When American diplomat Haynes Mahoney landed in the lair of Yemeni kidnappers, he was greeted with neither ransom demand nor brandished Kalashnikov.
Instead, a poem was recited in his honor. It began, “Welcome, Mahoney, to Ma’rib… “
In the land where the Queen of Sheba once ruled over an empire of frankincense and myrrh, kidnapping tourists, diplomats and oil workers has become a national pastime. Nearly 100 foreigners have been seized in the past four years by armed tribesmen, who are virtually a law unto themselves.
The tribesmen, angry at government neglect, frequently come out with what they want - promises of jobs or government projects for their remote backwater region.
And it isn’t so bad for the hostages, either. After initial fear and bewilderment, foreigners often emerge in high spirits, sometimes with gifts of curved daggers or Arab robes from their gracious captors.
The government, though, is left frustrated with a phenomenon it can do little about, fearful of the tribes’ power and unable or unwilling to address their long-standing grievances. In Yemen, a poor country along the southern rim of the Arabian Peninsula, the government usually prefers making a deal to a confrontation with the tribes.
“Yemen will take all steps to provide for the peace and security of all tourists and visitors to our country,” said Prime Minister Abdel-Aziz Abdel-Ghani. “No tourist who was kidnapped has been hurt. They haven’t been beaten, or tortured, or killed.”
And yet, the tourists keep coming, attracted by temples and other ruins from Yemen’s heyday as the crossroads of caravan routes from east Africa, India and Arabia itself.
On a recent day, two pickups with guns mounted in back guarded a convoy of 18 trucks carrying British and French tourists on the three-hour drive east from San’a to Ma’rib’s archaeological sites.
“You just have to do it,” said Frank Hodierne, a 73-year-old tourist from Highwycombe, England. “At my age, if you don’t make the trip now, you’re not going to make it at all.”
Along the road, two scarecrows dressed in soldiers’ uniforms stood on the barren cliffs above. In each tourist vehicle sat a guard armed with a Kalashnikov and a traditional dagger known as a jambiya.
Guard Mohammed Hassan offered assurances that the tourists would be safe in his care. “I’m only scared of God,” he declared.
Humility might serve him better.
In a series of brash, daylight attacks, tribesmen have seized an American and 11 Germans so far this year. The last kidnapping - of four Germans in March - was prompted by a tribe’s demands for government compensation for damage from last year’s floods.
The tribesmen slaughtered a goat a day for their captives and fed them rice and freshly baked pita bread.
Mahoney, who was seized in 1993 in the capital San’a where he was serving as U.S. Information Service chief at the embassy, still recalls his kidnappers’ hospitality.
“I always tell my friends, if you’re going to be kidnapped, Yemen is the place to be kidnapped,” said Mahoney, who was freed after spending six days in Ma’rib and has since returned to Washington.
He still keeps his poem.
Last year, a French diplomat was kidnapped, released, then seized again hours later by another faction of the same tribe. The second kidnappers demanded - and got - promises of 100 jobs for their men at oil facilities in Ma’rib, which has sizable reserves.
To say the tribes wield authority is an understatement.
Ma’rib is home to four powerful tribes with more than 70 branches. A tribe in Yemen may inhabit hundreds of square miles and number as many as 40,000. The biggest tribal confederations control the same territory they did a thousand years ago.
To many, the government is nothing more than another tribe, however powerful, and kidnapping is justified as a way to draw attention to problems and to get some of the limited wealth that oil has brought to Ma’rib.
“What the region needs from the government hasn’t been provided. Schools from the 1970s made of mud are about to fall over. These are basic things,” said Sheik Zayed Haidar, a young leader of one of the region’s smaller tribes.
The kidnappings have become so frequent that a question about them is usually met with another question: “Did they take someone today?”
But some warn of a vicious circle. As long as Ma’rib stays wild, investors will stay away. As long as money goes elsewhere, tribes will carry out kidnappings to seek redress.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.