We use cookies for site personalization and analytics. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Storm Damage

Middle East

new internationalist
issue 236 - October 1992

Storm damage
Oil-rich sheiks and fundamentalist fanatics - these are the Western
stereotypes that fed the lust for war. But few Arabs have ever touched
oil wealth and the appeal of fundamentalism is enhanced by catastrophes -
including the Gulf War. Over the next four pages we survey the
aftermath of Desert Storm in the Arab world.

'Not One of Us'

'The most expensive vote you'll ever cast,' said a US diplomat to Yemen
when it opposed Desert Storm at the UN Security Council.

But, as Abdulaziz AI-Saqqaf reports, the storm cloud has a silver lining.

graphic When Saddam Hussein decided to walk into Kuwait on 2 August 1990 the newly-united Republic of Yemen was less than ten weeks old. There was no room for more headaches.

Yet the Gulf Crisis had to be addressed - and Yemen's position was important. It was the only Arab country that was a member of the UN Security Council at the time. It was one of just four Arab countries associated with Iraq through the Arab Co-operation Council. And it was the only country on the Arabian Peninsula which was not - and still is not - a member of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), which includes the US.

On 3 August 1990 Yemen was the first country in the world to denounce the Iraqi invasion and demand withdrawal from Kuwait. It cautioned against the intervention - especially military - of foreign nations.

This was the basis on which Yemen reacted to UN resolutions: it supported those resolutions which called on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait; it opposed those which authorized the US to spearhead a military operation and it abstained from those placing sanctions on Iraq.

Yemen was immediately targeted as an adversary. It lost all its assistance from the GCC countries. The UK, although vowing to continue its aid programme, found itself unable' to disburse its aid commitments. The total aid loss to Yemen amounts to $500 million over the last two years.

In addition, some 22,000 Yemenis had to flee from Kuwait. Another 800,000 Yemeni workers were kicked out of Saudi Arabia with one month's notice - subsequently extended by a further month. All these workers were legal residents of Saudi Arabia. Some had been there for more than 30 years. By most standards they are more Saudi than Yemeni, spending most of their adult years there, getting married and raising their children.

These Yemenis lost an estimated seven billion dollars in lifelong savings and assets which they either left behind or had to sell at very low prices. Their return overwhelmed Yemen and added to its problems - the purpose was to bring chaos to the country and thereby engineer the fall of its leadership.

Slowly but steadily the returnees were absorbed into the population, with the exception of some 80,000 who had no village, kin or tribe to go back to. These people are still stranded in a few camps scattered around Hodeidah in the Tihama.

Civil wars in the Horn of Africa - Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia - added to the difficulties, producing a flood of refugees. All the countries in the Arabian Peninsula except Yemen refused to take them in. One Saudi official declared, as he took charge of turning back a vessel of Eritrean refugees: 'You need a visa to come to Saudi Arabia'.

The Government of Yemen has now embarked on an ambitious land-reclamation scheme which aims to resettle the returnees on farms. To help this process the Agricultural Co-operative Bank has introduced new credit facilities. Basic services such as roads, schools and health facilities have been expanded, partly financed by a $59.5 million emergency package set up under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme.

There is no doubt that the consequences of the Gulf Crisis have been catastrophic. The UN has yet to pay a single cent in compensation, although countries like Turkey, Egypt and Syria have been collecting substantial payments. Such double standards have unfortunately become a basic element of the New World Order.

But there is a silver lining - the end of Saudi meddling in Yemeni affairs. In the past, Yemenis lived under the constant fear of having to deal with Saudi wrath. Now that it has finally been incurred, even with the blessing of the US, it has turned out not to be as fatal as was feared.

Today Yemen is slowly picking up the pieces and moving on - with more vigour, more independence and more self-confidence. Ironically it is the only country in the Arabian peninsula that upholds the universal values that the West champions worldwide; the only country with a free press and a multi-party political system; the only country that opens the doors of its prisons for inspection by human-rights groups; the only country with a viable and working parliament.

Yemen is planning to hold its next parliamentary elections in November. If these can be accomplished with reasonable success they will be a watershed, marking the country's crossover beyond the effects of the Gulf Crisis.

Abdulaziz AI-Saqqaf is a Professor at Sanaa University and chief Editor of the Yemen Times.

Wilderness days

Jordan aspired to be a model of Western-style development.
Jill Hamburg
reports on a severe case of disillusionment with the West.

Across the farmland of the Jordan River Valley, landslides from last winter's freak snowstorms block the roads. Homes crushed under snow still await repairs.

