SAN'A, Yemen – The inauguration of an enormous new mosque named after Yemen's authoritarian president has bewildered the people of this impoverished Arab country — especially when they learned it cost a staggering $60 million.
It's a massive sum in a country that ranks as the poorest in the Arab world and is beset by internal armed conflict, terrorism and severe malnutrition.
"We need schools and hospitals," said Salem Ahmed, a government employee. "Many Yemenis have to travel abroad for medical treatment. This is hypocrisy."
Nonetheless, senior Islamic clerics dutifully turned out for Saturday's opening ceremony of the Saleh Mosque to play their part in glorifying the country's leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The gargantuan house of worship is surrounded by sprawling gardens and has space for 40,000 faithful.
The mosque seems to represent an enduring wish by Yemen's president to be ever-present. Already, hospitals, schools and stadiums around the country bear his name.
Large pictures of Saleh in public places have been making a comeback following their brief disappearance after Iraq's Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. Saleh had ordered his own pictures taken down after TV images were broadcast around the world of Iraqis tearing down similar pictures of Saddam.
Lavish building projects are already an unusual sight in Yemen, a tribal country at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, many of whose 22 million people are wracked by poverty.
The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization said 37 percent of the population is undernourished in 2003, while the another U.N. agency estimates 46 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.
Rising food prices in a country where half the wheat is imported has exacerbated the situation, as well as a deadly tropical storm that smashed into the country on Oct. 24, causing widespread flooding that wiped away 20,000 people's homes in one of the poorest provinces.
Much of what the country does earn — largely through oil sales — is believed to go toward arms and security.
Yemen's armed forces battled rebels, who accused the government of corruption and neglect, in the country's north for four years until Saleh declared an end to that fighting in July. An uneasy peace now prevails.
And there is unrest lingering from the 14-year civil war between the country's north and south.
Furthermore, Yemen's heavily armed tribes barely acknowledge the central government's authority, and there is a persistent al-Qaida movement that has attacked and killed foreigners, most recently launching a suicide car bombing outside the U.S. Embassy on Sept. 17 that killed 19 people.
"There is no strategic plan for the development of Yemen's economy," said Mohammed Haider, a Yemeni economic expert. "We are too dependent on oil exports — even though the government tells us production could decrease by 50 percent next year."
It's with that sense of foreboding in mind that Yemenis scratch their heads in wonder when they consider the new mosque.
Passers-by crane their necks to study its six towering minarets, four of which soar 525 feet (or 160 meters) into the sky.
The mosque's design follows a unique Yemeni style of architecture, with wooden roofs and 15 wooden doors, each 75 feet high and carved with copper patterns. Inside, a large crystal chandelier lights up the main prayer area. The mosque has three floors, with libraries and 25 classrooms.
"Yemen doesn't need this luxurious mosque," said Rushdi Mohammed, a student. "We need industrial projects to rescue the country from poverty, unemployment and diseases."
Haider says the mosque represents the haphazard management of the country's resources with little thought going into how to use Yemen's farmland or fisheries.
It is perhaps for these reasons that extra precautions are also being taken to protect the Saleh Mosque. It's the only one in all of Yemen where worshippers are searched by police and bomb-sniffing dogs.