Like other recent neo-nationalist mobilizations of diasporas, a Yemeni government-sponsored gathering of émigrés this May sought to harness the newly perceived wealth and influence of Yemen’s diaspora towards national ends. Ethnic mobilization of émigré capital is nothing new. Early this century, Japan, understanding its weakness as an insufficient financial and colonial presence in transnational space, actively promoted emigration and remittances. The combination of an expanded concept of economic space and a restrictive concept of ethno-national political identity was considered key to catching up with developed Western powers. Primitive accumulation from geographical expansion, when worked by a disciplined home populace under political direction, would provide a sovereign government with the economic density necessary for industrial takeoff. The Japanese had a long-standing ally and mentor in this endeavor: the Netherlands, which was the first capitalist nation to achieve takeoff, the earliest transnational economic power.

Today, at the end of this wasted century, developing nations are revisiting these ideas, not with the optimism of fin-de-siècle Japan, but the desperation of failed clients of the IMF and failed students of Walt Whitman Rostow, author of the takeoff thesis. The sanitized model of a peaceful nation of shopkeepers and workshops exporting to the world has not been realized in developing countries. The failure of domestic national development plans has revitalized a geographical opportunism echoing the new American business school motto, “going global.” Yemen is not the only developing country now looking abroad for sources of growth or simply hard currency.

Many governments’ appeals to diasporic compatriots ring of “business/charity begins at home.” Such messages seldom resonate, especially among successful émigrés who have benefited from more liberal political and economic regimes abroad. In Hirschman’s terms, émigrés have clearly chosen the “exit” option in relation to their post-independence Third World governments. [1] Yet what those governments now want, essentially, is their economic loyalty but not their political voice. So why should they bite?

Yemen’s government and economy might benefit from émigré wealth and talent by adopting a more inclusive notion of national identity and new conceptions of citizenship. This would entail the government’s surrender of exclusive administrative control over individuals. Instead, Yemen would compete with other governments for the custom of mobile citizen-clients possessing multiple options for domicile and national loyalty. Attraction and attachment would be the new watchwords in government dealings with citizens, rather than coercion and control. Such new attitudes would constitute a surrender of deep-rooted instincts of monarchical absolutism to the logic of global capitalism. However, such capitulation might prove worthwhile for some small states, enhancing regime survival by enlarging the economic pie in innovative ways.

Economic dispersal, not economic density, is the basis of today’s model national economy: geographical expansiveness and a working population of persons and corporations dispersed in the various networks of global services, exchange and production. Such mobile citizens (and their wealth) can be brought home only by persuasion, not force. Few states can afford the megalomania of political and economic monopoly, or the security of autarchy. Middle Eastern governments that persist in subjecting their captive citizenry to the tired rhetoric of bounded nationalism increasingly take on the appearance of dinosaurs.

No Turning Back

When American social scientists began conducting research in the Yemen Arab Republic in the 1970s, there was a great sense of opening and adventure. This opening up (infitah) was also part of Yemen’s national mood, as a freshly minted republic emerging from a long civil war. A key engine of this opening and newness was the mass migration of Yemeni workers to Gulf oil-producing countries. The new republic’s new mood was encouraged by shiny new cars and shiny new goods packaged in plastic. A common phrase in the 1970s summed it up: Yemen had just been catapulted from the Middle to Modern Ages. In the 1980s, after president Salim Rubayi‘ ‘Ali’s Maoist peasant insurrections, or intifadas, of the 1970s had died down, and with improved relations with the Gulf oil-producing states under President ‘Ali Nasir, the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) also experienced an infitah thanks to hard currency remittances from the Gulf. It seemed a truism to both Yemenis and Yemenists that Yemen could not turn the clock back.

With the hindsight of 20 years, it now appears that the 1970s was an exceptional rather than transitional period. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the power of OPEC, Sheikh Zaki Yamani, Americans shooting each other at gas stations — all these have been forgotten, as America’s streets now teem with monster minivans and a gallon of gas again costs less than a dollar. Now it is Yemenis who are shooting each other at gas stations. The initial building boom in the Gulf has ceased and Saudi Arabia faces budget deficits. The impact of these changes first registered in 1986, when oil fell from $30 per barrel to $10. But this was only temporary. Then the Gulf war erupted; but while oil prices went up, Yemenis in the Gulf went home. Again, this was supposed to be a temporary problem. If the working population of Yemen at that time was 4 million people, and a million workers came back from the oil countries, and assuming Yemen’s unemployment rate was a hypothetical zero, it immediately shot up 20 percent. That 20 percent remains and grows. The temporary situation is now permanently temporary.

Yemenis in Space

Everywhere in Yemen, one hears this joke: When the Americans landed on the moon, they found Yemeni Rada‘is working there. Or Ibbis. Or Hadramis, depending on where one hears the joke. Recently, when the Pathfinder went to Mars, Reuters reported that a couple of Yemenis threatened to slap lawsuits on NASA, claiming they had inherited Mars from their ancestors. They were not joking. In villages throughout Yemen, where people have long been dependent on remittances from abroad, the mahjar, or diaspora, is practically considered a birthright. Some Yemeni families are virtual matriarchies. Sons do not know their fathers working abroad, and their sons do not see them when they in turn go abroad. Migrants might as well be on Mars. One begins to see why some people think Mars is a mahjar that they have inherited from their grandfathers.

