Saqqaf, Abd al-Aziz (1951–1999)
Saqqaf, Abd al-Aziz
Abd al-Aziz Saqqaf was a distinguished Yemeni economist, human rights advocate, and the editor and publisher of the Yemen Times, a bi-weekly independent English-language newspaper. A strong defender of the democracy movement and the rule of law, Saqqaf played a prominent role in Yemen's cultural and political life during the republican era—especially during its crucial transformation from an authoritarian state to an embryonic democracy in the early 1990s. He provided the impetus for many non-governmental organizations and was a pioneer in investigative journalism in Yemen.
Saqqaf was born in 1951 in Hadharim village in the Hujariyya (Ta'izz province), one of the coffee-producing areas in the southern highlands known as "Lower Yemen." Originally his family came from the Hadramawt in the southeastern part of the country. The area where Saqqaf grew up was strongly influenced by its close proximity to Aden, which remained British-dominated until 1967. During the reign of Imam Ahmad Hamid al-Din (1948–1962), the supreme leader of the religiously-sanctioned Imamate, the southern city of Ta'izz became the seat of government and de facto capital where the first modern schools were founded and English was taught. At eleven, Saqqaf witnessed the end of the Imamate in 1962 from a part of the country that overwhelmingly supported the republic that was installed thereafter.
The son of a laborer, Saqqaf was highly motivated to pursue an education. After attending elementary school in Ta'izz and Aden, he received his secondary education at the al-Sha'b school in Ta'izz, the best school in the country. After obtaining a BA in English at San'a University, he continued to study economics at universities in Egypt and the United States. He earned an MPA from Harvard University, an MA from Ohio University, and a doctorate in International Business at Harvard University and Fletcher School in 1979. He was also an honorary Fulbright alumnus. Following his appointment as professor of economics at San'a University in 1980, he never neglected non-academic work in his field. During a long sabbatical he worked as vice-dean of the Banking Institute in Amman, Jordan.
Throughout his life Saqqaf had a vision of a prosperous and democratic Yemen, and he worked tirelessly to achieve it. A keen supporter of the "cooperative movement," his home village became a model serving to demonstrate that civic organizations could improve local conditions. He obtained sponsorship from foreign donors for a hospital, electricity, water, and schools. Saqqaf successfully brought people of different views and political affiliations together to encourage implementation of "good governance" and support organizations promoting civic participation.
He was dedicated to the advancement of human rights, specifically those of women, children, and groups subject to discrimination such as the Muwalladin, Yemeni nationals born of African mothers. He supported women's rights through lectures and television talk shows, and he organized and participated in numerous conferences. In 1986 he was a major contributor to the Campaign for the Supply of Vaccines for Children, the Yemeni-Saudi relations symposium, and the symposium for the draft law of local government. Saqqaf dedicated much of his time to media work because of his commitment to creating civic spaces outside the established political arenas. He was the first news anchorman at the Yemen Arab Republic's national television channel, where he also started the first English-language bulletin.
Name: Abd al-Aziz Saqqaf
Birth: 1951, Hujariyya, Yemen
Death: 1999, San'a, Yemen
Family: Wife, 'Aziza Muhammad al-Saqqaf; sons, Walid, Raidan; daughters, Nadia, Haifa
Education: Yemen, Egypt, United States; M.A. in economics, Ohio University; Ph.D. in international business, Harvard University, 1979
- 1980: Professor of economics at San'a University
- 1986: Co-founder of the Yemeni Organization for Human Rights
- 1994: Executive director of the Yemeni Institute for Development and Democracy
- 1995: International Freedom of the Press Award, Washington, D.C.
- 1996: Queen of Sheba Title for Services to the Nation
- 1999: Founder of Yemen 21 Forum
- 1990–1999: Editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times
Saqqaf was enthusiastic about the unification between the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in May 1990, an event that brought about fundamental social and political change. The new constitution of the Republic of Yemen—based on Arab, Western, and socialist legal principles—was ratified in May 1991 and welcomed by Saqqaf. It granted voting and candidacy rights, the right to a fair trial, judicial independence, freedom of expression (protecting speech, writing, and pictures) within the law, and equal treatment under the law. It guaranteed more rights and liberties than most Arab constitutions. The years following unification generated civic activism and political liberalism, as Saqqaf had envisioned. He played a key role in many of the newly formed organizations. Professional syndicates of doctors, pharmacists, attorneys, judges, and journalists constituted a politically-aware professional class interested in liberalization. Lawyers and press syndicates defended journalists in court. In 1992, Saqqaf was among those elected to the Supreme Council of the Organization for the Defence of Democratic Rights and Liberties. Its aim was to observe prison conditions, defend legal rights, and encourage other civil society organizations like the Committee for Free Elections.
