Middle East


Terrorism Fears Inhibit Tourism

Yemeni tribesmen inspect the site where a convoy carrying Spanish tourists was hit by a suicide car bomb on July 2 in the restive northern region of the Marib province. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

"After the Spaniards, who will be next to die in this vibrant, 'living museum'?" a group of Italian tourists asked as they left Yemen after a recent deadly bombing attack.

It was an appropriate, yet frightful, question posed after an al-Qaeda car bomb attack detonated near the Sun Temple archeological site in the Marib province, some 93 miles (150 km) east of the capital Sana'a, killing eight Spanish tourists and two Yemenis on July 2.

Security investigations are underway, and the offer of a $76,000 reward by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh for information which leads to the capture of those responsible for the attack is still valid.

Exactly one month after the suicide bombing, Yemen's Interior Ministry published the photographs of 10 men it said were involved in the terrorist incident.

The photographs of the suspects appeared in the military newspaper 26 September, which reported that ministry officials identified the suicide bomber as Abdo Saad Rahiqa, who carried out the deadly attack with the help of seven Yemeni terrorists, including one from Saudi Arabia and an Egyptian national.

"It was almost a revenge story for the killing of their senior al-Qaeda operative, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harthi — a suspect in the U.S.S. Cole bombing — when his car was destroyed in Marib by a Hellfire missile launched from an unmanned Predator drone in May 2002," said a security official in Marib, who declined to provide any further details because of the sensitivity surrounding the situation.

Yemen's oil and gas industry, the source of two-thirds of the country's GDP, but tiny by global standards, has also been attacked recently. Last September, al-Qaeda affiliates were blamed for two attacks on Western-run oil refineries; one at Safer in Marib, and the other at Athubah in Hadhramout, in the eastern part of the country.

An al-Qaeda message at the time warned that these attacks were "only the first spark" and that future operations would be "severe and bitter." Now the terrorist network has attacked the tourism industry, the second arm of the national economy and the source of a third of Yemen's GDP.

"The Al-Qaeda group always vows to turn Yemen into a 'quagmire' for the West and U.S. in particular, due to Yemen's alliance with the U.S.-led war on terrorism that has targeted Islam, as they [al-Qaeda] see it," said Abdul-Elah Shayiee, a Yemeni specialist in terrorism affairs.

So could Yemen follow on the heels of Afghanistan and Iraq as the third major venue in the war on terrorism? Al-Qaeda seems ready to gear up for conflict in this area.

Thirty-six suspects are currently on trial in Sana'a, accused of forming an organization calling itself the "al-Qaeda Organization in the Arabian Peninsula-Yemen."

But this swathe of ancient Arabia — a wonderful mix of green mountains, deserts and cloud-high villages where time stands still — is literally an outdoor museum within which tourists are escorted by soldiers dressed in white robes, combat jackets and checkered head cloths. The soldiers typically demand that tourists give them money for buying qat ("hag-al-qat" in Yemeni), a narcotic plant whose leaves are chewed by the majority of Yemeni adults near the end of every day.

Roads are dotted with checkpoints controlled by soldiers, or tribesmen with a proclivity for abducting foreigners. The kidnapping of tourists remains an active threat. Tribesmen nab visitors in order to pressure the government into providing them with better services or for the release of jailed relatives.

Usually, hostages are treated like honored guests and released unharmed, but in 1998, four Westerners were killed during a botched rescue attempt.

Therefore, any tour traveling outside of the capital to Marib, where the most important archeological sites in Yemen — related to the Queen of Sheba, who is believed to have ruled over an empire supported by the export of spices such as frankincense and myrrh — requires extreme patience.

Tribes, including some in Marib, have had a strained relationship with the central government for decades.

Yet, Yemen is still a charming country to visit, a land of fascinating mountains, verdant valleys and barren deserts, but according to Nabil al-Faqeeh, the minister of tourism, its enemies want to destroy this heaven.

The optimal way to tour Yemen safely is to be part of a group. Official permits are required by tour operators to leave the capital, as they can arrange for transport.

The government will not send armed escorts if only a few are traveling. However, it will do so when there are plenty of tourists heading in the same direction on the same day, to protect Westerners from being kidnapped.

Threats against tourists have escalated from kidnapping to terrorist attacks. The provided security has been insufficient, and the tactic of going out in groups has apparently failed.

"Everything went upside down," explained Ahmed Salim, owner of a tourism company in Marib. "Tourism is the backbone of economy here, but the challenge is how to get the trust of tourists all over again."

Yemen has been trying to make the Queen of Sheba temple, known for the columns marking its entrance, a major tourist attraction, especially after it was renovated several years ago.

Marib, which is home to four powerful tribes with more than 70 branches, has earned a reputation for being wild and has been known to be a hotbed of support for al-Qaeda.

"In Marib, all hotels are not the perfect places to relax," said a soldier, dressed in yellow and brownish camouflage fatigues, stationed at the gate of a main hotel here. "If the hotel was left unguarded, tribesmen could easily grab tourists from their beds or maybe al-Qaeda comes to blow it up."

Western tourists are eager to come to Yemen, which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world, according to the Bible and the Holy Koran. However, the uncomfortable relations between the government and tribes on one hand, and al-Qaeda's deadly threats on the other both stand as a barrier against that.

According to Yemeni folklore, Sana'a was built by the eldest son of Prophet Noah, "Shem" or "Sam" in Arabic; it may also have been the town of Azal described in the Old Testament. To this day, Sana'a is nicknamed "Sam City."

About 90 miles east of Sana'a lies another city connected with a Biblical character. Marib, former capital of Sheba (or Saba) — the mightiest kingdom of ancient Arabia — is the most famous archaeological site in modern Yemen.

The Koran, in a chapter called "Saba" describes the ancient kingdom this way:

"There was indeed a sign for Sheba in their dwelling place: Two gardens on the right hand and the left (as who should say), 'Eat of the provision of your Lord and render thanks to Him. A fair land and an indulgent Lord!' "

The Bible references a visit made by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon in Jerusalem, where she arrived with camels bearing spices, gold and precious stones. "Never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon," according to a passage in 1 Kings 10:10.

Old Marib, dotted with 1960's mud-brick buildings on top of a tiny hill, lies deserted. A few miles away are the remnants of the throne and the Mahram Bilqis (Temple of Bilqis). Bilqis is the name given to the Queen of Saba in Islamic traditional stories. Not far away lies what remains of the famous old dam of Bilqis, which was built in the 8th century B.C. and stood for well over 1,000 years.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Mohamed Al-Azaki.