Banking in Yemen

Rich Tea Biscuits
Rich Tea Biscuits

When I started my banking career back in the 1970’s, banking was still seen as a genteel, if somewhat unexciting, occupation and bankers were regarded as decent, honest and well respected members of the community like Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army. A banking crisis was something which happened when you were getting low on Rich Tea biscuits. As for bankers’ bonuses, these meant a month’s extra pay at Christmas, which we regarded as most generous.

Captain Mainwaring, Private Pike and Sergeant Wilson dressed in their  banking attire.
Captain Mainwaring, Private Pike and Sergeant Wilson dressed in their banking attire.

That might have been the case in UK but overseas, the reality was rather different and when I found myself transferred to my bank’s branch in Taiz, Yemen in 1983 I was often faced with situations which were far from routine.

Handling Complaints – English Dog

At the time Yemen was always teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and the country had a chronic shortage of foreign currency . There was an official exchange rate for US$ against the Yemeni Rial, which nobody used, and there was the unofficial, black market rate which made dollars much more expensive.

Yemeni 20 Rial banknote 1983
Yemeni 20 Rial banknote 1983

Yemen also had a shortage of local teachers and the Ministry of Education employed hundreds of Egyptian and Sudanese teachers, promising them salaries in US$. Since the Ministry did not have dollars they paid the teachers the Rial equivalent and on salary day the teachers descended on the bank en masse expecting to send their money home at the official exchange rate. One month, since there were no dollars available in the country at the official rate, it was my job, as manager of the branch’s day-to-day operations, to explain to dozens of angry teachers that we were unable to sell them dollars. Heated exchanges ensued. The Sudanese on the whole were more understanding but the Egyptians were most irate. Their ring leader hurled verbal abuse at me and shouted across the banking hall that I was an “Inglizi kalb bin kalb” (an English dog, son of a dog). Charming!

The following month they tried new tactics, and the Ministry of Education sent us a letter, endorsed by the Central Bank of Yemen, instructing us to pay the teachers listed in US$ cash, and enclosing a cheque for the Rial equivalent, using the official exchange rate. Sensing victory, the hordes of teachers massed expectantly in the banking hall, only to be informed by yours truly that unless the Central Bank were able to supply us with US$ at their official rate we would be unable to comply. The usual mayhem ensued and my Egyptian friend this time accused me, at the top of his voice, of being an Israeli spy! Needless to say, the unfortunate teachers never received the dollars from us.

David the Hebrew

Not long after that episode I went round to the house of a junior colleague to drop off some papers. If I was the Sergeant Wilson of the branch, and my boss was the Capt. Mainwaring, this guy was Pike, although he was certainly not a “stupid boy”. He had different interests to me and sometimes had some surprising friends. On this occasion, there were two young Arab men sitting in his living room. They were Palestinian PLO members being trained as pilots by the Yemenis in some ancient MIGs. Now back in those days, before Camp David and Yasser Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize, the PLO was still regarded by many as a terrorist organisation, similar to Al Qaida today; they had done some pretty dastardly deeds and it was rather disconcerting to see a couple of their guys sitting in bank property. I didn’t hang around but on my way out, one of the Palestinians fixed me with his steely eyes and asked accusingly  ” David – that’s a Jewish name isn’t it?”. I stuttered out a reply ” it’s also Welsh, you know, St. David, the patron saint. And it’s an Arabic name too – Daoud”.

MIG 21 in Yemen in the 1980's
Part of a MIG 21 in Yemen in the 1980’s, similar to the type used by the PLO.

Some time afterwards I learned that a PLO pilot had crashed his plane at Taiz airport and died. Poor maintenance? Pilot error? Or maybe sabotage. Perhaps there really were Israeli spies operating in Yemen at that time. But I certainly wasn’t one of them!

The Case of the Shredded Travellers Cheques

Thomas Cook Deutsche Mark Travellers Cheques
Thomas Cook Deutsche Mark Travellers Cheques

I always tried to be conscientious in my banking career but one of my weaknesses was to be too trusting. In general I think it is a virtue to be trusting and unsuspicious of people but in a banking environment, when handling other people’s money, it is a bit of a liability.

When the bank finally decided to close down in Yemen we had to dispose of a lot of stuff, including a large stock of unissued Thomas Cook travellers cheques. We were instructed to shred them. We had two paper shredders in the branch, both useless, capable of shredding only one piece of paper at a time and prone to jamming and overheating. Shredding these stacks of Sterling, US Dollar and Deutsche Mark travellers cheques was taking forever. My boss took half and got his ferrash (messenger) to feed them one by one into the shredder in his office while he carried on working. Likewise, my  ferrash shredded the other half in my office, in my presence, but I guess not in my line of sight the whole time.  Mistake! Having these valuable cheques in his hands must have been too much temptation for one of these impoverished ferrashes. Some months later my manager called me to say that some of those travellers cheques had just been cashed in Germany even though he and I had certified that they had already been destroyed. Whoops! A bit of a black mark on both of our files but fortunately our employer was forgiving of our lapse.