The immunization programmes for which Jordan was renowned today lag behind schedule. An outbreak of polio has hit dozens of children in poor rural areas. Classrooms are crowded, despite new double-shift school days. Hospitals are overfilled, with thousands of sick Iraqis travelling here for medicine and treatment since their medical facilities were destroyed by the Coalition onslaught.

'We had achieved standards of literacy, immunization and a reduction in infant mortality that approximated to the more developed countries,' says Jordan's Queen Noor. 'We were also considered an education model. And suddenly that progress has been halted - if anything we've regressed. There's been an increase in poverty and the beginnings of malnutrition. Now we're just trying to hold on as best we can.'

Jordan's shipping trade through the Red Sea port of Aqaba is still at a near-halt due to the UN-imposed sanctions against Iraq. Thousands of ships filled with sugar, frozen meat, flour and soya beans are being turned back by American naval inspectors - though foodstuffs are not supposed to be subject to the embargo. 'It's devastating Jordan's maritime business,' says Tawfiq Kawar, president of the Jordanian Shipping Agents Association.

Worst of all, war has bequeathed Jordan nearly 400,000 'returnees', most of them Palestinians without proper papers to re-enter the West Bank, who came to the only place they could, fearing for their lives in the Gulf. The returnees have augmented by ten per cent Jordan's population of three and a half million, increasing unemployment and helping to create shortages of water, classrooms and - in the worst cases - food.

Because of its $98-billion external debt Jordan has been forced by the International Monetary Fund to adopt harsh austerity measures. Inflation has taken off: the cost of fuel and food has risen by as much as 100 per cent. Iraq was Jordan's most important trading partner so the anti-Iraq UN embargo has been ruinous. The loss of Saudi Arabia as a market, and the withdrawal of subsidized Saudi oil, has also hurt.

Many people here were angry at the West's mobilization to protect rich Arab nations' oil while poor Arab people struggle for justice and a daily wage. 'We once looked up to the advanced West,' says Amman publisher Ellen Khoury ruefully. 'But God forbid that I would ever belong to a country that would commit such violence against another as we've seen in Iraq.'

Suspicion of Western values may also hinder Jordan's three-year-old democratization process. Islamic believers are divided from secularists, Right from Left, fanning fear and suspicion. The continuing tension is likely to leave Jordan's leadership more wary of proceeding down the path of democracy than ever before.

Jill Hamburg is a freelance writer on the Middle East who currently lives in Cairo.

Small earthquake

The aftershocks of the Gulf War shook the Third World. Sudan was close to the epicentre. Andrew Cohen took a taxi to find out more.

I left for Khartoum from Gaza in a dusty stretch-Mercedes cab, with two passports and ready for the New World Order.

Burning tyres blocked some streets, but we made it to the Egypt/Israel border, where even dustier cabs take passengers across the Suez all the way to the airport in Cairo. It was a five-hour ride. The driver stopped several times along the way to pay the border guards and to pray. My Air France flight arrived in Khartoum at three o'clock in the morning - the only time that Sudan Air's competitor is allowed to land.

Behind me was a former New York City cab driver, H, who had just come back to live with his family. Since the Sudanese army doesn't lift the curfew until five in the morning we sat down, genially complained to one another about New York and discovered that we'd lived on the same street in Brooklyn.

H and his parents are quiet critics of Sudan's military Government. They live in a two-storey house in Omdurman, an hour's drive from the capital. In a country where the average wage is around $18 a month they're better off than many.

Today, three years after a group of junior army officers seized power on behalf of the fundamentalist National Islamic Front (NIF), and 18 months after the Gulf War, they're clearly afraid. Political parties have been banned. Flour can no longer be bought. Sometimes there's no water. The country has been convulsed by civil war and famine, but the censors let slip no news.

Many who hailed the Gulf War as a triumph now fear that Khartoum has - at least partly as a result of that war - become the focal point of a hard line fundamentalist backlash that will spread throughout Africa and the Middle East.

It is true that Iran helped Sudan's Islamic Government launch an offensive against the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) rebels fighting in the South. Iranian interrogators trained the Sudanese secret police. The Gulf War magnified Iran's regional influence by eclipsing Iraq, and in its wake religious leaders claimed that Islam was the only remaining way to bring about Arab unity, to redress the imbalance of power between East and West and between rich and poor Arab countries.

H and his family are religious Muslims. While they believe that the Gulf War helped rekindle fundamentalism, they argue that Islam is neither so monolithic nor so menacing as it is made out to be by the West. They say that the NIF uses Islam politically to legitimize the Government's repression.

Hassan al-Turabi, NIF's head, is the de facto leader of Sudan. When I interviewed him he argued that the NIF put Sudan at the centre of the New World Order - not the one George Bush imagined, but an Islamic order which Turabi believes will supplant the dream of Arab unity discredited by the Gulf War.

