Training and Development

Yemen: Conflict, Ancient Arabia and New Tech

In July the BBC World Service ran an absolutely fascinating documentary on Yemen’s Swap Marriages. Not as dodgy as it sounds, this ancient custom, still practiced today, dictates that two men marry each other’s sisters in order to forgo a dowry. However, this means the two marriages are indelibly linked and so, if one marriage fails, the other couple must divorce… even if they are perfectly happy together.

As the blurb on the website ran: “In Yemen, the heart of Arabia, ancient traditions and values have kept the fabric of society unchanged. They helped preserve Yemen’s unique charm and character, but also imprisoned Yemen’s people in the past.” This clearly has implications for tech and business.

Yemen is strangely isolated. It has none of the wealth of its surrounding, oil-rich neighbours. It is also a tribal nation which has been dogged by wars and political upheaval and social issues. This means it ranks, an abysmal, 152 out of 187 on the UN Gender Inequality Index [2014 human development report, PDF] and has been labelled one the UN’s Least Developed Countries – the only one listed from the Middle East.  


Not surprisingly perhaps, investigating tech in Yemen is extremely difficult. As one of our long-term sources based in the region put it, unlike the rest of the world: “Tech entrepreneurship is not high on the agenda in Yemen at the moment due to lots of issues they have. Even from a telecom from Ericsson perspective, we have little or no business in Yemen and we are present everywhere else in the Middle East and Africa.” 

A lot of the information available online is old and doesn’t provide a clear picture. The wide range of local professionals we contacted mostly returned extremely negative feedback. As one individual explained:

“The situation in Yemen has become a difficult and tiresome, I despair of Yemen because [of the] rulers and systems [and the] status of all conditions after the crisis. [There is] no good economy and no good foreign relations. Administrative and moral corruption [is] everywhere, believe me, I intend to migrate.”

A November 2012 report [gated PDF] from the MADAR centre for research and development in Dubai on the use of Information and Communication Technology in the Arab world highlighted a very low spread of IT. As Zaid Shamsan told this Arab language site, there are many reasons for this, with political instability, civil wars, large populations, high illiteracy rates, low individual income and the poor infrastructure sitting at forefront.

Yaser Almamary who is a PhD Student in Technology Management at Universiti Tun Hussein Onn in Malaysia wrote an August paper about the key factors in enhancing the acceptance of management IT systems in Yemeni companies.  When we caught up with him, he reiterated that a large part of the problem for the IT industry is: “There is a monopoly by the government”.

The same is true in a lot of countries around the world, like Nigeria. Yet ongoing problems [BBC profile] with the Yemeni government have been especially severe and long-term. The international press is never short of stories about in-fighting and insurgencies. And since the crackdown on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the country has also become a major base for Islamic militants, which has enhanced its poor reputation.

“Corruption in the government, in addition to tax evasion [is the] cause of the delay in [the tech] sector in Yemen,” Almamary stressed.

In fact another research report from May [PDF] highlighted ICT failings in the public sector itself – this is based on the assumption that IT tools are neither widely used nor accepted in government organisations.

Almamary told us what made the local situation unique. “We have the foundations of the previous president, who ruled with corruption in all sectors of the state.” There is a “tribal nature” of the country and “the proliferation of weapons of all kinds.”

“Yemen is a country different from the rest of the Arab countries,” he continued. “Now lives in Yemen [are characterised by] backwardness, ignorance and lack of law. Therefore, it is difficult to develop this sector easily. Neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates [get] revenue from the telecoms and information technology worth billions of dollars. As for Yemen [the] revenue is half a billion dollars. The reason for this discrepancy is the policy of the failed state and the absence of law.”

Aside from the end to conflict, Almamary believes several things are needed to help Yemen move away from being the ‘the least developed country’ in the Arab world. He listed these as the need to support Yemen economically and provide supervision for all grants awarded “where the government cannot be trusted”. The need to train staff and technicians who can then go on to lead the sector, along with a focus on the successful experiences of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. Finally, he believes more in-depth research is required to really get to grips with the reasons for tech delays.

All over the globe, technology is helping to solve economic problems, whether this is through entrepreneurialism on the ground, or the development of more established industries to boost the economy. For the time being though, Yemen remains a country with a rich cultural heritage, blighted by conflicts, which have left it severely lagging behind the rest of the world.


If you have experiences of tech in Yemen that you would like to share, please drop Kathryn a note.


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