I had been invited to go to Yemen to do some skills training for some of the personnel of an established business there. Abdulkareem took me first to my hotel, and on the way we saw the American Embassy, completely fortified with concrete blocks, small tanks and soldiers everywhere. The British Embassy was opposite the Movenpick, where I was staying, and was similarly guarded. The hotel itself was nearly empty: There are not too many tourists these days.
There are roadblocks everywhere, but Abdulkareem’s green badge got us through. Sanaa is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, boasting 2mn people, and is at an altitude of 2,300m, making it one of the highest capital cities too. Yemen has 24mn people in total, a huge number compared with Oman.
There are several aspects of life in Yemen that are instantly recognisable as being so different from Oman. There are lots of people on the crowded streets, and many of the buildings are poorly maintained or falling down. The cars are mostly old and rather battered, and are frequently driven on the wrong side of the road. Ninety-five per cent of the women wear the niqab, with just the eyes visible. And in the afternoons, nearly all of the men are chewing khat.
Khat is big business, and is grown in vast quantities. The leaf is chewed in a ball in the side of the mouth (the left, mostly, I noticed) and is apparently bitter. “It keeps you awake and makes you work better,” explained Abdulkareem, “because it is a stimulant. Many people say they would stop eating food before they gave up chewing khat.”
It seems that Al Qaeda may now be in the capital, and it is clear that the Yemeni authorities have been training many soldiers to try to control the threat to their society. Those people I met and worked with were charming – polite, eager to learn, and keen to work. We went for a large lunch: Trays of delicious meat, fish, vegetables, bread and fruit appeared. There were special sauces for everything, with all the food coming from Yemen itself. We had fun.
The old city of Sanaa is a World Heritage Site as recognised by UNESCO. It is architecturally rich, with ornate buildings, streets and squares, and full of people bustling about. Abdulkareem was at my side at all times, and I thank him for that.
Yemen is not a place for a holiday just now. I felt safe with my new friend, but I would not have ventured out alone. It is such a terrible shame that such an ancient country is so tormented with difficulty, when most of the people want to live peacefully with each other, away from the guns and risk to life. I was touched by how generous and humble the people were, even though they are facing great challenges. I sincerely hope that the most powerful leaders in the world somehow find a solution to the problems faced in Yemen, along with those being experienced by several other countries in this region.
Nick lives and works in Muscat and the views expressed in this column are entirely his own.
You can e-mail Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org