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A talk with Yemen’s Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, Yemeni businessman and one of the most prominent opponents of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, says that the Yemeni people are beginning to emerge from the tunnel. As he affirmed that a new page should be opened, Al-Ahmar adds that the other side continues to bet on returning to power and to the presidency once again. He says that he will not run for the presidency after the transitional phase. Regarding the attempt to assassinate former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Al-Ahmar denied that they have anything to do with that attempt and accused what he called “the inside” or the collusion of the inside, implying that parties inside the presidential palace may have perpetrated that operation. Al-Ahmar denied that his business companies are involved in any corruption or tax evasion. Regarding the issue of the south, Al-Ahmar said that the southerners will not opt for disengagement if a state is established based on justice and equality. Al-Ahmar urged the Huthists to join political action and give up attempts at expansion which he described as a mistake if such attempts indicate a deliberate policy on their part. Following is the text of the interview that Asharq Al-Awsat conducted with Sheikh Al-Ahmar in his home in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where are we now after the success of the presidential elections?

[Al-Ahmar] I thank Asharq Al-Awsat for its interest in the affairs of Yemen. Actually, we in Yemen found the right path with the assistance of God Almighty and are emerging from the dark tunnel. Today, we stand at the beginning of our march to emerge from this tunnel. We stand at the threshold of a new era and a fresh page in the history of Yemen.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Through my contacts with various sides in Yemen, I felt a change in the tone of the other side toward reconciliation. Are you prepared to change the tone toward reconciliation, particularly since we are on the verge of conducting the national dialogue?

[Al-Ahmar] Yemen does indeed need to open a fresh page of reconciliation and brotherhood and to spurn the odious past. I call on all Yemenis to support and back the new president and the reconciliation government. Anyone who is serious about this should cut off the connection with the past and prepare himself to be part of the new Yemen. Let me refer you to the television channels owned by Ali Abdullah Saleh and his sons: Yemen Today channel, Al-Aqiq channel, and Azal Channel. I ask you to watch the news broadcasts and the kind of programming that continue to be aired on the Yemeni satellite channel, and the Saba channel by some people who are loyal to the national security apparatus. You will conclude that these people are not sincere nor are they serious about marching toward reconciliation and abandoning the past. These people erroneously think that they can change their colors temporarily. They mistakenly think that the elected President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi represents as a transition for the presidency from father to son. They do not realize that the Yemeni people and their elected president are aware of such illusions and failed schemes.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But Saleh is not in power now. He abided by the signing and the elections. He left the country so that the elections would run smoothly and he handed over power. Do you not consider this a positive stand to his credit?

[Al-Ahmar] Last Friday evening, the official Yemeni television channel announced in its newscast that President of the Republic Ali Abdullah Saleh is sending congratulations to the heads of state of fraternal countries hours before the constitutional oath and that he continues to exercise his presidential powers and that he arrived at dawn in the presidential aircraft. The man has not accepted the fait accompli. Did you listen to his statements to the Yemen Today channel when he arrived at Sanaa airport at dawn on Saturday?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What did he say?

[Al-Ahmar] He said that is a conspiracy. In other words, he returned after the international and regional plot against Yemen was carried out. The man does not recognize the faith accompli. Until this moment, he has not realized the sincerity of what has happened.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is reported internally and abroad that Hamid al-Ahmar is behind the incident in the presidential mosque. It seems that the statements made by the director of the office of Sheikh Sadiq confirmed that you are behind the attempt to assassinate the president of the republic inside the presidential mosque. How do you comment to that?

[Al-Ahmar] We have heard a lot about this matter; they relied on rejected matters. Regarding the statements by brother Abdul-Qawiy al-Qaysi, the director of Sheikh Sadiq’s office, I did not hear anything in them that can be relied upon to prove this accusation. I call for revoking the immunity law and initiating an investigation into all the crimes that have taken place in Yemen since the eruption of the peaceful revolution to date.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Including the incident to blow up the presidential mosque?

