SANAA, Yemen — Driving through the dirt-strewn streets on the outskirts of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, Akram Shamhan is reticent about his president.
Asked about what he thought of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has held power since 1978, Shamhan said, “You know what I think of our president,” as if his opinion was palpable.
When pressed his response is a derisory laugh.
Touring Sanaa, where ancient architecture cradles medieval scenes of donkeys pulling carts and beggars asking passers-by for baksheesh, or tips, Shamhan appeared subdued.
This 35-year-old cement company accountant is from a comparatively well-off family. He is not one of the millions of poor one encounters here or part of the ruling regime.
Shamhan is in fact fairly cosmopolitan, having lived for significant parts of his early and adult life in Egypt before returning to be with his family of five brothers and five sisters, to what is the poorest country in the Middle East.
When afternoon rains struck this mountainous capital, turning the main thoroughfare into a canal, Shamhan became more open. As the car lurched to make an escape he turned and sarcastically said, “This is why we love our president.”
That evening, in the front room of the home of one of Shamhan’s friends, dramatic scenes of a Lebanese soap opera were cut short by a blackout. As candles were found, Shamhan said, “This is the second reason why we love our president.”
Returning to the city center at night the president’s newly built Al Saleh Mosque could be seen from the car window, as it can from most parts of Sanaa.
Completed two years ago, it is larger than the majority of mosques found in Lebanon, Egypt or Syria, and is said to hold about 40,000 people. To residents, its immaculate cobble-stone parking lot and lucent exterior exemplify what their city streets are patently lacking. Estimates for the cost of the president’s eponymous place of worship range from $60 million to $120 million and upwards.
Although Shamhan might pray here, he said: “This is the third reason why we love our president.”
While Shamhan’s sardonicism might have been light in tone, its meaning carried weight. President Saleh’s mosque was built while 45 percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line and basic infrastructure is absent.
It may have been intended to convey the munificence of Saleh’s rule to his people and the region, but the mosque’s incongruity in Sanaa’s rundown “new city” is perhaps more symbolic of government corruption and oppression.
Mohamed Ali Al-Maqtary, Transparency International’s executive director in Yemen, said corruption permeates all parts of society and has only gotten worse in recent years.
“Corruption is affecting all aspects of Yemeni’s daily lives, particularly in poor areas, spreading unemployment and corrupting the moral values of this community,” he said.
Many of Yemen’s varied problems, and potential solutions, lie at the hands of the regime. But corruption is so widespread that it is difficult to refute.
“Institutions have dropped down in the past 20 years because of the promotion of people not because of their capabilities but because of tribal or political reasons,” said Mohamed Qutaby, an adviser to Ali Mohammed Mujur, the prime minister, and a member of the ruling General People’s Congress.
“A lot of people have been appointed to a lot of institutions without real caliber or potential to maintain those institutions.”
Asked about the wisdom of spending millions of dollars in government funds on the presidential mosque, Qutaby said: “Instead of going through channels that would feed the economy, funds have been sometimes going through structures that are there just for the sake of admiration and self-admiration.”
Alongside poverty and unrest on three fronts — uprisings in the north and south as well as a resurgence of Al Qaeda in the country — Yemen is at risk of severe water shortages and food insecurity. A population that is set to double within 20 years and incoming refugees fleeing war in Somalia is putting a greater strain on resources.
Giny Hill, who runs the Yemen Forum at Chatham House, said the government needs to address these issues within the next eight to 10 months to have any chance of resolving them, but that government illegitimacy is hampering its ability to do so.
“For the government to find broader based support and to be seen as more legitimate, tackling corruption is logically one of the issues that needs to be taken,” she said.
Shamhan feels the limitations in his everyday life. He said the only way to progress in the workplace is by having the support of those in power or to belong to the ruling party.
“Jobs and benefits do not go to those who deserve it but to those who can pay the highest bribe or whoever is empowered by an important figure in the government,” he said.
Shamhan said the “simplest of transactions” within government has to be coerced with a bribe. This can even come in the form of khat, a light stimulant, illegal in most countries, but whose widespread use in Yemen means that a large portion of the population becomes virtually unproductive past midday.
Corruption impacts upon services, such as healthcare and education, from primary to university levels. About 40 percent of children fail to complete primary education, down from 20 percent in 2000, according to the United Nations. Inequality is significant, with the richest 10 percent of the population earning 25 percent of national income, in a nation where the average annual wage is about $2,500 per person.
On the 20th anniversary of Yemeni unity in May this year, the president said that improving the living standards was the government’s primary concern.
But a national committee set up in 2006 to fight corruption has produced few results and about $3 billion pledged at a donor’s conference that same year remains unused because of doubts over the country’s capacity to use the money.
In the reality of the dark outskirts of Sanaa, Shamhan is hoping for much less for himself and his compatriots. Widespread water supplies, electricity throughout the day and health insurance are his daily concerns, and he said he wants conditions that provide for a fairer and more stable life for Yemenis.
Maybe then he will truly love his president.