Image Credit: Saeed Al Batati/Gulf News

Sana’a: The UK ambassador to Yemen said that Yemen has “clear” institutionalised problems that stand in the way of reforms which could make the country “a thousand times better” than it is now. Jane Marriott, told Gulf News, in her office at the highly fortified embassy, that Yemenis will enjoy a better life if the government implemented policies like removing ghost workers and lifting fuel subsidies.

“The World Bank can free out about 2.5 billion dollars every year by doing these things and within a decade you can have a better country than it is now,” Marriott said.

The last time the Yemeni government decided to lift fuel subsidies was in 2005, a move that sparked a bloody nationwide riot.

But as she was talking about the advantages of lifting fuel subsidies, the Yemeni government swiftly denied media reports that it was moving to lift subsidies amid a chronic fuel shortage in the capital and other cities.

Marriott said that lifting subsidies will have no impact on the poor, citing Iran and Jordan as examples of countries that reaped a big economical payoff.

“What they did is create a social safety net, so the poor will end up either the same or better off. The people who are impacted are the people who are making millions and millions [of dollars] stealing effectively from this country everyday through the oil and fuel they are smuggling,” she explained.

Since the UK is one of several sponsors of the GCC initiative that ended the political crisis in Yemen in 2011, Marriott is among the few envoys who are in close contact with president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

She says she is pleased with Hadi’s performance despite all criticism about the deteriorating security during his couple of years in office.

“I think president Hadi is a good man who is trying to do an incredible job at a very challenging time.” She said that Hadi acted as a leader when he visited the Ministry of Defence while security forces were battling Al Qaida operatives in the ministry early December.

“He showed a great leadership by going to the Ministry of Defence after it was attacked and showed very visible leadership. He also did that in August when there were threats against various embassies and institutions including the British embassy.”

Marriott said that Hadi is the kind of politician who “would like to be more comfortable with the media.”

But the UK ambassador noted that Hadi is still surrounded by inactive members of his government who are standing in the way of further progress.

“I think there is general consensus that while there are some members of the government who are good, some are just not delivering,” she said.

Since she was appointed in July, 2013, Marriott has closely monitored the country’s transitional process that started when the former president officially agreed to leave office in 2011 following a wave of protests. Her predecessor, Nicholas Hopton, was one the driving forces of the GCC initiative.

Marriott said that the government should not extend the transitional process too much.

“The transitional period should not be open-ended and president Hadi should not be president for good. So there must be a new agreed timeline, but it is important to get the tasks right.”

UN security has recently authorised sanctions on those people who are trying to obstruct the transitional process in the country.

Marriott is satisfied with the UN’s decision, mentioning many people who are involved in muddying the waters in the troubled country.

“People who benefit particularly from instability are people trying to return to power and these are the people who are understandably nervous about the new system. We are effectively turning a country from dictatorship to a democracy. That is a huge shift for any country and many people will be losing out.”

“There are many people with family connections. Many sharecommon interests that overlap with Al Qaida who want to destabilise the country so they can take over parts of it and operate more freely. Those opposed to the new order are also those who wish to continue theirsmuggling operations.”

“Whether there is a direct collusion or an overlap of interests is hard to tell. But the net result is the same; the people of Yemen continue to lose out by people who want to pursue their own agendas.”

Marriott said that security in Yemen worsened as many people exploited what she described as “a political vacuum” during the stalled National Dialogue Conference that concluded in January.

Since taking the helm of UK embassy, Marriott has never met or contacted the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and does not see any point in meeting him for the time being.

“Mr Saleh has never asked us for a meeting. We need to throw our weight behind the reformists and president Hadi,” she said.

Al Qaida equation

Unlike the previous UK ambassador who survived an assassination attempt in the Yemeni capital, Marriott did not come under serious attack despite her country’s frequent warnings about security concerns in Yemen. But she still thinks that Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (known as AQAP) remains the “number one” threat to Yemen and the West.

“We have seen before their attempts to bomb planes. We have seen what they are capable of in Yemen. Over the course of years, they have attempted to take land. They have intimidated people and created greater and greater instability.”

Marriott said that there are some tribes in Yemen that have ties with Al Qaida.

“There are some relationship with tribes either for convenience or a lack of alternatives, but I would like to say to these tribes that actually Al Qaida does not have your interest at heart. They are here to undermine your country and bring instability to this country and that goes against the interest of all Yemenis.”

The British ambassador was reluctant to give her take on the controversial US drone missions in Yemen that has claimed the lives of many Al Qaida operatives and civilians.

But on December, she told the Huffington Post that US drone strikes have “made a difference” and managed to weed out the spectre of Al Qaida’s threats against UK embassy in August, 2013.

Southern Yemen dilemma

In the south, pro-secession activists organise regular protests calling for restoration of the former South Yemen state that united with the north in 1990. The southerners say that the north has monopolised wealth and power during the reign of the former president. The Southern issue was high on the agendas in the National Dialogue Conference.

“I find what the southerners tell me is exactly what the north tell me which is law, security, jobs and basic services and I genuinely think that South Yemen is more likely to get these things if they work with the north and consolidate and strengthen,” she said.

“I asked the people of Aden, for example, why do you want secession? They said ‘we want jobs, electricity, water and the port to work again.’ I told them that you do not need secession to get these things. China is more likely to invest in the Aden port if Yemen is one country because it is a less risky investment if Yemen is a sovereign country,” she added.

Marriott said that neither she nor any other foreign envoy tried to impose solutions about how many semi-autonomous regions the country should be split into, but said that the international community expressed concerns about dividing the country into south-north.

Marriott thinks that even if the separatists were given their demands and the south became a state, they will aim weapons at each other.

“We have already seen no coherent and united southern leadership,” she said.

As for the UK support to Yemen, she said that the UK government has helped training 120 people on forensic skills and poured $300m (Dh1.1 billion) over the last three years on programmes run by UN organisations and some governmental and non-governmental bodies.

Marriott is among many foreign dignities who is appalled by the distressing stories of young brides getting married as young as ten. She suggests that this issue can be addressed by prevailing basic education and enlightening people about the hazards of early marriage. “If you can delay early marriage, you can delay having children and therefore a lot of women can contribute towards the economy.”