[Al-Ahmar] Yes, including the incident of the presidential mosque and all that happened in Al-Hisbah, Taizz, Irhab, the squares for change in Yemen, the Friday of dignity, and other incidents. We are the ones that are asking for this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you prepared to hand over yourself to the judiciary to be tried if you are charged with committing such deeds?

[Al-Ahmar] There is a difference between responding and handing myself over; I am not a criminal to hand over myself to anyone. I have said that if I am asked to appear for an investigation, I am ready since no one is above the law. However, we have to agree over a fair and honest litigation mechanism and regarding all the issues. We would be grateful to the world and to the neighbouring countries if we reach the stage of revoking the immunity of criminals regardless of who these criminals are. Regarding the detonation of the presidential mosque, who can enter the backyard of a home? Who can smuggle in such explosives to the presidential compound when Ali Abdullah Saleh surrounds himself with circles of relatives and those who he has chosen personally and who have been with him for years? No, this can only happen from the inside or with the collusion of those who are inside.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have accused former President Saleh of seeking to have his son Ahmad as president after the present President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. You are accused with the same charge. In the eyes of your adversaries, you are accused of preparing Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi for the presidency that you are planning to take over at the end of the day. The US newspaper The Washington Post has reported that you have said that if the Yemenis wish this, then why not?

[Al-Ahmar] And I repeat this statement. It is the right of any Yemeni to seek public office as long as this is done along sound and correct legal bases. I say: I aspire to build a state of law and order. After that, anyone can seek public office as long as we had established a correct and sound democratic system, helped the Yemeni people emerge from these crises, and enabled the Yemenis to exercise sound political participation. They can choose whoever they want. However, I personally promised not to hold any post during the transitional stage. A few days ago, the BBC correspondent asked me if I may run in the next elections. My answer to her was what I am reiterating now; namely, I believe that the priority now should be to keep the authority in the hands of our brothers from the southern provinces.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Even after the transitional stage?

[Al-Ahmar] Yes, even after the two years; this is my belief.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In other words, you will not run for president of the republic after the transitional period?

[Al-Ahmar] Yes, this is what I believe. If President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi performs well and wishes to run again, I will support his candidacy in the coming period.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] People are saying that Hamid al-Ahmar heads a financial empire that is not subject to taxation accountability. They say that it is hugely corrupt and involved in communications, oil, and real estate businesses. How can you answer such reports?

[Al-Ahmar] I say that an authority that bombards a person with all kinds of artillery and rockets would not ignore any financial or administrative corruption he may be accused of. This authority wiretaps even the conversations between this man and his wife. How come they do not have any documents to prove our corruption? We do not receive bribes behind closed doors and we do not work from under the table. I am a businessman and my businesses are clear to everyone. I employ tens of thousands of people and manage my money out in the open. I can present a financial acquittal document showing how I made every single riyal from the day I started by businesses to date, praise be to God. I have no objection if I am asked to appear before any fair court; they can go over all my accounts.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In 2009, the MTN Telecommunications Company paid $20,000 in taxes and two billion riyals in 2010. However, your company SabaPhone paid only 300 million riyals. Is this not a case of tax evasion since Sabaphone is a gigantic company?

[Al-Ahmar] The fact is that Ali Abdullah Saleh wronged us. He tried to revoke two years of tax exemptions that Sabaphone had obtained. MTN received nine years of tax exemptions and they wanted to lower it to seven years. We and MTN rejected this and resorted to international arbitration. But the local partner of the MTN Company sold his share to the mother company and his presence on the board became symbolic. The local partner enjoys special connections with the authorities that asked him to arbitrate a solution against us between them and the Finance Ministry giving the company one year and abolishing the second year. They agreed. However, we and the government are still before the international courts. They reached a compromise with the MTN Company that was not in its favour but in favour of the local partner. This is collusion by the local partners against MTN to protect his personal interests. At any rate, I am not involved in this amicable solution that MTN took. The case is still being debated in the international courts.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are also rumours about agencies that you took by force.

