Back in the late 80s, I did a consulting gig with the United Nations Capital Fund in (then Communist, Soviet Union ally) South Yemen. I was the first American to visit the country in 10 years. I called our State Department to inquire about getting a visa and was told “We don’t talk to them, and they don’t talk to us. If you go there, you’re on you’re own.”
Yemen is a desert, beautiful country with dramatic canyons and brick homes built at the base of steep cliffs with overhanging rocks which to me expressed the deep fatalism and trust in Allah of it’s inhabitants. They had a tribal justice system in the rural villages that worked for everything from squabbles over chickens to life-giving water distribution rights. I saw both at work there when we visited a small village in Hydraumat. We stood in the doorway of a government building, watching as a man handsome as Omar Sharif listened to two men take turns pleading their cases for what we knew what. Omar listened to them, a combination of boredom and annoyance on his features, until he suddenly saw the three foreign visitors in the doorway, which he knew meant something important was going down, possibly a development project. He made a sweeping motion with his hand as if brushing away flies and the two altercators quickly decamped.
Later, Omar took us to see the water distribution system, and how he collected taxes for the water use. It amounted to a sheet of paper, onto which he had recorded how many liters of water each family in the village had consumed, and how much they paid for it.
Today, due to the rebellion, there is no diesel fuel for the water pumps. In a matter of days, cities like Sana will run out of water.
Yemen is a desert.
Damn, how does one keep up with it all? It’s gotten to the point where unless the leaders of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Ivory Coast are personally out there with an AK 47 mowing down their citizenry, their antics may go unnoticed, much less reported on, for days, maybe weeks.
The Washington Post has tried to cope with this by giving us a brief “Turmoil in the Middle East” box score each day at the bottom of the front page, but there we can only learn the latest from Lybia, Yemen and Syria — although there was the gratifying picture of an Egyptian billionaire and main man homey of Gamal Mubarak, Ahmed Ezz (will he learn to rap in prison? Note to Ahmen: call Jay-Zee for representation) in an immaculate white jump suit sitting in a cell he shares with the ex-tourism minister.
Never one to be reactive, I came up with a solution. I asked Gbagbo, Ghadaffi, Assad, and Saleh to wear small lapel clip Tyrant-a-Cams, so we can see what they see: giving orders to open fire on protesters, upraiding their wives that they can only take so many kilograms of jewelry in the getaway plane, or drawing up a list of “reforms” they think might give them another few weeks hold on power.
You may think this was not an easy sell, and you would be correct. To obtain their cooperation in this enterprise, I had to give away a 30% stake in my joint venture with Logitech, the company who came up with the technology. These men are thinking ahead to the day when they may need to earn an honest living in whatever country they can persuade to receive them as Tyrants in Exile.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, looks like we dodged the Budget Bullet and have lived fight another day. Good on you, O, the Great Compromiser. Now if we could just figure out what your end game is — or are you just making it up as you go along?
As feared, Despots-R-Us (Bahrain, Saudi, Yemen) are taking heart from Khadaffi’s I’m-the-President-I-can-kill-whom-I-please response to the uprising and are turning their guns on their own people. I remember when one of my union buddies, who had been assigned to Chile during the Pinochet era was at a party with a plethora of generals and colonels, all sprouting medals and ribbons on their chests and, listening to them bad mouthing the unions, responded: “So, did you get those all those medals for killing your own people?”
Had a possibly historic meeting of the microfinance CEOs this weekend, but am under a gag order until we meet again, a month from now. But it was progress.
Got to catch a flight! Next stop: Zambia.