0NCE A WEEK the Middle East Airway's flight from Beirut to Jeddah continues southwards to Aden. Most passengers, their business in oil-rich Saudi Arabia, disembark at Jeddah. But the Boeing 727 is always full when it leaves. Hussled on board by impatient hostesses are the queues of Yemini peasant folk. Bare-footed old men with deeply lined faces, young women completely shrouded in black; their hand luggage is always the same: a brand new vacuum-flask and a portable radio-cassette player. Less conspicuous are the wads of banknotes, for between them these migrant workers take home around $200 million a year - 60 per cent of the People's Republic of Yemen's (PDRY) foreign exchange.
With a per capita income barely one fourtieth of its giant neighbour, PDRY is the poorest of all Arab countries. Its lack of mineral resources, and its tiny areas of fertile land scattered amidst its rugged mountains hardly spelt rich pickings in colonial eyes. The country's only virtue was the port of Aden. The British turned it into a refuelling station for their ships during the 1830s and after the opening of the Suez canal it became the fourth busiest port in the world, visited by over 6000 ships a year.
Yemini nationalists set radical goals during the independence struggle and after the British forces finally ushered away their rearguard a socialist government was formed. For fifteen years successive - and increasingly radical leaders have wrestled with the problems of turning proudly disparate Islamic communities into a unified Yemini society. And hostile neighbours have done their utmost to undermine the socialist dream. Saudi Arabia, bastion of Islamic dogma, first supported anti-government tribal forces, tried to buy an influence with aid, then finally admitted defeat and withdrew all favours in 1977. After the US had broken off diplomatic relations, Henry Kissinger orchestrated a media campaign against PDRY. And most OPEC countries have scorned the socialist experiment of their arab neighbours and refused to compromise on oil prices. So PDRY's oil bill trebled in the seventies.
Despite its isolation, however, PDRY has achieved a great deal with very little. Land has been redistributed and 300,000 acres is now farmed by agricultural cooperatives. Essential goods, services, and housing are subsidised. Health and education are free, and primary school intake has quadrupled in the past decade. Polygamy and arranged marriages are now illegal, and although there is still official respect for Islam the black folds of the sheidor are being increasingly cast-off by young women in the towns. Perhaps the most enduring of the old ways is the chewing of qat, a narcotic leaf. This expensive, relaxing, but mildly debilitating habit resisted all British attempts at regulation. With qat-chewing now illegal except on Thursday afternoon and Friday, abstinence has become a measure of people's commitment to socialism.