[Al-Ahmar] Such as what? Agencies are a moral right that means a contract between two parties. It is not something that one can steal from off the streets. International companies will never grant their agencies by force. Ali Abdullah Saleh asked the Siemens Company for Electricity to cancel my agency rights when he was visiting Berlin. I am saying this to Asharq Al-Awsat which is an international newspaper. Siemens can read my words and if I am not telling the truth they will respond. Ali Abdullah Saleh summoned the Siemens managers in Berlin and told them if you want to win the bid on building the first gas production plant in Marib, you have to cancel the agency you have awarded to Hamid al-Ahmar. They told him that they will not cancel the agency. So, who wants to take an agency awarded to another by force? Is it me or Ali Abdullah Saleh? Dear brother, the former regime waged a fierce smear campaign against me because I opposed it. No other Yemeni politician has been subjected to such defamation; everyone knows this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the house of Ali Salim al-Bid in Aden and that of Adnan al-Bid in Sawan? You are accused of taking them while you are now calling for the rights of the southerners.

[Al-Ahmar] First of all, the house in Aden was bought by Sheikh Abdullah Bin-Hussein al-Ahmar, may God rest his soul in peace, from the state. It did not belong to Al-Bid. Ali Salim al-Bid lived in that house as vice president; it belongs to the state and does not belong to Al-Bid. It was also built after the unity and not before. We were looking for a plot of land in Aden on which to build a house there. The former president offered Al-Bid’s house to my father, may God rest his soul in peace, and I advised him to buy the house. It was appraised and we bought it. We also bought some neighbouring houses from citizens and we built a wall to separate us from Ali Abdullah Saleh’s guard unit in Al-Maashiq. We also built a mosque and other annexes. Nevertheless, if the state wishes to cancel the sale and regain the property, we are prepared to do so; we have no objection. As for brother Adnan al-Bid, I did not hear that he owns a house in Sanaa. All I know is that there is a plot of land in Sanaa that belongs to the Public Endowment Department that Ali al-Bid obtained from some people. We were offered to buy this land; but when we found out that it belonged to the Public Endowment Fund and the minister confirmed this and that those who gave but to Adnan al-Bid did not have such a right. The minister asked us to protect it and we did for several years after which we handed it over to the Endowment Fund. This fund then offered to rent it to us and we remained as there as tenants. Out of respect to Adnan al-Bid, who contacted me, I told him that out of respect to you, I will not build anything on this plot until it is proven that it belongs to you or it belongs to the Endowment Fund. I told Adnan al-Bid if it belongs to you, you may take it with my blessing but if it belongs to the Endowment Fund we have officially leased it and we do not claim ownership. Nothing was built on this land to date out of respect for Dr Adnan.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How does Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar evaluate Saudi and Gulf efforts related to the Gulf initiative?

[Al-Ahmar] Actually, our brothers in the Gulf, particularly the Saudi efforts and gracious sponsorship of His Majesty King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, did not stand by as spectators to what was happening in Yemen. After the Friday of Dignity massacre, they initiated attempts to find a political solution that responds to the principal Yemeni demand on the former president to step down and spare Yemen from the tragedies that everyone knew were coming. We accepted the initiative the day it was presented on us in its first draft on 3 April 2011. We continued to negotiate – while Ali Abdullah Saleh opposed it – until we reached the signing stage. We signed it but Ali Abdullah Saleh did not. He chose to launch the war against our homes in order to avoid signing it. As for the current situation, we have overcome it. Through the pages of Asharq Al-Awsat, I address His Majesty the King and his brothers, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, to say that the Yemeni people appreciate highly your gracious intercession. In an unprecedented turnout, the Yemeni people came out to implement the main part of the Gulf initiative by selecting Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi as the new president of Yemen. This shows respect for the good will of His Majesty the King and his brother GCC leaders. I am fully confident that this deference to the role played by His Majesty the King and his brother Gulf leaders will be met by a genuine stand in support of the Yemeni by reconstructing the damage done to the Yemeni people, government, and economy resulting from the former president’s policies and his insistence to remaining in power until the last moment.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some voices in the Southern Mobility Movement are demanding a separation between northern and southern Yemen. Do you think that the formation of a state of justice and equality in Yemen can drive these voices to withdraw their demands for secession? Or do you think that the demand for secession will grow with time?

