Yemen and Aden, wild chaotic and different
Risk is a tricky business. The most reliable statistics on piracy near the
Gulf of Aden (where the Red Sea exits into the Arabian Sea) are that over a
3 year period there were 12 reported incidents out of 630 yachts passing
Aden - so 4 out of 210 yachts in one year, or 2 %. Is that something to
bother about? If someone told you that you had a 2% chance of an accident
when you set out on a car journey would you go? Psychologists have gathered
some interesting evidence on how people approach risk.
The nastiness of the event is one factor. Our memory of events and stories
is dominated by the event's peak intensity and how it ended, (which is why
conferences always try to end on a high). So people don't estimate the
seriousness or probability of risk well - they tend to exaggerate rare high
profile risks, and underestimate quite high every day risks. Then there is
controllability - can we avoid the event by doing something - or is it
inevitable? Animals and people exposed to bad events they are powerless to
prevent 'learn helplessness' ie they become depressed. Others people focus
on avoiding all possible bad events to the extent that they become stressed.
Some events are so traumatic that they induce depression or anti social
behaviour from just one event.
So in the case of piracy we try to make as accurate estimations as we can,
do what we can to reduce the probability, do what we can to reduce the
intensity if an incident does happen, and don't focus on it more than
necessary as otherwise we lose the enjoyment of what we are doing. 'Pirate
Alley' is actually about a 70 miles corridor running N/S from a remote area
of Yemen to a lawless area of Somalia, through which people smugglers
transport illegal immigrants from the civil war in Somalia into the
'paradise' of Middle East and Europe and will attack yachts when returning
empty. Also fishermen who haven't caught much fish but are well armed for
their own defence from the various conflicts around may try their luck with
a passing yacht. To say nothing of the Somali 'authorities' who may try
We decided to definitely avoid the entire Somali coast, and the Yemeni
coast, and for once to stick in the shipping lanes, on the basis that there
were fewer reported incidents there - perhaps because fishermen wouldn't lay
their nets there, and any people smugglers probably wouldn't attack if there
were other ships around. We tried to go through this area by night as most
attacks happen by day, (pirates don't generally have radar) but only half
managed this. We ran through our plan if a vessel did try to stop us, by
guns or other means (most incidents have been pushed home hard and fast with
gunshots to demand the yacht stop). And we practiced our defences in case it
was practical to use them.
And nothing happened. Which is what we wanted. Hawkeye Jill kept watch on
horizon and radar, and we kept as far away from any smaller vessels as we
could. We did have one incident when 2 fast boats came straight at us at
dead of night, apparently changing course as we changed, but by spotting
them on radar early and motor-sailing with no lights at 7-8 knots we managed
to stay more than 3 miles clear and then pull away. They were probably
completely innocent, its just that avoidance seemed the best course.
So we arrived unscathed. Were we just lucky? The 5 boats ahead of us sailed
in convoy for protection, (which is nerve wracking enough sailing in close
proximity at night without lights) and were at one point in 'pirate alley'
surrounded by 3 high speed local boats each with twin outboards capable of
25 knots - when a British warship appeared over the horizon and they
scattered. Armed people smugglers drowned 50 Somalis on the same day and
within 50 miles of where we sailed through pirate alley. Yemen CG have
probably eradicated Yemeni pirates but Somali thugs are still around.
We entered Aden harbour 6 days after leaving Oman, and anchored next to what
is still called Prince of Wales Quay. Aden is a perfect natural harbour,
large, sheltered, strategically placed 70 miles east of the southern end of
the Red Sea, so every ship going through Suez passes within a few miles of
Aden. The British controlled Aden from 1850's to 1960's when it was a vital
bunkering port for ships to Australia, NZ, Singapore etc. and there are
still lots of old British Army barracks. The Yemeni Government has tried to
develop it as a container port, but the bombings of the USS Cole in 1999 and
the French super tanker Limburg in 2002 have caused an 80% drop in ships
visiting and most of the ships anchored there are in some dispute of other,
rather than waiting to offload. While we were there, a large Iranian tanker
moored 50 metres from Intrepid.
Yemen and Somalia are distinctly edgy places: The front page of the Yemen
Times (which is an excellent English language newspaper) had 4 articles: 1.
The day before, boats smuggling refugees from the full scale civil war in
Somalia had arrived off Yemen at night and been fired on by Yemeni army; the
boats forced the refugees into the water and 50 drowned; there are about
6000 refugees in Yemen now; 2. The rebellion by Islamic tribes in Sada'a
region in North Yemen has reached new intensity with the army using MIGs to
bomb rebel strongholds, and recruiting other local tribes to fight which is
escalating the war; 3. Nine Yemenis captured in Afghanistan have been
finally released by the USA from Guantanamo Bay, leaving 120 still there; 4.
A senior Minister resigned because the Government is not doing enough to
fight rampant corruption. Hardly your 'Good News' front page, but fairly
representative of what is going on.
