In Yemen, the Generator’s Whine, a Country’s Decay
If you plan a shopping trip to Gamal Abdel Nasser Street, one of Sana’a’s busiest and most bustling commercial avenues, to buy clothes or jewelry or anything else during an electricity blackout, you will be met the same way outside of every shop. The district’s customary greeting for visitors: welcome to electrical generator avenue.
It is omnipresent. Even if you do not see one directly outside a store, you will nevertheless find yourself inhaling its carbon monoxide fumes as they are exhausted into the air. Even if you cannot smell one, distinguish the particular odor, its relentless yammering noise will prevent you from speaking on your phone or even hearing it ring.
There are almost no homes, stores, hospitals, or companies that lack a generator. They are the clearest proof of the lack of confidence citizens have in a government which is supposed to, according to democratic theory, give them confidence.
Generators remind Yemenis daily of the weakness and absence of their state. The machines help them adjust to the situation with a minimum of resentment. Blackouts have become an ordinary occurrence that no longer anger irritate people. They are like features of the landscape, as natural as the setting of the sun, the falling of rain or fate itself.
This is how it happens: A saboteur, or a tribal sheikh, 173 kilometers outside the capital decides to attack the electricity supply for whatever reason: perhaps the arrest of a family member, or because he is seeking a government grant, or maybe a relative has been killed in a US drone strike. So he shoots a rocket or maybe sprays bullets at a high tension lines. Or he tosses a hook called a khabta across the lines; immediately putting the electrical plant offline. Before the official news agency can even dispatch the obligatory apologetic sms, the capital is plunged into darkness. An instant later, you hear the droning of electrical generators starting up.
To see the whole history of power generators, to become a connoisseur of all the models and ranges available, you need only take a stroll down Gamal Abdel Nasser Street, for the half a kilometer between the Egyptian Embassy and Tahrir Square. You will find yourself thinking that every shipping container coming in from China to Yemen-via Yemeni traders of course-must be filled with electrical generators or flashlights.
There was a time a few years ago when owning a generator was a sign of wealth and luxury. If you could hear a generator’s roar coming out of a house, you immediately deduced that the owner was either a public official or a businessman. But things changed after the mistaken killing of the deputy governor of Ma’rib province, Jaber al-Shabwani in a US air attack on May 24, 2010, an event for which Yemenis are still being collectively and indiscrimately punished. Immediately, violent clashes broke out between the al-Shabawani’s Abeida tribe and the army. A week later, brigades loyal to Al Shabwani swore revenge and shelled an electrical power plant with heavy weapons. Sana’a was plunged into darkness for several days. This was a turning point in life for Yemenis.
Up until then power blackouts were sporadic events which usually lasted a couple of hours and were caused by the inability to meet increasing demand for electricity. After the al-Shabwani killing, power cuts became habitual, extremely effective tools of extortion in the struggle between the government and the tribes, and even between the Americans and the Al Qaeda organization.
The turmoil put the government on its heels, and it ended up apologizing on behalf of Washington for the mistaken airstrike. Inadvertently, this ended up encouraging any other group that wanted to extract something from the state to do exactly the same thing: attack electrical plants. The Arab uprisings began a few months later, and with them demonstrations demanding the downfall of the regime that spread through numerous Yemeni cities in the beginning of 2011. And so power plant attacks have become a daily occurrence, even a form of crisis management, with both the regime and its opponents blaming each other for them. Electricity has been transformed into a tool of collective torture and punishment.
In his book, “The Great War for Civilization”, the British journalist Robert Fisk writes that the Arab fighters in Afghanistan were the first to carry out attacks on power lines to hamper the movement of occupying Russian troops. The idea spread back to Algeria where Islamist groups even issued fatwas calling for its use against “immoral” local authorities. In Yemen, the Arab-Afghan mujahidin started to return home with the union of the north and south of the country in May of 1990. Most of them were given dual Yemeni and Saudi nationality, through an arrangement with the regime of former President Saleh, an American ally in the Cold War, for their role in the 1994 Summer War against the union partner, the Yemeni Socialist Party.
The Communist “devil” was defeated and the alliance between the government and the mujahidin broke up. In December 1998, sentences were handed down against members of the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army on charges of planning attacks against the British Embassy. The organization responded by kidnapping 16 tourists. Four of them were injured in an army raid. In October 1999, the organization’s founder Abu Bakr Al-Mihdar was executed, signaling the point of no return.
Although Al Qaeda had not included Yemeni oil fields and pipelines in its list of targets, in March 2002, three months after the first US attack, its local leader Abu Ali Al-Harithi was targeted.
Until then, Al Qaeda tended to limit its targets to western interests – the USS Cole, the Limburg, embassies, tourists kidnappings, foreign petroleum companies. But after the American attack, Al Qaeda ‘nationalized’ its own attacks: Oil pipelines and all other government interests became legitimate targets. This was a disaster, in which Yemen could only lose.
So Yemen’s present economic catastrophe can be traced back to two US attacks: the killing of Al Qaeda chief Al-Harithi which legitimized the targeting of pipelines, and the killing of deputy governor Al-Shabwani which legitimized the targeting of electricity supplies. The proof of this is that between 1992 and 2009, Al Qaeda carried out 48 attacks and only one targeted a power plant, and five attacks targeted petroleum installations (according to the list compiled by the Carnegie Center, and published in Christopher Boucek’s “Yemen on the Brink”).
Six attacks in 17 years- compared to hundreds of attacks in only three years since (2011-2014). Losses estimated by the government of 4.7 billion dollars. A perfectly clear picture of the fragile and detrimental nature of Yemen’s relationship with America. Washington’s aid to Sana’a over the past few years does not even cover a single year of losses caused by blackouts in the electrical sector.
Yemen and Pakistan lead the list of partner states in the war on terror, and they are the two states that have suffered the most US drone strikes in the world. Nonetheless, Washington’s aid to Yemen in 2009 was only 27.5 million dollars, compared to 1.8 billion dollars to Pakistan in 2008.
Every time a power line is blown up, the Yemeni people wonder why the American drones do not kill the saboteurs. Instead of that it is civilians and innocent victims who fall victim to the American attacks, like those at the wedding party in Rada’a. This makes matters more complicated and earns sympathy for Al Qaeda and armed groups.
Things have changed a lot over the past three years: a president has left and a new one has replaced him; the old regime has been replaced by a new government, the political parties have joined the national dialog conference; the state has gone from being simple to complex. The only thing that has not changed is the almost daily attacks on power stations that have become something of a habit; and as well all know bad habits are hard to break.
The revolutionary youth called for the regime to fall. Instead, the Gulf initiative, with the blessing of the US, protected it and reinforced it. The only thing that fell, or nearly fell, was the Ma’rib Gas Station, and with it, the Yemeni economy.