[Al-Ahmar] Many northern and southern Yemenis struggled for the unity of Yemen. Perhaps this unity was in the discourse of the sons of the south more than among the sons of the north. With God’s assistance, this unity was accomplished in 1990. After that, certain developments led to the eruption of the war in 1994. Once again in 1994, the Yemeni people, especially the sons of the southern provinces, rose to preserve the unity. After 1994, Ali Abdullah Saleh did a lot of harm to Yemen, the Yemeni people, and the unity. The Yemenis in the southern provinces rose to ask for their legitimate rights but Saleh ignored them. Some thought that the best way to get rid of Ali Abdullah Saleh was through disengagement. More developments took place that led to the peaceful revolution of the youths in early 2011 and the sons of Yemen from all the provinces participated in it. The first martyr of the February revolution fell in Aden. Aden offered scores of martyrs in this revolution; it was the pioneer. The sons of northern and southern Yemen ignited the peaceful revolution of the youths. President Ali Nasir Muhammad called for change in order to avoid dividing Yemen into two parts. The issue is not rebelling against unity; it was more of a reaction to the totalitarian family rule. We respect those that call for disengagement but we also tell them that the decision should be made by all the sons of Yemen, especially in the southern provinces. But the obstruction of the elections by force and the collusion of the remnants of the former regime was shameful. The person that has confidence in himself would open the door to elections and try to gain the support of the people for his beliefs. We say that the southern issue is a pivotal one. It should enjoy the highest interest in it and should take precedence over all other issues. This issue cannot be resolved with slogans but with action in the field. We have raised the motto of “change not division”. The president of the republic, the prime minister, and the defense minister are from the southern provinces. The army will be restructured and the commanders from the Saleh family will leave so that it will become under the command of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the commander in chief of the armed forces. We will not be content with this but we should act to have a balanced and fair partnership in the rule and the wealth between the sons of the southern and northern provinces. Moreover, the local government law should be reviewed. With God’s help, just as the sons of the southern provinces were active in achieving the unity, our new president will be more capable and efficient in preserving the homeland and its accomplishments, headed by the blessed unity. The sons of the southern provinces will once again demonstrate that they are pioneers in building a civic, modern, united, strong, and stable state in Yemen.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What if the leaders of the [Southern Mobility] Movement call for a referendum on disengagement?

[Al-Ahmar] There is no such a thing at the moment. But some are demanding a referendum on a federation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In fact, they are demanding a referendum on self-determination.

[Al-Ahmar] Neither I nor anyone else can impose our opinions on this issue. These days, we are conducting a serious national dialogue to rehabilitate the national body as a result of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s policies. God willing, the Yemeni people will taste the fruits of the unity of goodwill, development, justice, and equality. Finally and following the deliberations and resolutions of the national dialogue and if some demands are made by our brothers in the southern provinces or in any part of the homeland, such demands should be viewed fairly.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Even if they include disengagement?

[Al-Ahmar] God willing, they will not make such a demand because ending the injustices, the restoration of rights, and the establishment of a just institutional state will end such demands.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the situation in Sadah that is now under the control of the Huthists? Do you believe that they are prepared to restore Sadah to the control of the government and to participate in the political process?

[Al-Ahmar] All the statements we are hearing from Al-Huthi’s group is that they look forward to a state of law and order and a civic state. We believe that their stands in the media indicate that they are prepared to be part of a civic, modern, and just state under the leadership of the new president. We should not prejudge or put the cart in front of the horse. We should wait to see what their stand will be and we should encourage them to take the right course.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So why are they trying to expand in Hijjah, Al-Jawf, and other areas?

[Al-Ahmar] I believe that such behaviour, if it is following a systematic trend, will be a serious mistake. If they are the result of individual actions in the field, every Yemeni knows that these days we need more harmony than conflict. These days, the use of arms cannot be the way to gain rights. We wish that this is the approach of everybody. I believe that we should deal with goodwill with everybody. If the opposite emerges, the sound standards in managing the state can resolve any problem.