Yemen certainly left an impression on me. On the whole it was an interesting experience. Could have done with some of those Rich Tea biscuits though.

Bulk cash withdrawal, Yemeni style. The bank sold off this safe (empty!) to a customer at the time of closing down the branch
Bulk cash withdrawal, Yemeni style. The bank sold off this safe (empty!) to a customer at the time of closing down the branch

City of Light, Taiz, Yemen

While researching my last post about the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement I remembered seeing this banknote at the Numismatic Museum:LeprosariumBanknote

Dated 1936, around the time the Leprosy Settlement was completed, the banknote was for use within the settlement only. This currency was presumably introduced due to concerns from the general public about catching leprosy from banknotes previously used by lepers.

This reminded me of events during my time in Yemen in the mid 1980s. I was working with a well known international bank in the northern Yemeni city of Taiz.

تعز /Ta'izz (Yemen)

A short distance outside Taiz was a ‘leper colony’ known as the City of Light. It was run by nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, an organization founded by Mother Teresa.

Some expatriate women in the capital, Sanaa had collected various items to be donated to the City of Light and sent them down to Taiz asking whether the bank could deliver them.

I was assigned the job of dropping off these donated goods.  I was met by a nice looking Indian nun in her early twenties. She showed me around the settlement which comprised a surgery, hospital wards, accommodation blocks and so on.


It was fairly basic but clean and well looked after. I was so impressed by the dedication of the nuns. She told me that her assignment in Yemen was to be for 10 years without leave, following which she would be entitled to a holiday back in India.

Was she not scared of contracting the disease, I asked?  She said leprosy is caused by bacteria and spreads like the common cold but it is much less infectious and one would need to live in an infected area for years to run the risk of catching it. Yes, she would be living among them for 10 years but God would protect her. I hope He did.

I never complained again about my working conditions in Yemen after meeting her.

A few weeks later she came to the bank with a colleague and one her patients, a leper, who wanted to open a bank account. This man took a grimy bundle of banknotes from his pocket and deposited them on the counter. The chief cashier at the bank eyed them suspiciously as if expecting to find some body parts stuck to them. He was most reluctant to count the money but eventually agreed when the nun explained that there was no risk of catching leprosy from them. I told the chief cashier to set the notes aside and give them to that obnoxious Egyptian teacher when he next comes in to withdraw cash. (Only joking! – don’t want to have to appear before a Senate Committee to explain my actions.)

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...

The nun also was carrying a letter from Mother Teresa who had been informed of the visit from the bank. The letter requested (actually, more like instructed) the bank to make a donation towards the running costs of the City of Light. Mother Teresa was known for her no-nonsense approach to fund raising, a skill which enabled her to help many more unfortunate souls than would otherwise have been possible.

Faced with this direct approach from a world-respected celebrity saint-to-be, my manager caved in and agreed to make a reasonable, if not over-generous, donation from bank coffers.

What a shame I never kept the letter. It’s probably lying in a forgotten archive somewhere, or in a Yemeni landfill.

According to reports, Mother Teresa, who passed away in 1997, achieved beatification in 2003 and needs evidence of having performed a miracle before she can proceed to canonization (sainthood). Perhaps getting a donation from the bank could be considered a miracle?

P.S. According to a somewhat bizarre news report, scientists have established that leprosy has been spread in the southern United States by people eating undercooked meat from the nine banded armadillo. Serves them right for eating such a cute creature!


Mocha, Yemen

scan0004This week, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was officially replaced as President of Yemen after 34 years in power. As always when I see news reports coming out of Yemen, I am reminded of the couple of years I spent there in the mid-1980s.

When I arrived in Yemen, Ali Abdullah had only been in charge for 5 years and he was still calling himself Colonel in the style of those other, more famous Arab revolutionaries, Colonel Qaddafi of Libya and Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.

Like Qaddafi in those early years, Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh sported an Afro hairstyle whereas now, like many of us, he is rather thin on top.


Yemen was still two countries in those days. South Yemen, known universally as pee-dry (Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen) was a ‘socialist paradise’ and closed to foreigners except those from their Communist allies.  I lived in North Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic – a beautiful,  rugged, mountainous country where the proud, conservative and independent locals tolerated foreigners provided they were in the country to give money away, which most of them were (NGO types). I was one of the small number of expats in the commercial sector, working for an international bank. We were also giving money away but our borrowers did not always grasp that we expected to get it back again, with interest!

I was living in Taiz, North Yemen’s second largest city after the capital Sana’a. At about 4,000 ft above sea level, the city had a moderate climate by Arabian standards – cool and damp in winter and hot and dusty in summer. The Saber Mountain (9,860ft) provided an impressive backdrop to the city.


Life in Taiz was interesting and eventful though rarely easy. The bank, with its four expat staff, was the main social hub for the town’s tiny foreign community and our parties were always popular due mainly to our seemingly limitless supply of booze. Alcohol was not obtainable in Taiz and most people who wanted to get hold of some drove down to Mocha on the coast to buy a couple of smuggled bottles and conceal them somewhere in the vehicle in order to avoid detection at one of the many army check posts en route.