New press and party legislation gave rise to a great number of political organizations including political parties, broadcast companies, two daily national newspapers, and one hundred periodicals. Satellite dish access to a variety of broadcasts was available, and national television covered the Persian Gulf Crisis in 1990, parliamentary debates, and street demonstrations in 1992. Saqqaf saw media work as a mission and as instrumental in generating political pluralism. He established the Yemen Times, the first and most widely-read English-language Yemeni newspaper, on 28 February 1991. The paper is one of the few not linked to a political party, with a declared mission "to make Yemen a good world citizen." Taking a nonpartisan view, it offers the educated public and non-Arabic speakers insight into Yemeni and regional affairs. Saqqaf's application for a license for an independent radio station was denied. He set high moral standards, introducing a work ethic at his paper centering on discipline, commitment, and truthfulness. In spite of the paper's occasional critical stance, Saqqaf insisted that "we are not out to get the regime or to seek replacement of those in power. It is this stand that differentiates the Yemen Times from opposition papers."
An astute political observer, he considered his criticism of the status quo to be constructive for he did not aspire to political positions. He took issue with the government's lack of transparency and its allocation of funds to defense at the expense of the education sector. His reporting of the devastating effects of the war between northern and southern forces that led to the collapse of the unity government in 1994 and allegations about the government's improper handling of oil revenues were not looked at favorably by the regime. When in 1993 a press prosecution office was established to monitor the press and prosecute violators of the press law, private attorneys representing the Journalists' Syndicate and a human rights organization defended the Yemen Times.
Saqqaf was awarded the International Freedom of the Press Award in Washington, D.C., in 1995 and the Queen of Sheba Title for Services to the Nation in 1996. That same year Saqqaf organized a seminar in San'a on the promotion of an independent and diverse Arab media sector. The subsequent declaration was adopted by Arab journalists in San'a and endorsed by all Arab countries at the UNESCO General Conference in November 1997. In 1997 the Yemeni president appointed Saqqaf to the newly-established Consultative Council. Shortly before his death in 1999 Saqqaf was the first Arab journalist to be nominated for the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize. He published many books on economic issues and articles in international newspapers and magazines. He died in a car accident in San'a on 2 June 1999.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
Saqqaf's work was closely associated with the social and political developments in post-revolutionary Yemen during the early decades of state transformation—the rapid expansion of state institutions and the economic sector, the establishment of Local Development Associations, unification, and democratization. Like many Hujariyya merchants who had backed the revolution and played a vital role in the development of the private sector, Saqqaf saw the need for fundamental economic reforms. He worked toward implementation by training future economists and publishing detailed and trenchant reports about existing monetary policy and other economic issues. When writing about the deterioration of the riyal (Yemen's unit of currency) exchange rate in May 1999, he asked, "Will the Central Bank of Yemen please wake up?" His analysis of the political economy of the Yemen Arab Republic twenty years after its formation reveals his excitement at the dramatic growth in the financial and economic sectors after 1962, noting that the Yemen Bank for Reconstruction and Development was established just a month after the September revolution. He was keenly aware of the challenges faced by the revolutionary regime during its early years—civil war in the 1960s and the withdrawal of Egypt's budgetary and military support after her defeat in the 1967 War—causing the closure of the Yemeni Ministry of Finance. In the early 1980s, Saqqaf advised the government to pursue a more coherent fiscal policy of guiding investments, savings and consumption, and production.
One of Saqqaf's main contributions was the founding of the Yemen Times, which has informed the public and world community on Yemeni issues. Saqqaf provided a medium through which his pleas for democracy and respect for human rights could reach foreign diplomats and members of international organizations. After unification, the paper gave generous coverage to public meetings such as the National Conference in 1992. Organized by urban professionals, it drew together representatives of twenty-two non-ruling parties, forty-two political organizations, professional unions, and leaders of tribal confederations. The resolutions passed at the conference focused on pluralism, separation of powers, neutrality of the armed forces, union rights, and fair multiparty elections. Saqqaf helped to establish the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Cairo in 1982. He was a co-founder and sponsor of organizations including the Yemeni Organization for Human Rights (1986), the Elections Monitoring Committee (1996), the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (New York 1995), executive director of the Yemeni Institute for Development and Democracy (1994), and the National Committee for the Combat of Torture (1998). He also founded the Yemen 21 Forum, a non-governmental organization dedicated to human rights that encouraged other like organizations to form networks in order to mobilize citizens to stand up for their rights to freedom of information and protection from unlawful treatment by the state. Among its members was Dr. Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2002. Saqqaf was both an advocate of civil liberties and a human rights activist who, in spite of many setbacks, was able to witness the fruits of his efforts during his lifetime. In his capacity as chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Consultative Council, he negotiated the release of thousands of detainees imprisoned without fair trial and the transfer of several underage prisoners to orphanages.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Saqqaf gained international recognition for his dedicated efforts to promote democracy in his country, and was one of the most influential Arab journalists of his time. He often was invited to contribute to international conferences and to accompany government officials abroad. In February 1999 he was a member of an invited government delegation to Egypt. He submitted lectures on Yemen at the Ahram Strategic Center and at the Arab Organization for Human Rights, and he had an audience with President Husni Mubarak. Saqqaf's work and personality were appreciated by international organizations such as UNESCO, UNICEF, and Amnesty International. Following his death, UNICEF Representative Habib Hammam described him as "a great leader" who was "a window of Yemen to the world." Highlighting Saqqaf's courageous defense of press freedom, Reporters Sans Frontières and the Center for Media Forum-Middle East and North Africa promised to maintain his legacy. The Muslim Educational Trust of Great Britain praised his grassroot experience and his "courage to deal with real issues head-on." Gianni Brizzi, Representative of the World Bank Resident Mission in Yemen, referenced Saqqaf's "uncompromising urge to better the political, social and economic environment of the country through what he could best do: using the powerful voice of the media."
