Local Yemenis worry over chaos at home

They gather at a restaurant in the capital and fret about loved ones in a land vexed by rebels, secessionists, a weak economy and al Qa'eda

07/01/2010 - Dubai, UAE -  Mohammed Abdullah, a native of Yemen and manager of the Happy Yemen Restaurant, right, sits with friends outside the restaurant on Thursday January 7, 2010.   (Andrew Henderson / The National) *** Local Caption ***  ah_100107_yemen_0002.jpg
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ABU DHABI // Seated at a small table inside the crowded Happy Yemen Restaurant, off Airport Road in the capital, Dr Ameen al Saleem says he has never seen the situation in his home country as dire as it is now.

Dr al Saleem, who has lived here with his wife and now seven children since 1990, said "This period has been very stressful, because we are worried about our families. "We don't know what will happen. Yemen was never like this. I've never seen it this bad before. I really hope they can control the situation." But that situation shows no sign of improving. Extremism and ineffective governance have led to what he described as a "chronic disease" in his country.

In the north, the government's conflict with the Houthi rebels continues, with Saudi Arabia becoming involved. Al Qa'eda, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly active. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a US-bound flight on December 25, is reported to have told investigators that he was trained by al Qa'eda in Yemen. Just this week, Yemeni forces killed two suspected militants.

Secessionists are active again in the south of the country, looking for a return to the situation of more than two decades ago, before the unification of the Communist south and the western-backed north. In addition, the central government does not control the many parts of the country where powerful tribal chiefs command the loyalties of the local populace. The al Saleems, just one family among the UAE's estimated 70,000 Yemenis, have no immediate plans to return home. When Dr al Saleem, an eye specialist, returned to visit his hometown of Ibb in December, many family members expressed concern over what the next year would bring.

"There had been some limited improvements in things like infrastructure but the people were more tense," he said. "Poverty in Yemen as well as an absence of resources has made young people more vulnerable to extremists who take advantage of them." The Happy Yemen Restaurant is a hive of noise and activity at lunchtime, with waiters squeezing between tables with trays of fresh bread and grilled fish.

Mohammed Abdullah, the manager, sits behind the counter taking orders, seating customers and shouting to the kitchen staff as he orchestrates the midday meal. Many Yemenis frequent the restaurant for a taste of home and to catch up on the latest news. Conversations have increasingly turned to the growing instability in the country, said Mr Abdullah, who has lived in the UAE since the country's formation 38 years ago but still returns to Yemen every two or three years.

"Each time I go, the situation goes further and further down," he said. He said a weak economy, joblessness and a rising cost of living are issues affecting his family, which also lives in the town of Ibb. "They are worried about the economy, schooling and hospitals for their children," Mr Abdullah said. "But we are also concerned that Yemen could become like Somalia or Afghanistan. Inshallah, it will be all right."

Most days, Khaled al Quhash, a 38-year-old Yemeni, has lunch at the restaurant. Despite being born in the UAE, he still refers to Yemen as his home and remains in almost daily contact with his family in the town of Mareb. "We hope it will be 'Happy' Yemen, but today it is not," he said. "It is unhappy and people are feeling sad." Abdou Qassim, from Al Hudaida, is another loyal customers. "It's like the food in my home," he said. "We sit here and talk about Yemen, home and our families."

Mr Qassim, 28, has lived in the UAE for nine years and works in a furniture shop in the capital, sending money home to provide for his wife and two children who remain in Yemen. "Yemen is my country, where my family, my children are; it is my land," he said. "I have to go back one day." Fadel al Yaffaei has lived in the UAE for 12 years and said he feels very much at home here. "The relationship between Yemen and the UAE is very, very close," he said. "Here, sometimes we don't feel like we are out of Yemen."

But Yemen has political and security woes unknown here, leading to what Mr al Yaffaei described as increasing "fawda", or chaos. "Here, you see that everything is good and stable," he said. "When we see Yemen, we see a lot of problems and it makes us sad. I think there is a chance for peace. Why not? But we need help from our brothers." In the past week, the US and UK announced plans to provide millions of dollars in funding to boost anti-terrorism activities in the country.

Much of the money has been earmarked for training, but some Yemenis here expressed concern about an increase in western involvement. Mohammed Ahmed, who works in a shop in the capital selling the honey for which the Hadramout region is famous, said without intervention he fears the country could descend into civil war. However, Mr Ahmed, originally from the capital, Sana'a, believes it is crucial for regional players, including GCC countries, to be involved.

Waleed bin Jamaan, a paralegal from the village of al Hami in the south of Yemen, who lives in Sharjah, agreed. "Support should come from the Arab states, especially the GCC," he said. "I hope they'll bring stability. It's important to everyone." zconstantine@thenational.ae