United on Paper

Nojoud Muhammed Nasser is apparently the most famous Yemeni girl in the world. Last week, the 8-year-old went alone to a courthouse in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a and personally requested that a judge accept a petition against her father, who forced her to marry a 30-year-old man. She also demanded that the judge compel her husband to divorce her.

Yemeni law specifies that the minimum age for marriage is 15, but it permits arrangement of marriage contracts for younger girls as long as "there is no intimate contact with them." Nasser told the court that whenever she wanted to play in the yard, her husband demanded that she return home to engage in sexual relations with him.

Her story, covered in every Yemeni newspaper, is just one example of the enormous discrepancies between what appears to be a civilized republic based on constitutional law, and the reality on the ground.

Nasser's husband was detained, but it is doubtful that the court will convict him or Nasser's father, who forced her to marry. "Two books of law" determine conduct in Yemen, official law and tribal custom, and when those two legal systems conflict, tribal custom rules.

This dualism not only plagues Yemeni law - the impression that Yemen itself is a unified nation is misleading. While the Yemeni government issued a call to all its young citizens to serve in its armed forces, its intention was apparently to enlist only youngsters from the north. Southern residents are still suspect, and the government prefers to distance them from military service.

Early this month, riots took place against this background in southern Yemeni towns when northern officers refused to conscript two young men from the south who registered to enlist. A total of 11 people were killed, dozens wounded, and hundreds were detained in these clashes, thus deepening the gap between north and south.

After decades of divisive relations between the north and the south, and despite the unification agreement signed in May 1990, the 1994 civil war that caused that agreement to collapse, and renewed unification in the wake of that war, Yemen still conducts business as if it is two separate nations.

There was perfect unification on paper. Liberal laws and agreements, which granted women the right to vote and be elected, and protected freedom of the press and freedom of movement between regions and to other nations, were supposed to transform the united Yemen into a unique political entity in the Middle East.

But all of this existed only on paper. The mere thought that southern Yemen, a Communist nation fashioned on Marxist principles led by a dictator who relied on an old-fashioned, Soviet-style politburo, and a nation which merely tolerated Islam and preservation of its law, could collaborate, much less unite, with conservative, tribal, devout northern Yemen, a nation whose leaders paled when they witnessed religious anarchy in Aden, was implausible.

Yet, for a while, it appeared that mutual economic dependency would strengthen both states and forge a reasonable partnership, if not the bonds of love. Southern Yemen lost a vital source of income when the Suez Canal reopened to traffic in 1975, and hoped-for earnings from the port of Aden failed to materialize. Disintegration of foreign projects, including oil drilling stations and refineries, caused additional decreases in productivity and loss of income, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the nation's sole financial sponsor, further reduced Yemen's strategic importance, and, in the main, brought the nation's residents to the brink of starvation.

Military service has enormous financial significance in Yemen, because its army and police are the nation's two major employers, and the unemployment rate occasionally exceeds 35 percent. Moreover, more than half of Yemen's 22 million residents live below the poverty line.

Government impotence

In a country considered the poorest Arab nation, gaps exist not only between the north and the south but between the central government and the tribes that control major rural areas. There is no difference between north and south in this sphere. The government's impotence is palpable in every region.

Tribes demand assistance in purchasing vehicles, paving roads, or construction of schools, in return for their release of kidnapped tourists. Security forces who attempted to forcibly free hostages in the past suffered their own blows, and subsequently decided to permit tribes to conduct their own "hostage transactions."

Foreign travel agents understood that it was better to engage in direct negotiations with tribal leaders for the heads of tourists rather than enlist the aid of security forces, and that this permitted all sides to benefit from tourism.

But tribal leaders face competition from radical elements apparently affiliated with Al Qaida. They view tourism as a valuable boon to the nation's economy, despite the fact that earnings from tourism represent only 2 percent of Yemen's gross national product. In order to damage the nation's economy, these groups not only captured but killed a number of tourists, thus significantly reducing the numbers of tourists who visit Yemen.

Last week, when a government spokesman announced Yemen's plan to promote the arrival of half a million tourists and its ambition to raise that number to one million tourists by the end of the decade, he was asked how these objectives could be met in the face of limits imposed by radical organizations to the secure movement of tourists within the nation. New guidelines require that every tourist who wishes to travel beyond Sana'a obtain a permit from the Interior Ministry. That permit contains information regarding the tourist's planned itinerary, which enables the government to dispatch negotiation teams in the event that the tourist is kidnapped or worse.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh straddles the boundaries between tribal and federal law, Al Qaida and sheikhs, and north and south in an attempt to preserve the life of his nation. He enjoys the support of President Bush, to whom he promises to wage a fierce war against Al Qaida, and whom he reminds of Yemen's strategic location in the Bab al-Mandab straits. He concurrently fosters close relations with Iran, whose foreign minister visited Sana'a early this month.

Saleh also spearheaded two initiatives designed to solve the region's two gravest crises. He sent a mediation team to Lebanon and hosted representatives of Fatah and Hamas, who signed a document of understanding. Neither initiative has produced any real results to date, but they did grant Saleh a more impressive status in the Arab summit in Damascus, which, like the Yemeni initiatives, produced mainly hot air.