YEMENIS ARE TRADITION-ORIENTED PEOPLE
Yemenis are tradition-oriented people, but they were never dogmatic zealots. Today, their frustrations are making them more dogmatic. While technically puritanical religion is not necessarily a bad thing, if it leads to less tolerance and more fanaticism, it is going to be problematic.
YEMEN TIMES, 10 AUGUST 1998.
Many observers believe Yemen is at crossroads. Either we move forward, or the whole process is jeopardized. 'It is like riding a bicycle. If you stop moving, you fall,' explained a senior diplomat in San'a. Indeed, our transformation towards real political pluralism and economic integration with the world has to continue. Otherwise, we risk major upheavals and we risk being left out of the world's mainstream evolution.
YEMEN TIMES, 30 DECEMBER 1998.
The basic premise for Yemen's joining the world community is that it agrees to live by world rules. These include more tolerance of differences of opinion, and acceptance that rivals can mobilize themselves and their supporters in a bid for a transfer of power in a peaceful and legal way. If the rulers block this possibility, which is a remote one in any case, then they are inviting violence.
YEMEN TIMES, 8 MARCH 1999.
In 1999 Henrikas Yushkiavitshus, Assistant Director-General of Communication and Information at UNESCO, noted that "as a man who possessed so many multi-cultural facets," Saqqaf "leaves behind him a legacy which will be difficult to follow." Partly because of the efforts of people like Saqqaf, Yemenis enjoyed several years of unprecedented civil liberties and the country has remained relatively open—especially in comparison with other states on the Arabian Peninsula. That Yemen was the first state on the peninsula to have parliamentary and presidential elections and that by 1994 it had more Amnesty International groups than any other Arab country were in no small measure due to Saqqaf's work. Thanks to his activities, Saqqaf undermined stereotypes of his country as "backward" and steeped in tribal traditions. His name is irrevocably linked with Yemen's move toward representative government that to some extent evolved from the civic institutions he founded and supported. He fought hard to maintain civil society's resilience and can be credited with encouraging dialogue across the political spectrum and the practice of negotiation in conflict situations. He encouraged links with many Arab and international organizations. Saqqaf's mission and work set an important example for others. Significantly, he taught the younger generation never to abandon its idealism, and that the struggle for democracy is tedious but worthwhile.
Saqqaf's newspaper and the success of his local, nongovernmental initiatives are testimony to Saqqaf's enduring legacy. Referring to Saqqaf's engagement in his native village, in 1999 one of the villagers noted that Saqqaf "provided us with life" and that "his efforts in the Arab world and international arena helped enable projects in education … in [several] villages," including two new schools that were then under construction, one sponsored by Qatar and the other by the World Bank. In 2006 the Yemen Times was awarded the Free Media Pioneer Award by the International Press Institute in Vienna. The jury noted that the paper had succeeded in a part of the world where independent media are prohibited from offering a platform for the opposition. That same year Saqqaf's daughter Nadia, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times—and one of the few women holding this position in the Arab world—was honored with the first Gebran Tueni Award. (Tueni, a Lebanese publisher, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut in 2006.) In his laudatory "Poem to My Friend," Muhammad Sharaf al-Din, professor in the Classics department of Georgetown University in the United States, said of Saqqaf, "My dearest friend: you had no ties with me / Nor with those who saw you speak and smile / Except your hand and mouth of piercing truth … What you have done and left behind / Is just too great to see / For you have planted hope in all / And such disturbing fearlessness which you mastered so well."
Carapico, Sheila. Civil Society in Yemen: The Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
"Daddy, we will miss you …" Yemen Times. Available from http://yementimes.com/99/iss23/family.htm.
"Dr. Abdulaziz in Brief: A Man of Ideals and Integrity." Yemen Times. Available from http://yementimes.com/99/iss23/bio.htm.
"IPI Names Yemen Times 'Free Media Pioneer 2006.'" AME Info. Available from http://www.ameinfo.com/79523.html.
Saqqaf, Abdulaziz Y. "Fiscal and budgetary policies in the Yemen Arab Republic." In Economy, Society and Culture in Contemporary Yemen, edited by Brian Pridham. London: Croom Helm, 1985.
"Yemen Times View Point." Yemen Times. Available from http://www.yementimes.com/98/iss36/view.htm.
Gabriele vom Bruck