SANAA â€” Taxi driver Mohamed Abdul Karim swears under his breath as he swings past the giant, multimillion dollar mosque being built to honour Yemen’s president.
“I don’t make enough money to feed my family every month, and we go and spend millions of dollars on another mosque,” said Abdul Karim, who earns about 20,000 Yemeni riyals ($100) a month. “This corruption has to stop.” The mosque, boasting five towering minarets and a reported $35 million price tag, is being funded by wealthy supporters of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s leader of 27 years.
Although it is not paid for from state coffers, the huge expenditure still angers many Yemenis, who see it as a symbol of graft here in the Middle East’s poorest nation and one of the world’s most corrupt.
The World Bank is growing tired of the corruption, too.
Earlier this month, the agency said it would reduce by 34 per cent its upcoming three-year loan assistance package to Yemen, starting July 2006, because of a lack of government transparency and good governance.
“Everyone in Yemen from the president down is talking about the issue of corruption. But the next thing is to do something about it,” Emmanuel Mbi, the bank’s director for Yemen, told the Associated Press in Cairo last week.
World Bank officials decided last month to offer about $300 million in loans to Yemen, down from $420 million allocated for 18 health and education projects during the current three-year package ending next June, said Mbi.
If Yemen makes improvements in fighting corruption, the amount could go up again next year, Mbi said.
But stamping out corruption anytime soon is unlikely.
Foreign governments, potential international investors and local civil society and opposition groups all call corruption the No. 1 obstacle blocking Yemen’s bid to pull itself out of an economic crisis, compounded by debt of about $6 billion.
Saleh, who has held power in this turbulent southern Arabian Peninsula state by co-opting its tribal, military and religious leaders, last month repeated his call for an end to the graft.
But the president heads a system relying on corruption, making efforts to purge large-scale bribery and cronyism virtually impossible.
“It is a well-known fact that so many people are appointed on a political basis to the government for the purpose of keeping the country together,” said Social Affairs Minister Abdulkarim Arhabi, a widely respected Cabinet member and head of Yemen’s most transparent ministry.
Adds Dr Abdullah Al Faqih, a Sanaa University political science professor: “Corruption works by someone just joining Saleh’s ruling party, and you are then rewarded with being able to do whatever you want.” Attempts have been made to prevent government workers from stooping to corruption, including raising average monthly salaries for civil servants from 8,000 Yemeni riyals ($41) to a still paltry 20,000 Yemeni riyals ($103).
In addition, a group called the Central Organisation for Control and Auditing, an anti-corruption watchdog answerable to the president, monitors government revenues, spending, procurement and performance. The organisation’s chief calls corruption a major obstacle to the country’s development.
About 70 per cent of Yemen’s revenues come from oil proceeds, even though its petroleum industry is much smaller than Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. With oil reserves expected to run out within seven to 12 years without new discoveries, extra revenue sources are desperately needed.
Yet most foreign investors are scared away by the lack of transparency, a judiciary widely criticised for poor enforcement of laws and fears of budget blowouts resulting from corrupt practices.
In 2004, Yemen fell from 88th to 112th place on a ranking of 145 countries tested for government transparency and corruption by Transparency International, a global anti-corruption group.
Samra Shaibani of the World Bank’s Sanaa office says it is so bad, “You can’t go to the hospital or any other institution without bribing your way through.” One American official said the United States rates corruption as its second-most important issue after counterterrorism, here in the ancestral home to Osama Ben Laden and site of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.
Yemen could receive $200 million from the US government’s Millennium Challenge Account if it makes major headways in the next two years, the official said.
“We are coming to a moment of truth,” the official said on condition of anonymity in line with protocol when commenting on this country’s government. “There have been little pushes here and there, but I don’t think there is a clear commitment.” A key fear is that the corruption will widen the gap between rich and poor, deepen disenchantment with the political system and cause instability in a country awash with weapons and known as an Islamic extremist haven.
Yemen’s 18.5 million population is expected to double within 15 years, placing further burdens on its economy.
Over 40 per cent of Yemenis live in poverty and that per centage also are unemployed.
One of Yemen’s most powerful tribal leaders, Sheikh Mohammed Naguib Shaif, expresses frustration with all the talk on the issue, but no action.
“All the senior officials, including the president, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, say we have corrupt people,” said Shaif, also a parliamentarian who belongs to Saleh’s ruling party. “So prosecute them.”