There is a poignant side to the Yemeni lawsuit over Mars. On Earth itself, Yemenis have run out of mahjars. Although Yemenis have long experienced migration, its benefits have not been as durable as one might expect. Part of the problem is that successful émigrés generally do not return home, and after a few generations they are lost to Yemen. The high-profile Osama bin Laden and his family of construction magnates are a case in point. Part of the problem is that Yemenis have not made the most of their migrations. They have succeeded most dramatically in countries which were just opening up or booming, such as Egypt and Iraq during the Islamic conquests, Christian Ethiopia besieged by Ahmad Granye in the fifteenth century, India under the Mughals, Hyderabad under Muslim rule, Java and Singapore under colonial rule and, of course, the Gulf countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Under these conditions, Yemenis excelled and developed wealthy communities in the mahjar. However, once these places settled down to normal levels of growth and the émigré communities grew and assimilated, the Yemeni homeland would inevitably lose out. But there would always be new mahjars to explore.

At the close of the century and the millennium, it is unlikely that Yemeni migrants will find any more new countries about to be colonized or opened. They will have to make do with the mahjars they already have: America, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, as well as lingering connections with East Africa and Southeast Asia.

Lessons and Models

When the Prophet Muhammad’s ancestor Qusayy took control of the Ka‘ba and made the Quraysh masters over it, he did so by marrying a Yemeni girl of the tribe of Khuza‘a. Even before the great Yemeni migrations of the Islamic conquests, Yemenis already owned inheritable property abroad. The Quraysh inherited some of it from their Yemeni mother, Qusayy’s wife. There was a fight, but no lawsuit.

In pre-Islamic times, Yemeni communities of the Hijazi mahjar played important roles in the economy of their homeland. The Quran tells of the winter caravans making their way to Yemen from the Hijaz. The Yemeni communities in the Hijaz were “marketing outposts” and agents of active synergy between the Hijaz and the homeland. This may be viewed as a deepening of Yemeni investment in the mahjar, a process of adding value in an economy of limited resources.

In contemporary Yemen, where the mahjar itself is becoming a scarce resource, it may be worthwhile to revisit the lessons of Khuza‘a, i.e., to enhance the human and material wealth of the mahjar, and to link the mahjar with the national economy in productive ways. In today’s global economy, several possibilities emerge once one thinks along these lines:

♦The concept of who is a Yemeni could be greatly expanded. In earlier times, countries with limited human and territorial resources, such as Portugal, England and Oman, pursued colonial population strategies with stunning results for the common wealth. Portugal moved its capital to Brazil at one point, and Omanis ruled and prospered in Zanzibar. Yemen could engender a virtual empire with imaginative immigration policies. Yemeni government policies that currently grant citizenship to the children of Yemeni men born abroad are steps in the right direction. Such policies could cover the children of Yemeni women born abroad as well. Citizenship rights could be extended down a few generations, even to Britons whose great-grandfathers came from Yemen, for example. Along these lines, the fame of the champion British boxer Prince Naseem has already been repatriated to Yemen, and he has been given a villa in the capital city by the Yemeni government. Movement between mahjar and homeland could be facilitated by removing impediments such as exit visas, and establishing high-volume, low-cost airline routes to destinations abroad with concentrations of Yemeni migrants.
♦ Yemeni migrants work long hours for low pay, yet the potential exists for movement into the professional and business classes. Currently, one finds elderly Yemeni men in places like Cardiff, who have been abroad 30 years yet barely speak English and cannot claim the social welfare that is their due. Small organizations tasked with providing social services to Yemenis abroad could eventually reap significant benefits by improving the socio-economic standing of migrant communities. Coupled with the expanded concept of Yemeni citizenship, I suggest, the loyalty and talents of Yemeni descendants benefiting from such organizations could be harnessed in the service of the homeland.
♦ It is time to discard the English, industrial-revolution model of economic development, which prescribes a domestic workshop manufacturing goods for export. This model still informs IMF and Washington policies today, even though it has failed spectacularly in most Third World countries. Today’s global political economy provides far more interesting alternatives for small yet savvy countries. For instance, Yemen could arrange tax treaties with countries in the mahjar to benefit Yemenis possessing dual nationality. It could also create secure financial, tax and political havens in Yemen for such dual nationals, offering them a uniquely advantageous base from which to run their overseas businesses and investments. Successful models for such strategies can be found in the Bahamas benefiting British nationals abroad, Cyprus for Greeks in the Middle East, and Singapore for overseas Chinese. Such opportunities would give transnational Yemenis reason for continued engagement with Yemen over generations, even after they lose their taste for national delicacies like qat and salta.

As Yemen’s great economic resource — the capital and talent of its mahjar communities — is denationalized, so too should be its cultural policies and economic strategies. The real Yemeni politics of today is not among Yemenis at home, but between Yemen and all other small countries — it is economic competition in the shadow of the G7. Only when Yemen plays these real politics will the nation have interests and wealth abroad to defend. Only then will lawsuits on Mars pay for themselves.


[1] See Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972).

How to cite this article:

Engseng Ho "Yemenis on Mars," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This