The fate of poor Yemen's lost wealth

The fate of poor Yemen's lost wealth
Comment: Yemen's former ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is thought to have amassed a personal fortune of $60 billion during his years in office, while Yemen remains the poorest country in the Arab world.
4 min read
28 Feb, 2015
Despite being surrounded by oil-rich neighbours, Yemen is the Arab world's poorest country [AFP]

During his 30 years in power, former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh is thought to have amassed a personal fortune of $60 billion, according to the United Nations Sanctions Committee.

This exceeded the wealth of rulers in neighbouring oil-rich Gulf states, despite Yemen being mired in poverty.

Doing the maths

To put this into context, Saleh's annual salary would work out at being $2 billion during each of his 30 years in power. According to my calculations this would mean that the Yemeni leader saw more than $150 million go into his account every month.

His net income would equal $6 million in a day - while it would take the president of the United States more than 15 years to earn that much.

Saleh might argue that part of this wealth came into his possession before he became president in 1978.

This line of defence might well be correct, as many Yemenis speak of Saleh's prominent role in smuggling alcohol through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, between Africa and Yemen, in the 1970s, as a junior officer.

However, if this is true, and as profitable as these smuggling operations might have been, they cannot explain all of Saleh's wealth.

Defending himself, Saleh might also argue that he took part in business activities outside office hours as president. Or that due to the workings of Yemen's system of taxation, he  was exempt from paying tax. Or that he received personal gifts and grants that helped him amass this wealth.

There can be little doubt that the rightful owners of this wealth is the Yemeni people, 80 percent of whom live beneath the poverty line. If this fortune was to be returned to them it would provide a much needed boost to the country's economy and development.

Regardless of the nature of Saleh's business activities, they cannot explain or justify his inflated wealth that can only be described as an aggressive and organised theft of public funds.

It is said that it reached the extent that money used for the sustenance of the poor was being confiscated for the president's personal fortune. Medical aid and food assistance to Yemen was sold on the local market by Saleh's cronies.

Lost billions

The pillaging of Yemen's wealth was constructed in such an organised way that it was only recently that the government release a fixed and open state budget.

Oil revenues were not listed in the accounts, and the ministry of finance was directly accountable to the president - and not the prime minister.

     No agreement in Yemen was said to get the green light unless the "president's share" was paid up front

It is said that Saleh would receive a commission for every oil, gas, construction, or weapons deal struck with a foreign party. It became known as the "president's share".

Cause for war

The corruption was suspected to have been a trigger of the 1994 civil war between the north and south of Yemen.

One of the main points of contention between the two was how the state was run and how public funds were managed.

The first confrontation took place only days after the unification of the country in 1990, when Iraq was said to have granted the newly unified state aid to the tune of $200 million.

It is suspected that, instead of the whole amount being placed in the central bank, Saleh gave his prime minister, Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, a cheque for $20 million.

The whereabouts of the rest of the Iraqi grant is still unknown, however there are strong suspicions and accusations that Saleh kept it for himself. It is similar to the disagreements about where Yemen's oil revenues went to.

There are strong indications that the United Nations and world powers were aware of the situation in Yemen, but still decided to side with Saleh against those calling for reform and fighting corruption.

Because of Saleh's services to providing "security" inside Yemen, and financial partnerships with some western officials, it is doubtful whether we will ever be able to locate or confiscate these missing billions.  

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.