The Good News Out of Yemen

Yemen remains the only country to have gone through the Arab Uprisings with neither a descent into civil war nor an abrupt course reversal. The good news is that Yemenis from all factions and regions are still talking; the bad news is that a couple of large bumps on the road need to be dealt with before the political dialogue reaches fruition.

Yemen remains the only country to have gone through the Arab Uprisings with neither a descent into civil war nor an abrupt course reversal. The good news is that Yemenis from all factions and regions are still talking; the bad news is that a couple of large bumps on the road need to be dealt with before the political dialogue reaches fruition.

A violent regime crackdown on protesters and clashes between supporters and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh defined the beginning of the uprising, from January 2011 through the handover of power to Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi on to the February 27, 2012. But it stopped short of an all out conflagration. The new, interim president and cabinet have, under UN guidance, moved along a fairly civil national dialogue (ND). Though not yet fully successful, the negotiations have already tackled some of the thorniest issues in the country. The National Dialogue process is nearing completion, and the UN Security Council is seized with the issue.

The good news is on several fronts. A group of donor countries, known as the Friends of Yemen (the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus EU, the UN and the U.S.), just concluded a meeting in New York, with a reaffirmation of pledges of assistance and renewed vigilance over the transition process in what is arguably the poorest and least developed of the Arab countries. Eight billion dollars have been pledged by the Friends of Yemen, and an executive bureau has, at least in principle, been established to oversee and coordinate how the assistance is disbursed. Closer to home, the U.S. government has seriously upped its civilian assistance and promised to support the ND process politically and financially. So what is the catch?

The National Dialogue, expertly and patiently chaperoned by the UN special envoy, Jamal Benomar, was supposed to produce a new constitution for Yemen, to be followed by a referendum and elections. The process has now gone into overtime, ostensibly to allow the drafters time to refine the finished product. In reality, the time is needed to iron out serious differences that remain between northern and southern delegates to the ND. Secessionist sentiment in the south remains strong and even the moderates among them are only willing to accept a federated union if the south remains unified as a large component of the whole, with an option to secede at a future date should a plebiscite indicate that that remains the strong wish of the people of the south. The north and south of Yemen have already fought a civil war in 1994 over this question, with the north prevailing in that conflict. The secessionist sentiment has not disappeared but rather simmered on a slow burner, flaring up again during the uprising in 2011. North of Sanaa, the Zaidi Houthis, who have accepted to stay in the union, are facing an amalgam of Salafi Islamists, including odd bedfellows from the mainstream Islah party and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. These regional issues are the main obstacles facing the National Dialogue, and are far more serious than a mere refinement of the language of the final document.

The U.S. government has supported the GCC transition plan for Yemen, which eased out president Saleh and ushered in the current transitional process. U.S. diplomacy complimented Benomar’s efforts and, in consultation with Saudi Arabia, encouraged the main parties in Yemen to participate in the ND. The U.S. also supported the ND process with 10 million dollars and has pledged to help fund the needed institution building to follow.

A U.S. 2012 aid package amounted to $356 million, of which roughly a 100 million went to humanitarian, civil society and democracy building programs. This is many times what USAID’s budget was for the years 2004-2008, and reflects a realization in Washington of the importance of a peaceful transition in Yeme. The U.S. is beginning to recognize that long-term security comes from democracy and stability.

All that constitutes a step in the right direction. The main challenges, however, remain the same: keeping the country together and keeping the deteriorating security situation from scuttling the good efforts of the UN and the Friends of Yemen.

U.S. Policy in Yemen, despite the praiseworthy increased emphasis on the civilian side of assistance, continues, nonetheless, to suffer from ambivalence, uncertainty and conflicting goals. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. is not heavily invested in the mediation efforts between north and south and not at all involved in helping to end the fighting in the north. Further, the short term security strategy against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, relies heavily on drone strikes. This risks further inflaming an already delicate security atmosphere in the country and turning the entire population of Yemen against the U.S.

UN special envoy Benomar needs all the assistance he can get from Western governments to help keep north and south Yemen together and to end the violent clashes between Salafis and Zaidis in the north. But U.S. diplomacy has, thus far, shied away from engaging southern leaders, both on the ground in Aden and outside Yemen. The fighting in the north involves a complex set of internal and regional alliances, requiring very delicate negotiating. Short of dedicating a full time envoy from Washington, the U.S. may not be able to conduct such negotiations directly. It could, however, encourage regional players who enjoy closer relations with the fighting parties to do the heavy lifting. In the end, the U.S. national interest, and Yemen’s, would be better served with more skillful diplomacy and far less firepower.

Nabeel Khoury is Senior Fellow for Middle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He previously served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen (2004-2007), Deputy Director of the Media Outreach Centre in London (2002-2004), and Consul General in Morocco (1998-2002). In 2003, during the Iraq war, he served as Department spokesperson at U.S. Central Command in Doha and in Baghdad.

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