Yemen's national dialogue nears close; federal structure expected to be proposed

Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference is due to conclude on 10 October and is expected to recommend a federal structure for the country. Published in MEED, 8 October 2013

The province of Taiz in southwest Yemen has a population of around 3 million people, but Shawki Ahmned Hayel, the governor of the province, says he has a security budget of just $80,000 a month. Such mismatches between needs and reality are not uncommon in Yemen, a country where 13 million people need some form of humanitarian aid according to the UN.

Yemen’s economic, security and political challenges are myriad and interlinked, but there is at least some movement on the last of these three. The National Dialogue Conference, which began on 18 March is due to conclude on 10 October and is expected to recommend a federal structure for the country, dividing it up into perhaps five or six regions.

Abdullah Alsaidi, a former permanent representative of Yemen to the UN, says “There is now a consensus that the state will become federal.”

Yemen’s wealth

This will not be enough to satisfy everyone though. The revolutions that swept through the Middle East since 2011 have often failed to meet the lofty hopes of the people that took to the streets. That is as true in Yemen as anywhere. Some members of the old guard may have been removed from power, including President Ali Abdullah Saleh in November 2011, but many still remain.

The current president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was Salah’s deputy. A report released in late September by London-based thinktank Chatham House, called Yemen: Corruption, Capital Flight and Global Drivers of Conflict, talks of the “self-enriching behaviour of the country’s elites” who continue to drain the country of its wealth.

It is unlikely that the results of the National Dialogue will do much to dent the influence of these elites, in the short term at least. And a federal structure may also not be enough to stifle the deep-seated desire of many in the south to secede and turn the clock back on the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990.

Constitutional compromise

But even if a workable constitutional compromise can be found, resolving Yemen’s economic and security problems will be just as crucial if the country is to have any chance of climbing out of the desperate position it is in.

Yemen’s oil wells are running dry and revenues from them cannot keep pace with the rise in government spending, but there are few other natural resources the country can draw on. The country is the poorest in the Gulf and one of the most water-deprived in the world, largely due to the local appetite for chewing on the leaves of the aquifer-draining khat plant.

Yemen’s allies in the Gulf and some Western capitals have pledged more than $8bn in assistance at a series of conferences over recent years. To date less than $2bn has been handed over.

That might seem like donors are dragging their feet, but there are real question marks as to how much aid the economy can effectively absorb in a short space of time. Corruption is already a big problem and throwing more money into the mix too quickly could simply exacerbate that.

Help for Yemen

The interest that other countries have shown in Yemen is not limited to financial support. Iran and the GCC states are playing out a proxy war of influence with different groups and US drone attacks continue with distressing frequency. Washington defends this as a necessary tactic in its battle with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, but it is often civilians that bear the brunt of the attacks.

“You can expect a strike to happen any day and at every moment. You don’t know when and where the drones are targeting,” says Baraa Shaiban, a local activist for the human rights group Reprieve. “A lot of people now say that we are afraid of gathering in public places because we might be targeted by these drones.”

Yemen’s positives

Perhaps the best thing to be said about Yemen is that the situation is not as bad as it could be and not as bad as in some other parts of the Middle East.

There may be violence, but nothing on the scale of Syria. There may be political tension, but nothing equivalent to Egypt where a court has banned the activities of the largest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood. Even Bahrain looks worse on some measures – the National Dialogue process in Yemen is far more inclusive and open than what is happening in Manama.

What follows after the National Dialogue publishes its conclusions is an open question. In the short-term, parliamentary and presidential elections are due to be held in February 2014.

Some observers predict more violence too. But reshaping and rebuilding a country will clearly take more than an election or two and Yemen will need the financial, diplomatic and political support of its international allies for many years to come if it is to have any chance of emerging as a politically coherent and economically stable country.