The bank however had a unique arrangement with a senior official in the Governor’s office whereby we would be provided with a ‘smuggling permit’ thus enabling us to openly buy and transport smuggled booze in bulk. The only stipulation was that the alcohol was to be for our personal consumption or for our invited non-Muslim guests and of course not for re-sale.

The procedure was that we would let the official know what we wanted and he would provide us a letter in Arabic with all the necessary logos, rubber stamps and signatures instructing the security check posts to allow our Land Rover to pass unhindered with 60 cases of Heineken, 20 cases of Gin, 20 cases of Whisky and 10 cases of Vodka or something similar. As far as I am aware the important official never asked for anything in return other than a small overdraft which, by virtue of his standing and income, he would easily have been able to obtain anyway.

I made 3 or 4 of these ‘booze-runs’ during my two years. They were always memorable events. We would drive from Taiz to the tiny port of Mocha (sometimes spelt Al Mukha or Mockha) on the Red Sea coast, a journey of about 2  hours stopping at half a dozen or so police or army check points along the way.

The name Mocha of course is famous for the coffee which used to be grown in the Yemeni mountains and exported through its busy port many hundreds of years ago. Sadly, Mocha had been in steady decline ever since and by the mid 1980s it was difficult to imagine a more desolate, sand-blown and decaying place. There was certainly no sign of coffee. Yemen was still growing some, mostly for domestic consumption in the watery and cardamom-laced brew, kahwa, which was an acquired taste but, I found, a good cure for hangovers and stomach upsets (both of which were frequent events).

Mocha shopping mall

By the 1980s, Mocha was only famous for booze. It was said that dhows would ship the stuff across the Red Sea from Djibouti and that it would be buried near the beach pending sale. Burial under baking Arabian sand did not make for ideal storage conditions – wine, on the rare occasion they had any, was almost always undrinkable and we would often open sealed beer cans and find them half empty or flat. Still beggars couldn’t be choosers!

Our Land Rover must have been well known to the booze peddlers and as soon as we approached the village, one or more young men would come sprinting towards us from out of the shadows. On our last visit, the fastest guy leapt on to the Land Rover’s running board while we were still moving and shouted for us to drive on. Somehow he opened the passenger door, climbed in and ducked down out of sight and urged us not to stop. Whether he was hiding from other smugglers or from the authorities was not clear. Once outside Mocha he squeezed up on to the front seat and directed us to pull off the tarmac onto a track leading in the general direction of the sea.

He guided us for 10 minutes or more over the bondu, skirting sand dunes, across rocky gullies and eventually coming to a stop in a shallow depression where the roof of our Land Rover would not have been visible by any passing busybody.

The smuggler’s companion, who had gone ahead on his motorbike, was waiting for us here and we got out and started negotiating using our basic but effective Arabic skills.

Fee birra? Aiwa, fee Heineken wa Orangeboum. Fee Gordons Gin? La, mafee Gordons, fee Gilbey’s wa Beefeater. Qum Faloos? And so on until we had placed our order for the quantities specified in our smuggling permit.

Then the guy with the motorbike went off to collect the items. We waited and waited and about 45 minutes later a Toyota pick-up arrived with some boxes in the back. There were four of five Yemenis there altogether, all wearing their  jambia (curved daggers) and a couple of them armed with Kalashnikovs. It did cross our minds that here we were, three Brits, in a remote piece of desert, with a pocket full of cash to pay for the booze, and a Land Rover which must have been worth something, face-to-face with a bunch of armed smugglers. They could have just taken our money and vehicle and left us there – or worse. But then again, why would they want to do away with their number one customers? Our fears were needless – the transaction went off smoothly and we were soon on our way back towards Taiz with 600 bottles of spirits and 1440 cans of beer. Our ancient Land Rover, which had dodgy suspension at the best of times, was literally leaning over to one side under the weight of our semi-legal cargo.

We showed our permit to the first few army check posts and they waved us through without any problem but at the next check point we had a hitch. The officer-in-charge had obviously never seen one of these permits before (not surprising as nobody else had one) and was clearly in something of a dilemma. If he let us through and it turned out that our permit was a fake he would be in serious trouble. On the other hand if he prevented us from continuing and the permit was genuine he could also be in big trouble.

He ordered a soldier to get into the Land Rover and escort us to National Security HQ in Taiz. There was no space for the soldier and he had to perch, with Kalashnikov at the ready, on a box of Smirnoff immediately behind us guys in the front seats.

We drove on to Taiz and he directed us in through the gates of National Security’s HQ fortress. We were somewhat concerned at this stage. National Security was the name of Yemen’s all-seeing secret police force and their HQ was sometimes known as the ‘fingernail factory’ in reference to one of their reputed interrogation techniques – extracting finger nails (probably an exaggeration). We waited nervously in a gloomy passageway from where we could see soldiers eyeing our purchases through the windows of the Land Rover. Thankfully our detention was short lived. Presumably a phone call had confirmed the authenticity of our permit and we were allowed to go home with our goodies. Our excitement for the day was over and of course we had plenty of refreshments to soothe our nerves.

The great mosque at Mocha in the 1980s.

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