New golden era beckons for Yemen

The poorest Arab nation could receive its boost thanks to the soaring price of gold and prospectors' increasing tolerance for risk.

A Yemeni soldier stands guard near the capital Sana’a. Significant gold finds could boost the country’s revenues.
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Yemen, the poorest Arab nation, is in line to receive a golden parachute for its economy.

The country could receive its boost thanks to the soaring price of gold and prospectors' increasing tolerance for risk.

Thani Dubai Mining, the UAE company that has found a gold deposit in Yemen worth about US$3 billion (Dh11.01bn), is not alone in its search for riches in lands that once included the fabulously rich kingdom of Saba, or Sheba.

The Romans called the land "Arabia Felix"for its abundance of grain, fruit, incense and mineral wealth. Sabaean temples were lined with gold. The Queen of Sheba's gifts to King Solomon are said to have included more than 4 tonnes of gold, precious stones and spices.

The ancient tale has lured new prospectors to Yemen. Some found oil and gas, although not in the quantities hoped for, and the nation's oil output is declining.

Gold could be a different story.

At least two areas are under active exploration: Wadi Medden in south central Yemen near the coast, where Thani is thought to have proved the presence of 2.2 million ounces of gold; and an area in north-west Yemen, closer to Marib.

Thani holds mineral exploration rights to some of that land but does not have the place to itself.

A Canadian company, Cantex Mine Development, holds the rights to other nearby blocks on which Canada's most famous contemporary minerals prospector, Charles Fipke, has discovered the remains of an extensive ancient mining camp.

"Remarkably, the mining/processing technology closely resembles [what] was used in Egypt circa 1,000BC," John Greenough, a professor of earth sciences at the University of British Columbia whose research team was asked to examine the remains, wrote in 2002.

Mr Fipke, the chairman of Cantex, had suggested he had found the fabled King Solomon's Mines of Ophir, celebrated in a classic adventure novel and at least two Hollywood films. The mine site "would have been the major area where Sheba would have got her gold", he wrote in a report in the journal Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy.

That claim might have seemed preposterous from anyone with a lesser reputation. But Mr Fipke's most famous exploit was a decade-long treasure hunt above the Arctic circle that led to the development of Canada's first commercial diamond mine. He owns 10 per cent of the mine, now controlled by the international resources group BHP Billiton, which opened in 1998. Two years earlier, he had embarked on his next adventure prospecting in Arabia's Hajar Mountains.

Chad Ulansky, a former field assistant of Mr Fipke who is now the president and chief executive of Cantex, said the Canadian company's search for gold had attracted financial backing from Dubai investors unaffiliated with Thani.

The group bought a shell company with a Toronto Stock Exchange listing but no assets. The renamed Emperor Minerals last month signed a letter of intent for an option to acquire 70 per cent of the Cantex project and is expected to formalise a joint-venture agreement.

Mr Ulansky expects Cantex to complete a pre-feasibility study for a mine by the end of next year. "That should give us a good idea of whether a commercial project is possible," he said, adding the news about Thani was encouraging, he added.

As for the ancient mine sites, the remains have been dated to about 1000BC, the age of Solomon and Sheba, but have not been matched to museum artefacts.

The mystery of King Solomon's Mines remains.