North Africa, West Asia

The international community and the crisis in Yemen

If Hadi is to build on the popularity he gained in recent days, he needs to prove that he is the rightful heir to the 2011 revolution. That is the kind of support Hadi needs from the international community, not just kind words and drones.

Helen Lackner
26 February 2015
Yemeni PM (right) talks to UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, 2012.

Yemeni PM (right) talks to UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, 2012.Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.This month, a series of attempts by the Huthi to create institutions, including a ‘Constitutional Statement’, failed to gain recognition for their coup. Rather the opposite. With the escape of President Hadi from house arrest on 21 February and his resumption of responsibilities, the situation in Yemen remains very problematic, and significant military confrontation is possible between the Huthis, controlling Sana’a and the far north of the country, and forces loyal to President Hadi, currently operating from Aden, while it remains to be seen what former president Saleh’s supporters will do.  At time of writing, Hadi has the support of many governors, tribes from different parts of the country  as well as most southern politicians, including those who until recently were demanding  separation and blaming him for all manner of evils. He also has strong support from the International Community, confirmed by UNSC resolution 2201 passed on February 15 and statements by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) calling on the population to support him.

This is a timely opportunity to examine the role of the international community in Yemen in recent years, focusing on four aspects in particular:

-  the role of the United Nations, primarily its political involvement in the transition process since 2011

-  the involvement of the ‘gang’ of 10 ambassadors in the transitional period and the effectiveness of its support to the transitional regime

-  the dilemmas faced by the GCC states and particularly Saudi Arabia in the face of the current situation, and

-  the involvement of foreign financiers in addressing the economic and humanitarian crisis.

International concern after the 2011 uprisings

The 2011 uprisings were a long-awaited reaction to the autocratic and kleptocratic rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and, while completely locally based, certainly were triggered by events in Tunisia and Egypt, persuading thousands of younger people that change was possible. 

The situation stagnated for months due to the stalemate between the regime-controlled security and military forces and the peaceful revolutionaries supported by a smaller but powerful defecting military as well as the official political opposition after 18 March. 

From then onwards, anxiety over Yemen’s future spread far beyond its borders: first the GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, intervened when it became clear that the existing regime was no longer sustainable. As this was not enough to oblige Saleh to resign, the United Nations Security Council passed its first resolution in October urging Saleh to do so. Finally the GCC agreement was signed on 23 November 2011 in Riyadh in the presence of various Yemeni and international notables.  Details of this agreement have been discussed in my earlier articles.

The main point here is that the GCC agreement, supported by UNSC resolution 2014 of 2011 gave both GCC states and the UN officially recognised roles in the transition. A further group of 10 ambassadors from major countries were given a supervisory role. At the time, as the agreement was seen as the mechanism to avoid full-scale civil war, it was welcomed by many including people who normally object to what resembled a 'mandate' similar to the one imposed on the region by north Atlantic victors at the end of WW1. However, even then indicators suggested that the objectives and motives for this intervention were not entirely disinterested or primarily concerned with the livelihoods of the 25 million Yemenis:

- No GCC state, and particularly not Saudi Arabia, was likely to welcome a fully-fledged democratic state in Yemen, particularly not one which would give priority to the needs of the majority of the population over those of the minority of ‘traditional’ or other wealthy leaders.

- The interest of the US and other north Atlantic states was primarily focused on counter-terrorism against AQAP with poverty alleviation, development and humanitarian aspects taking second place.

- The UN’s record in recent years does not encourage confidence in its ability to successfully manage a complex political transition.

The UN and the National Dialogue Conference

Preparing for the National Dialogue conference in San'aa's presidential palace, 2012.

Preparing for theNational Dialogue conference in San'aa's preseidential palace, 2012. Luke Somers/Demotix. All rights reserved.True to its traditions, the UN established offices for the Political Affairs Department in Sana’a, filled with staff and international consultants whose role was to facilitate the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and constitutional reform. The NDC brought together 565 members whose selection was problematic, but efforts were made to be as inclusive as possible, with the participation of all political parties, civil society, youth and women. Its mandate was to solve all the country’s political problems, including the most contentious, and guide the drafting of a new constitution more representative of the nation as a whole and reflecting people’s hopes. 

Given its remit and its members’ lack of previous experience in such negotiations, strong guidance and support were essential to enable it to achieve its highly ambitious objectives, particularly given the extreme sensitivities and tensions of the political situation. While willing, enthusiastic and determined to find solutions, most of its members had none of the specific skills required to address these issues and develop a framework which would produce a constitutional pact or implementable political solutions. 