The War ended with 'no Arab unity, no development, no security, no victory against Israel, nothing at all', Turabi says. 'Saudi Arabia, with all its religious legacy, was exposed as a surrogate of American aid... The War itself was such a shock, an earthquake that changed people's outlook, the dawn of a society of religion.'

While the Khartoum regime was cracking down after the Gulf War 'earthquake' Sudan was still feeling the economic aftershocks. With the intensification of the civil war in the South last spring the country's crisis grew more acute. The Government's offensive cut off emergency relief efforts for three months. No number of censors or secret police could conceal a million refugees fleeing war and famine.

The Gulf War only worsened the complicated politics of relief assistance. Last year, angered by Sudan's support for Iraq, Western food donors resolved not to pledge food aid until Sudan declared an emergency. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait withdrew hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance. Tens of thousands of Sudanese expatriates living in the Gulf found it much more difficult to get work, and therefore to send home the remittances that make up the largest part of Sudan's cash economy. Many started home, where the situation was if anything even bleaker.

The UN now estimates that more than seven million people, a quarter of Sudan's population, will need emergency food aid this year, at a cost of almost half a billion dollars. Many of those in need are refugees. Squatters now make up half the capital's population.

The Khartoum Government fears the influx from the Christian and animist South will threaten its political base in the Arab- dominated North. The army has 'resettled' more than 500,000 refugees, demolishing squatter settlements in Khartoum and leaving the victims to fend for themselves in the desert or be driven into Government camps at gunpoint.

In the al-Salaam resettlement camp a wizened former surgeon stood talking to some relief workers in English. Though I didn't recognize him then, an American magazine I had with me carried a picture of him above an article on Sudan - 'Dinka chief from Zagalona, May 1990' read the caption. In 1990, in Zagalona, you might have thought that he was young.

In the summer of 1992 I stood facing the sun, squinting up at the dried-up Dinka chief; as I remember it the scene is phantasmagoric, the sky improbably dark. Zagalona has been destroyed. The army encircled it one night last winter, razed the houses one by one and forced the residents to al-Salaam at gunpoint. My guide took me through the ruins.

Andrew Cohen works for The Nation, New York.



Junk labour
Ian Williams reports on how the migrant workers who built the
oil-rich Gulf states were disposed of during the War.

As the forces of Desert Storm assembled from across the world a reverse movement began, a great army of migrant workers whose toil had built the prosperity of the Gulf.

These workers had come in their millions, from East and West, bringing with them hopes of wages several times higher than they could earn at home. By 1990 there were almost three million of them in Iraq and Kuwait alone, and many more in other Gulf countries.

They poured in to staff the industries and services of the oil bcom. From the Pacific, Thais and Filipinos were joined by Vietnamese; from the Indian Ocean came Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans; from the neighbouring Arab world there were Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Sudanese, Syrians and Yemenis. Still more came from Europe and America. Some 16,000 Vietnamese laboured in construction and transport in return for a barter deal with Iraq which ensured their homeland $400 million worth of oil.

Within months of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait over two million migrants had fled home from the two countries. Some went to escape the conflict, like the half million Egyptians who fled Iraq. Others, like the 800,000 Yemenis sent home from Saudi Arabia, were expelled. Palestinians and Jordanians who fled from Kuwait during the War were soon joined by thousands more after liberation'. By the end of 1991 few remained.

In Saudi Arabia the authorities initially refused to issue gas masks to foreign workers. Rich Kuwaitis evacuated their homes for the safety of holiday villas in France, Spain and Egypt, leaving their Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi housemaids behind. With no money to arrange a passage home, 35,000 were left stranded in what soon became a war zone. At a stroke the 860,000 immigrant workers in Kuwait lost all their possessions, savings and retirement benefits.

Indians fleeing from Iraq or Kuwait had to borrow an average of $1,700 to return home, a debt they are likely to be saddled with for many years. Most of the region's 180,000 Indian migrant workers are from the province of Kerala, which will have to provide for them while losing their remittances.

After the War Kuwait announced that the emphasis would shift to the recruitment of South Asians, who could be relied upon to return home, or 'friendly Arabs like Egyptians on short-term contracts and without their dependents.

The Gulf War underscores the pressing need for International action to protect the rights of migrant workers. In December 1990, as the waves of returned Gulf migrants considered their futures, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families. But for some time to come migrant workers risk being treated as commodities, picked up or abandoned when their use is no longer expedient.

Ian Williams is a freelance journalist who lives in New York. Reproduced courtesy of UNFPA.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

Subscribe   Ethical Shop