There are 20 million Yemenis and the last UN count estimated 60 million
weapons in Yemen, many Kalashnikovs. Every Government official we met with
the exception of the Harbour Master asked for a 'gift'. We saw pathetic
settlements of Somalian refugees by the road side, making even the rough
Yemeni houses look like mansions. Population growth is amongst the highest
in the world at 5%/year. The literacy rate is appalling, only just over 50%
can read and write, many children do not go to school because school fees
(schooling is not free) are chewed in Quat. 90% of Yemenis chew 'Quat' every
afternoon. 'Quat' is a mild narcotic that makes their faces look deformed; a
huge bulging cheek stuffed with quat leaves costs about YR500 - YR7000 for
an afternoon's chew ($3-$35). After producing a mild high, (and reputedly
heightened sexual prowess) Quat leaves an after effect of irritability, low
appetite and craving for sweet drinks. ¾ of Yemen's agricultural land and
rapidly depleted water is now devoted to (legally) growing Quat. When the
British were in Aden, villages were restricted to one quarter of land
devoted to Quat or they did not get water. Government Ministries squabble
over who controls what and therefore who gets most bribes. The Prime
Minister of Yemen is probably the weakest Head of Government there is - he
doesn't even choose his own cabinet; the President tells him who to have,
and Yemeni tribes and Yemeni and international businesses go straight to the
President - whose face is prominently displayed everywhere, a bit like
Saddam Hussein in pre-American Iraq, and a sure sign of corruption and
sycophancy. Businesses use bribes to gain his attention, tribes use
kidnappings and guns. Two Germans were kidnapped by tribesmen on the journey
from Aden to the capital Sanaa last year, and 200 foreigners in all in the
last 10 years. (In fairness all were well treated and later released).
Amazingly Yemen has quite reasonable oil production - 500,000 barrels/day,
about the same as Oman, or $1.50/Yemeni/day - but with very little to show
for it. There is even an LNG plant under construction but the supposed
tariff free zone to enable the parts to enter Yemen is in problems as the
Oil and Trade Ministries dispute.
The history of Yemen is suitably chaotic. The Portuguese, Ottomans and
British controlled much of Yemen 1500-1960, then in 1960's, the Imam of
Yemen died and army officers proclaimed the Yemen Arab Republic. Britain,
Saudi and the tribes in the north of Yemen supported the Imam's son, but 8
years of civil war, followed by guerrilla campaigns against the British
resulted in a divided Yemen - Yemen Arab Republic in the north, Communist
Yemen in the South. The South attacked Oman across their common border. But
the collapse of the Soviet Union created turmoil in the South, and the North
was looking with envy at South Yemen's recently discovered oil. In 1990 a
re-unified Yemen was declared, and Yemen is the only Arab democracy, (plus
Iraq now I suppose) with Presidential elections in 1997 and 2006, although
less than perfect.
Yemen made the mistake of supporting Iraq in the first Gulf War, and 1
million Yemenis were expelled from other Gulf States, creating further havoc
and near bankruptcy in Yemen. Since then Yemen has tried hard to ingratiate
itself with the USA, but this policy is facing increasing resistance from
Islamic fundamentalist tribes and individuals.- witness the USS Cole and
Limburg bombings, 3 Americans murdered in 2002, 2 Europeans attacked in old
Sanaa in 2003, and the current fighting in Sada'a..
Clearing through Customs and Immigration was a negotiation - moderated by
the intelligence of some officials, the apparent affection for the British
(who left in 1950's), and the jokiness of most Yemenis. This practical
joking is I think partly a reaction to the conditions in the country but
partly dates back a long way - Yemen was one of the major trading countries
of Arabia, its people blessed with energy and initiative to seize and hold
some of the most fertile land around. A major fertile valley, Wadi Hadromawt
flows down the east of the country (where much of the oil is), and Sana'a
the capital is 2000 metres high and attracts significant rainfall.
I have to remind myself how lucky we are that there are countries that are
still different, that have not embraced (or been embraced by) McDonalds,
Starbucks, Gap, shopping malls and motorways. Yemen is much more like
Afghanistan or Pakistan than Dubai or Saudi or Oman. In 30 years, we may
rejoice at having experienced a country so chaotic and wild and different.
At the time though its hard work.
Jamal, an overly pushy 'fixer' helped us arrange to go by bus to Sana'a 400
kms north. This required 6 copies of a permit to travel from Aden Security
(more requests for gifts) and Jamal to keep an eye on Intrepid while we were
away. However Jamal spends his money on Quat (we discovered) so does not
have a mobile phone and when we thought the gas may have been left on John
Murphy an old Irish sea captain who is the Lloyds agent in Aden checked it
out for us. The bus journey to Sana'a takes 7 hours on roads that are so bad
it seems crazy. Aden and Sanaa are the 2 biggest cities in Yemen, yet the
road is narrow and winding with speed bumps every kilometre to persuade
motorists to slow down so that roadside vendors can sell them Quat or other
goods, and plastic bags litter the country to the extent they look like
massed flowers, until you get closer. Quat is grown everywhere with small
towers for armed guards to deter rustling (I guess you rustle Quat).
