Stand by Yemen

October 18, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Yemen

Stand by Yemen

Things aren't so bad in Arabia Felix—but continued partnership is crucial.

Stefan Wolff’s article that appeared in World Politics Review in July does a thorough job of analyzing the dynamics of the National Dialogue process in Yemen. As we wrote in May 2012, we should let talking, including talks about talks, be our watchword for Yemen’s development and its transition to relative peace. National dialogue is the only route to reconciliation and long-term progress—notwithstanding the plethora of current challenges facing Yemen—but it needs strong U.S. support to succeed. Had the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered peace deal not occurred, Yemen would now be in a state of civil war. Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, Yemen and its nearly concluded National Dialogue process remains the somewhat unlikely beacon of hope in the region as the Arab Spring has arguably turned into a bitter winter. A stable, peaceful Yemen is in the interests of the U.S., GCC, Europe and most of all the Yemeni people. Despite many past and likely future setbacks, all parties should hold their nerve in maintaining a steady stream of support for this very fragile nation.

The various political parties in Yemen are vying for a better future for themselves and their people. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) is their vehicle. There are perennial arguments from scholars and pundits that Yemen is on the brink of imploding. However, history suggests that the Yemeni people have greater ability to overcome trauma than they are often given credit for, despite a checkered past of conflict, north-south and factional division, and dangerous spoilers from Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia colliding with a weakened government. Additionally, there are the normal background challenges of limited water and oil resources, low education, high unemployment and a demographic bulge that is set to double the population in twenty years. The people of Yemen remain in bad shape from multiple perspectives, including acute levels of child malnutrition on par with the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Yemen will need U.S. support for the long haul that goes well beyond our conventional counterterrorism role.

The return of the Southern Separatist Movement (Hirak) to the NDC was a major achievement. The Yemeni government’s apology to southern separatists and the Houthis for wars waged against them under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh surely helped. The NDC has been criticized for focusing too much on the political elite and ghosts of the past, but the recent idea to form a federal system is a welcome step and will help balance power and cool internal divisions if implemented. Those from the south taking a risk for peace and rejoining the dialogue need to be awarded medals, not labeled traitors. The south needs to see that the fruits of the NDC will improve their lives and help build a better future. But it is hard to get a coherent message to the people when 70 percent of the country is rural, 40 percent of the people are illiterate, and few have electricity for internet, radio, or television.

Additionally, Yemen continues to suffer from gridlock because of two oppositions competing for power. The government isn’t working together. It—despite herculean efforts by an often-unappreciated President Hadi—expresses limited power outside Sana’a and Aden because of a less than coherent security force that limits effectiveness. The comings and goings of the Saleh-led General People’s Congress (GPC) from the NDC—jockeying with Hirak—has been a recurring and disruptive theme. But the question of Yemeni future governance is a big one. Former President Saleh has continued to be influential and he may make a play for power as the NDC draws to a close and he paints the narrative and spins the facts that the dialogue process failed. A move by him to seize direct power again would undoubtedly spark a civil war. Many believe that it is only the credible threat of a direct U.S. intervention that has kept Yemen together. President Hadi talks of a “unique opportunity” presented by the NDC. We worry that all parties may fail to grasp that opportunity presented in preference to their own ends, which history would reflect as woefully inadequate.

But let us not forget that the GCC deal preserved the peace and still does. Many Yemenis we speak to believe that their country will only succeed with U.S. partner-support of the GCC mechanism. The role of the U.S., United Nations, and the GCC is crucial as ever, but more so now than ever before. It is certainly logical to link Yemeni, GCC, UN and U.S. interests. If Yemen descends into the abyss, these shared interests are not met. Everyone benefits from a stable Yemen.

There may be some good news on the horizon as Yemen is set to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) after Ukraine withdrew its veto. Membership will help shore up Yemen’s economy provided donors actually pay up, notwithstanding donor fatigue. If Yemen can hold its nerve through current challenges and capitalize on the WTO benefit, anything is possible. Politically, the opposition can learn a great deal from recent events in Egypt. For Yemen, combatants who were former enemies have been sitting together talking in the National Dialogue Conference for a while now. Whatever decisions are taken, the talking must continue and whatever the outcome, the U.S. must hold its nerve, because our support for Yemen is essential and also because capacity beyond dialogue is limited.

Robert Sharp is an Associate Professor and Fahad Malaikah is a Research Associate at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the NESA Center, National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Ibrahem Qasim. CC BY-SA 3.0.