GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
A Future for Yemen’s Past: Cultural Heritage as Economic Resource
Paper Proposal Text :
While the international community observes the political transition and deteriorating security situation in Yemen, most Yemenis struggle to survive economically. The general instability of the state has pushed Yemenis to rely increasingly on traditional and individualistic methods to survive. Tribalism is resurgent to counterbalance the weak state. Extrajudicial methods of dispute resolution are chosen in preference to trusting the government court system. Local officials are concerned about the effect of the new federalist system and distribution of resources by Sana’a.

In response some individuals have begun to fend for themselves personally by securing what they can, through legal and illegal means. But attempts can be fruitless: drilling wells in Sana’a have not produced more water; extrajudicial agreements are not necessarily enforceable; tribes and other groups, such as the Houthis, cannot create and enforce effective economic policies.

Some individuals have begun to mine the nation’s most irreplaceable resource: cultural heritage. While many contend that this is of lesser importance than, say, dwindling water resources, in the long term it could be similarly devastating: with proper management, seasonal monsoons replenish water reservoirs, but destroyed heritage is gone forever.

Though responsible and sustainable development of cultural heritage could offer a promising path forward for the country, this is not currently the case in Yemen. Individuals who mine this treasure often do so illegally, extracting artifacts from the ground or taking them from built environments without permission to sell them for profit in illegal markets. Government officials turn a blind eye or disingenuously cite extenuating circumstances when feckless policy, obviously lax enforcement, and overall negligence destroy urban landscapes--even ones protected by UNESCO, like the ancient cities Zabid and Old Sana’a. Inexperienced experts, shoddy workmanship, and ineffectual projects have become acceptable among some agencies as half-hearted conservation attempts in order to generate agency funding from international donors.

Although most Yemenis are proud of their ancient history and would contend that such historical treasures are worthy of not only mere protection, but also responsible and sustainable development, economic realities and incompetent policies have created different considerations of the topic. Some Yemenis with these cultural treasures are not averse to profiting from them.

This raises an ethical question: if the government will not provide for its citizens who live in heritage-rich areas, which includes almost the entire country and especially tribal governorates, by generating income from the conservation and preservation of ancient and culturally significant sites, then do citizens have the right to cultivate it themselves?

Selling antiquities for short-term profit potentially denies an entire, sustainable industry in the country, one that could contribute significantly to economic growth, general stability, and even trust between historically marginalized areas and the central government. Not mining heritage as an economic resource, however, leaves it with only latent potential.

This paper investigates why cultural heritage in Yemen has not been cultivated as a significant economic resource in the quest to restore order, maintain security, stimulate economic productivity, and generate positive investment and international impressions. Is this question related to Yemeni identity and a political ordering of the value of past treasures? Are there other economic considerations that argue against developing cultural heritage as an economic resource? Are political and security conditions really so bad that nothing can be done at least to secure heritage sites and effects until a time when they can be used as a resource?

While attempts to preserve heritage are not a panacea for the country’s woes, they could create jobs and wealth, which could settle areas of the country and eventually generate a serious tourism industry similar, for example, to that of neighboring Ethiopia. They could also contribute to education and an understanding of Yemen’s enlightened ancient past. In the recent past the nation benefitted from this type of interest and industry, and in at least one area, Soqotra, still does.

In addition to those individual Yemenis who are proud of their past, many Yemeni government officials tasked with preserving historic cities and antiquities understand the potential for heritage as an economic resource. In fact there have been some successful projects recently to preserve urban landscapes, restore built structures, document intangible heritage, and even conserve the environment through greater awareness of traditional Yemeni practices concerning land use. Yet, none have led definitively to better economic results or greater stability in these areas.

Through a series of site visits, interviews with experts and officials, and comparative case studies with neighboring countries, this paper will analyze why successful projects have had little positive economic impact and why policies are not more conducive to developing heritage in Yemen as a sustainable resource. Instead of focusing on the issues of security and political transition, which cast a pall over all current serious innovation, including of heritage, analysis will look at other elements of causation and possible solutions. Attempts will be made to conduct cost analyses of living in special zones of conservation, such as Zabid and Old Sana’a; replicating heritage construction; and general heritage maintenance. While a large-scale cost benefit analysis or comparative analysis of the country’s past successful heritage development may be impractical because of a dearth of official statistics, analysis will quantify the successful results of heritage projects, both conservation and restoration, and their positive impacts on individual lives. The ultimate goal of the paper will be the distillation of successful elements into a replicable model that can successfully tap heritage as an economic resource, despite worsening security concerns and political stagnation.