by Robert Burrowes
Dr. Abd al-Karim Al-Eryani (AKI) was diminutive—I mean short, really short. From time to time, a professor in the PhD program in Yale allegedly would come into class and exclaim: “Can’t believe it, but I just saw a driverless car with no one behind the wheel speeding across the campus.” The car he was alluding to was in fact one being driven by AKI who could only look through and not over the wheel.
If it wasn’t Dr. AKI who told me this tale, it was probably Middle East specialist Michael Hudson who did. He and AKI were PhD students at Yale at the same time, Mike in political science and AKI in biology. And this reminds me that it was Mike who facilitated my meeting Dr. AKI, and it also lets me illustrate things about the man. As the following tale suggests, and regardless of his place in government, society or family, Dr. AKI did not tower over people—and this was not a function of his physical size. He was by nature a welcoming, open and generous man.
At the urging of a political friend in Taiz, I had come to Sanaa in spring 1976 in order to meet Dr. AKI, head of the Central Planning Organization. An unemployed American academic and a refugee from Lebanon’s Civil War, I only made it halfway up the stairs to Dr. AKI’s office before I totally lost confidence, stopped and retreated. Luckily for me, following me down the stairs was my friend Mike Hudson who had just met with his friend, Dr. AKI. When Mike told me he was going the next day down to the Tihama with Dr. AKI for three days for a ceremony at the Wadi Zabiid Project, I proclaimed my envy. Mike said: “No problem. Show up with your bag at the hotel tomorrow morning. I will introduce you to Dr. AKI and he will invite you to go along. And that is precisely what happened.
We had a wonderful three days together, going down to and from the Tihama, in Wadi Zabid and for two nights in a modest hotel in al-Hodeidah. Over these days, I learned more about the politics and recent political history of Yemen than I had over the previous half year in the country. This proved to be the beginning of my political education—and nearly forty years of friendship. He welcomed me with open arms dozens of times. Some three decades later, not long after the Yemeni unification that he had helped engineer, Abd al-Karim invited me and several others for a week’s stay on an extraordinary island, Socotra. We had a wonderful time, as did the Yemeni politician with the PhD in biology from Yale. I think Mike Hudson was with us.
Was Dr. AKI politically naïve? Yes—and no. I think he was forever a political optimist, and at times I thought he was too much so. When exasperated colleagues urged that after decades it was time to be rid of Dr. AKI, President Salih is alleged to have said “No, we need him and are going to work and ride him like a donkey until he drops over dead”.
In his second tour as prime minister, Dr. AKI chose as a main task the reform of a greatly inflated, incompetent and costly civil service that had gotten worse over the decades. After months of effort, he was able to go before President Salih and announce that he had finally achieved agreement on a plan that would eliminate thousands of “shadow” positions, save lots of money and allow the leadership to focus on creating an effective government work force. In response, the president announced to Dr. AKI that he had just reinforced tribal support for the regime by creating and financing thousands of “shadow” military jobs for tribal militias. And so it went.
On the other hand, Dr. AKI often revealed a strong sense of political insight and awareness. Introduced to the Arab world in the late 1950s, I was for decades a disciple of Gamal Abdul Nasser, and coming to Yemen in 1975, a year after Ibrahim al-Hamdi seized power, I quickly became something of a disciple to the person many hailed as “the little Nasser”. Early on, I noticed in Dr. AKI a lack of enthusiasm for President al-Hamdi, and at some point I questioned him on this. He answered with a story: “On one of the few times I met alone with Ibrahim he drew close to me, tapped me on my knee, and softly said this: “‘Abd al-Karim, I have one great weakness—I don’t trust anyone.’ Quickly, Ibrahim’s distrust poisoned his regime and spread to everyone. And, in the end, his colleagues in the military got him before he got them.” Clearly, Dr. AKI’s take on al-Hamdi was much better than mine.
Another story told to me by Dr. AKI or someone else in the Al-Eryani family relates to the above. When the rare military member of the family, the one who had previously advised President Abd al-Rahman al-Eryani on military affairs, returned to Yemen from exile, he told members of the family that the distribution of troops around Sanaa could only mean that the military was positioned to overthrow al-Hamdi. When he asked family leaders whether he should warn al-Hamdi of the danger, he was told by Dr. AKI that the president, long suspicious and distrustful of the al-Eryani family, would reject the warning, accuse the family of sowing discord, and punish the al-Eryanis.
To donate to the Memorial Fellowship Fund for Yemeni Scholars in honor of Dr. Al-Eryani, click here.