated, inhospitable valley of the southern Arabian Peninsula. Here they lived and fought each other over pastureland. They kept losing loved ones in a cycle of blood, recrimination and reprisal.

Their infighting continued until their ulema, Muslim legal scholars who are descended from the house of the Prophet Mohammed, summoned tribal leaders and the key combatants, and reminded the assembly of God's teachings and Islam's interdiction of inter-Muslim violence and of fraud.

One of the ulema then unsheathed a combatant's sword, broke it in two, and announced a prohibition on brethren killing one another. (Although often overlooked, this was a precedent for non-violence long before Mahatma Gandhi.)

After their reconciliation, the Hadhramis discovered the advantages of peace and proceeded to build large buildings in Shibam. Later, some Hadhramis emigrated to what is now Indonesia, where they spread Islam and benefited immensely from trade. They returned the fortunes amassed overseas to their valley, which prospered; education and construction spread.

The echo of this tale resounds in the travels of modern northern Yemenis, who have emigrated to places like Manchester, Detroit and Jeddah, where the experience of Hadhramis and northern Yemenis has become a template of good economic relations.

Today, taking note of this example of commercial good sense would help all Yemenis. If a stable new Yemen, one which does not perturb its neighbours, were to clinch a free-trade agreement with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the advantages would be clear. Greater trade would help make up for the billions in financial aid squandered by the corrupt state.

Free trade with neighbours would stimulate Yemen's economy, market, traders and entrepreneurs. Businessmen understand market economics, in a way the totalitarian state led for 40 years by military men never did. Mr Saleh was a master of power, but knew nothing about management and economic development.

The Houthis boycotted the presidential election, but did not prevent it from taking place. The southern movement sought to block the vote but failed to mobilise its followers. These facts suggest that Yemeni public opinion is for reconciliation, as does the election of Abdrabu Mansour Hadi as president.

The man may not be the national hero the revolution wanted. But Yemenis elected him, however apprehensively, which means they chose the reconciliation process that will give them, in two years' time, a modern state in which the transfer of power is governed by votes instead of the force of arms.

The Saleh regime's refusal to change justified the recourse to arms by the Houthis, the southern movement, would-be coup-makers like Ali Mohsen, the assassins behind the attack on Mr Saleh at Al Nahdain mosque and all those who took to the streets and participated in sit-ins.

But today, all Yemenis have the opportunity recoup their rights, open a new chapter in Yemen's history and fend off attempts to turn their country into a battleground in a power struggle between Iran and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom prefers to be the Yemenis' partner, not to grapple with those seeking to embroil Yemen in a regional conflict.

The world is full of talented Yemenis who can channel their skills and wealth to create job opportunities in Yemen proper. But these expatriate Yemenis yearn for stability. Violence has kept them away; concord can entice them to return home and invest.

To change their country's destiny, Yemenis need to focus on employment and industry. Simply joining the Gulf Cooperation Council will not bring prosperity, not when 40 per cent of Yemenis live under the poverty line.

Only endeavour can create prosperity, and here regional countries can help. If GCC states switched from foreign aid to investment in projects that were profitable to them and useful to Yemen, they could pave the way for the capital wealth of Yemeni émigrés to be repatriated.

To begin all this, Yemen's ulema should get together to repeat the message of the Prophet: "The sanctity of your blood, your wealth and your honour matches the sanctity of this day of the month until Resurrection." A scholar would then unsheathe a sword, break it in half and declare the beginning of a peaceful new Yemen.


Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is editor-in-chief of the planned Alarab news channel