Abd-A-Karim Al-Arhabi is the deputy prime minister for economic affairs and the minister of planning and international cooperation for the Republic of Yemen. He is also the founder and managing director of the Social Fund for Development.
This past April, Arhabi received a public service award from the World Bank, citing him as a “key champion in the battle to reduce poverty, improve governance and broaden economic growth for Yemen.”
The Media Line’s Felice Friedson recently spoke with the Deputy Prime Minister in his office in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. From The Jerusalem Post:
TML: Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abd-A-Karim Al-Arhabi, thank you for taking the time for this interview.
Arhabi: You're welcome.
TML: It's rare in the West to hear anything [about Yemen] without the words al-Qaida. Is that accurate? Is that a fair assessment?
Arhabi: No, it is not. It cannot be. You yourself are in Sana'a and you see how Sana'a is. We have some isolated incidents of al-Qaida types from time to time, but many countries are subjected to some threats, so it's not only Yemen. Other countries are subject to similar terror acts. The media is exaggerating. Talking about al-Qaida is exciting and it attracts readers and viewers. That's why whatever relates to al-Qaida is being very much exaggerated and it overshadows the image of Yemen, which is most unfair.
TML: On one hand, there is a story to tell about Yemen, the country. A poor country, but a country with a rich history and beautiful architecture. On the other hand, there are serious incidents in rural areas with al-Qaida and terrorism, so how do you contain that terrorism?
Arhabi: I think the government is doing its best. Yemen unfortunately went through several cycles: or permanent cycles of conflict.
You are first, absolutely right. Yemen is a very interesting country; a unique country; has a rich culture; has a beautiful landscape and a long history of civilization which extends back to 1700 B.C. We have a civilization that is 3,700 years old. The country has very limited resources and unfortunately went through continuous cycles of conflict for 50 years which has drained resources and energy.
At the present time, the government is trying its best to combat terrorism and al-Qaida -- but we all know that Yemen has very little in terms of financial resources and human resources necessary to deal with al-Qaida. The government is doing its best; and has had several successes in combating al-Qaida.
TML: Does Yemen welcome American assistance and guidance in countering terrorism?
Arhabi: Terrorism is a global threat and unless we all join forces together, we will not be able to defeat that threat. That's why we need to cooperate -- all of us --in exchanging information, experience and so on; and providing all kinds of necessary support. It is an official position of the Yemeni government to accept support, whether it is coming from the United States or any other development partners.
TML: It is known that poor countries like Yemen have areas where al-Qaida seeks out young people in order to drag them into terrorism. How do you prevent that?
Arhabi: You are absolutely right. The young people are most vulnerable to being influenced by al-Qaida and the extremists. The young people who don't have proper education and skill training and a respectable life can be misled and used for any purpose. That's why it is of extreme importance that we focus on young people to provide them with good education, focusing on skills, training and jobs. Otherwise, it can be extremely dangerous. Extremists usually target young people to indoctrinate them. That's a big danger, actually. Young people who have no perspectives in life, have to be careful and Yemen needs to provide young people with hope and perspectives.
TML: Yemen appears to be making serious efforts towards democratization. Is the West helping sufficiently? Are you satisfied with that assistance or should there be more?
Arhabi: Well, our needs are unlimited, to be fair, in terms of democratization; and in terms of meeting the basic needs of the population. Our needs are unlimited, but we welcome any support. We have some donors and development partners that have been providing us with support for the last three and four decades. But still, what Yemen is getting is very limited. I can give you some examples. The official development assistance that Yemen is getting is between $13 and $15 per capita per year while the average per capita in the least developing countries is more than $40 per capita per year. Yemen is very much under-funded. This is a well-known fact. Sometimes you have donors that are focusing on specific parts of the world to provide assistance and sometimes donors confuse us with the Peninsula as a whole. They feel we are part of the huge wealth in the Peninsula which is not true. Yemen is a very poor country.
TML: As managing director of the Social Fund for Development, at what rate is Yemen's economy moving forward? How fast is it growing?
Arhabi: We had ambitious plans. We thought that we would be able to reach high economic growth: to be able to reduce poverty in the country. Our population growth is 3 % and we planned to have economic growth of 7.1% for the three to five years according to a plan spanning from 2006 to 2010. Unfortunately, we couldn't reach that goal. It was too ambitious and we had so many problems in the country. What we achieved was an average of 4.6% economic growth, which is reasonable if you take into consideration the difficulties and challenges the country is facing.