But the journey is worth it - bare mountains rise on either side, and old
Sana'a is a delight, probably the oldest inhabited city on earth, said to
have been founded by a son of Noah, with formidable city walls enclosing 5-7
storey tower houses many over 1000 years old built of wonderfully decorative
mud brick and gypsum, joined by narrow winding cobbled lanes often too
narrow for cars, interspersed with 30+ mosques and 20 Hammams (Turkish
Baths) dating from when Turkish Ottomans ruled Yemen 1500-1700. We stayed in
an old tower house (the lowest floor was for animals, next for grain, next
for families, next for sleeping, next for men to socialize and chew quat.
Hotel Arabia Felix has converted some of the rooms to bathrooms, but the
basic architecture remains, and the glorious garden. The Souk al Milh (Salt
souk) contains over 40 different souks, selling different goods, from
sultanas to jambiyas (daggers), from cloth to gold.
All the women are covered and veiled with only a slit for the eyes and often
not even that - so much so that when I did see a (very rare) unveiled woman
she looked immediately sexy in spite of a shapeless black robe - such is
scarcity. But the ladies' speech is animated, and they bargain hard in the
If old Sanaa is primitive, Shibam, 50 kms NW is more so. It has a Friday
Souk, where all the tribesmen from the surrounding region gather to buy
donkeys and chickens and cooking pots and Quat, so we hired a 4WD and driver
to go there. The donkeys were clearly highly valued, we watched as 4
turbaned men with Kalashnikovs over their shoulders test rode one and
haggled over the price - perhaps to carry their ammunition as they travel
north to the fighting in Sadaa. Every man had a holder for his jambila
dagger - similar to Omani Kunjars. When Shibam was attacked which was
frequently, the villagers retreated to Kawkaban, perched on a sheer crag 500
metres above, with even bigger town walls and cisterns to collect rain water
and enable them to survive a siege. There, we watched as a tribe celebrated
a wedding, circling slowly and brandishing their jambiyas. The daggers are
sharp - in the Souk, 3 young men enjoyed demonstrating to me just how sharp
they are, and every jambiya sold is sharpened to perfection.
Thula is 10 kms from Shibam, and is famous for its 20 theological Islamic
colleges, and its fortress stuck on a massive hilltop for protection. USAID
has helped the reconstruction of some of Thula's cistern, so the children
asked for pens or dollars rather than baksheesh. Nicky and I bargained for
Bedouin silver, and talked to the children selling goods - their English is
limited but good.
While in Sanaa I went to a Hammam, which claimed to be 2000 years old - and
it certainly looked just like Roman baths, domed ceilings, steam, scraping
and all. I also managed to collect parts for our fridge, (surprisingly they
arrived hassle free in contrast to the advice that it would be 'a nightmare'
clearing them in). Saying they were under warranty and of zero value may
have helped, or it may just have been a bureaucratic mistake, for once in
The return bus journey seemed even longer, but Jamal greeted us, and my
diagnosis proved correct as the fridge sprang into action. We asked John
Murphy for dinner at the Elephants Bay Resort - where cans of Heineken are
available for YR1200 (3 pounds) - as a Lloyds agent and surveyor he has to
physically vouch for lots of ships and goods and aid that otherwise would be
spirited away - there are few enough westerners in Aden and I think he was
glad of company.
Clearing out was another negotiation, but finally we collected diesel from a
barge that was swimming in spilt diesel, and departed Aden, glad to be
departing in one piece and having experienced such a chaotic place.
The entrance to the Red Sea funnels together much of the world's shipping
into 2 channels each 2 miles wide. We crossed this in daylight, dodging car
carriers and tankers, and entered the Red Sea with a surprisingly favourable
south wind, which blew us up the Red Sea at 6 knots. The Red Sea has a
terrible reputation amongst yachts going north. There are frequent gales and
thunder storms in the south, and especially in the north, the winds blow
almost incessantly from the north, so yachts frequently reported battling
into 20-30 knot head winds with waves crashing over the decks and crews too
exhausted to speak after just a few hours on watch. So we are making hay
while the sun shines, using our weather window to make as many miles north
as we can, before stopping at Massawa the main port of Eritrea.
If you didn't see my last email, I would hate you to miss out on this chance
to get a pre-publication offer. My book Get that Job! will be published this
month by How to Books. Designed to be a complete hands on guide for anyone
deciding on a career, or changing jobs, including how best to get through
the selection process, its cover price is 10.99 pounds, but I can get you a
discount and a signed copy if you email me with an address to send it to.
Jill, Chris, Nicky and Andy