TML: The Social Fund for Development is now backing the expansion of the coffee industry. Some of the coffee suppliers that I spoke with expressed concerned over the government's lack of assistance in the area of water -- that they need dams -- and that they need internationally-recognized grading systems in order to move the coffee industry forward. What does the government need to do in order to make that difference?
Arhabi: Again, it is the same problem. The needs are unlimited and the resources are very limited. The government has been providing assistance to the farmers but it's not enough, I agree with that. However, our planning is to have special programs to support the coffee growers and farmers and provide them with the necessary assistance in terms of capacity building; building dams and modern irrigation systems. We are determined to provide such assistance to the coffee farmers.
TML: Is the plan to be able to help coffee growers distribute better or is it to actually process the coffee here and ship directly?
Arhabi: We would like to provide them with comprehensive assistance. We will intensify our assistance to the coffee farmers by providing them with capacity building but also to provide them with some basic services they need like you mentioned: the water. We will try to help them building rainwater harvesting schemes in their areas. At the same time, we have several microfinance programs and small enterprise financing programs that could provide funding as well for the processing and trade of coffee. Such assistance is available and accessible to the coffee farmers and coffee traders and those who are interested in processing.
TML: Looking at the rest of Yemen, the other industry that has room to grow is the grape industry. Are grapes second-class citizens to coffee beans?
Arhabi: No, I think we have assorted programs in the country to promote economic activities all over the country. Those are limited programs and cannot meet all the needs and demands for services all over the country so we have several programs targeting different sectors; different areas of the country; and also different products.
TML: What is your biggest frustration in speaking to the American or Western markets?
Arhabi: To the Western markets? Of course we want to have better access to those markets. At the present time, we are negotiating with the different countries for access to the World Trade Organization. Hopefully, we’ll get good deals in those negotiations with the different countries.
TML: When the Western world looks at the Middle East, almost reflexively the conversation comes around to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality, there are a number of other Middle Eastern issues. Here in Yemen, how does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rank among conflicts?
Arhabi: Well, this is a major conflict that is occupying everybody. I think everybody is very much interested to resolve this conflict. Everyone is interested in a fair settlement of the conflict. This is a very sensitive issue to all Arabs and Muslims in general and hopefully the Americans, the Europeans can really help in reaching a fair settlement for this issue and Palestinians can regain their rights again.
TML: Does it impact Yemen directly?
Arhabi: It impacts all Arab countries -- no doubt about that whatsoever.
TML: Issues of women in the region do not exactly fall under the category of your ministry, they are serious issues today in terms of the nation’s development. How do you rate Yemen ranks in terms of how its women are treated and its progress in that direction?
Arhabi: We have no doubt that the gender issue is a big issue in the country. It is being discussed at all levels. In the first place, we admit we have a problem and that's the first step toward doing something about it. We have several programs which are addressed toward women in this country. Yemen is one of the first countries that signed several conventions and treaties related to women's rights and the gender issue. The government is focused very much on girls' education. Girls' education is one of the areas that will help really enrich the level of equality between men and women; and will enable women to contribute substantially to the nation’s development. If you look into Yemen now and compare it with the Yemen of two or three decades ago, you will see a big difference. The woman has really gained a lot during the last few decades and is now participating actively in the labor market. The growth of employment of women in the government agencies is growing continuously; and the whole society now recognizes that women have their own advantages when it comes to the workplace. They are recognized for being more disciplined and organized; and so there is a lot of acceptance for employment of women whether in the private sector or in government agencies. We made significant progress but of course it is not enough. Within the plan for the next five years, we have a chapter on gender issues, so we will endorse several policies that will promote the development and participation of woman in business and government.
TML: Two issues women view as being seriously backward are healthcare for women and allowing women to take vacations from work. Are these going to be resolved in the near future?
Arhabi: These are some of the challenges that we are aware of and we are doing our best to deal with them. But as I said, the needs are huge and the resources extremely limited in this country.
TML: What is the biggest challenge you face personally in the next 10 years?
Arhabi: There are so many challenges but I think education is a very big challenge. We still have millions of kids who have no access to schools, who drop out. We have problems of educational quality. We have problems to provide the right skill training that the market needs. I think the biggest challenge is education. Education can deal with other challenges, like population growth, health and other money challenges. So I think education is a big, big concern.
TML: Thank you very much for the time, Mr. Deputy Minister.