Despite having a USD 25 million trust fund specifically for this purpose the UN failed, letting the NDC drift aimlessly into general discussions. Other than ensuring that the NDC was held in the only super-luxury hotel in Sana’a (offering a view of Yemen from mostly curtained windows, and serving food many delegates regarded as unsuitable), the UN oversaw the definition of imprecise terms of reference for the 9 working groups, offered meetings ‘facilitated’ by young people who had received minimal training and made sure documents were distributed to members. It also ran a broad public relations ‘outreach’ exercise through the internet (mostly accessible for foreign media and researchers as the vast majority of Yemenis have no access to electronic media) alongside other mechanisms, which amounted to little more than the distribution of badges and showing of carefully staged videos of some events.

It failed to advise on an effective agenda or provide the technical knowledge and expertise which would have assisted the groups in focusing their discussions on clear constitutional outcomes. It failed to assist discussions to address the not unexpected problems faced by the three most contentious working groups (state building, southern and northern issues). Instead, the NDC was comprised o a form of open brainstorming with largely unstructured debates and educational seminars. While these were stimulating, and imposed equality in dialogue on individuals from different backgrounds and social groups who would otherwise never have engaged in any discussions – in the event, this contributed little to solving the country’s most urgent political problems. And while workshops were either educational or confrontational, the general sessions were a series of position statements leading nowhere.

The UN condoned or supported the ‘parallel’ direct involvement of a number of foreign states each of which were invited to ‘adopt’ a committee, holding private meetings with its key leaders, thus leading many participants and outsiders to believe that the ‘real’ decisions were being taken elsewhere and reducing confidence in the process. Given all this, it is unsurprising that the NDC finally produced a document with over 1800 recommendations, most of them well-meaning and valuable, but often repetitive and difficult to translate into a constitutional document. Or indeed that the main political problems remained unsolved.

Overall, observers had to wonder at the UN’s effectiveness and leadership, including the choice of Special Adviser: is someone whose previous experience includes political dialogue in Afghanistan and Iraq the person most likely to succeed in finding peaceful solutions in the complex Yemeni environment? Who makes such an appointment? How is it revoked? Incumbents on Assistant Secretary General pay scale are unlikely to resign unless they are highly principled. The UN and some north Atlantic states even describe as an achievement Benomar’s 34 trips to Yemen (Presumably not including the airmiles and environmental impact). To crown all this, and despite his reputation in Yemen, the latest resolution requests the Secretary General ‘to propose options for strengthening the office of the Special Adviser…’.

The international community and economic and financial crisis

While the political crisis in Yemen was to be solved through the NDC and constitutional reform, the economic and humanitarian situation had been informally handed over to the ‘Friends of Yemen’ established in 2010 after the ‘underpants bomber’ incident, and jointly chaired by the UK and Saudi Arabia, the former to provide guidance while the latter foots the bill. In 2011 the economic and humanitarian crisis had worsened dramatically as shown by the drop in GDP of 12.7%. Yemen has been suffering increasing poverty rates throughout recent decades, reaching 54% in 2012.

The country’s economy is based on oil and gas exports which dropped to 164,000 barrels/day production in 2014, due first to the exhaustion of the limited reserves, and second the frequent interruption of supply by people in the producing areas protesting at the lack of local development benefits as oil income was used to fill the coffers of kleptocrats in the capital. 

The main economic activity, agriculture (including livestock), contributes to the income of the 68% rural population, supplemented by men’s casual labour in the cities. Due to drought, expansion of export-oriented thirsty crops and a majority of farmers working very small rain fed plots either as owners, sharecroppers or even casual labourers, the rural economy has weakened to the extent that over 80% of Yemen’s poor live in rural areas. These economic issues were to be addressed with a significant influx of funds.

Foreign aid failed to support the transitional regime. With USD 8.49 billion pledged by the international community by mid-2014, little is yet visible on the ground.  Delays were explained away with excuses of lack of transparency and the low absorptive capacity of state institutions. The September 2012 Riyadh conference had agreed a ‘Mutual Accountability Framework’ which would ensure transparency from the Yemeni side and financing for the projects of the Transitional Development Plan. This was to be managed by the ‘Executive Bureau’ which only became operational in March 2014 when finally the Yemeni government and funders agreed on its management. Since then there has been some progress with 70% of all funds approved for specific projects, and 39% of the pledges have been disbursed, one third from Saudi Arabia, with an amount almost equal to the contribution of all OECD funders put together. Most approved projects finance infrastructure, some of questionable value but high cost. They fail to assist the long-term economic development which would create lasting employment and provide viable economic investments for ordinary people.

In view of the dire state of the economy, it is unsurprising that the humanitarian situation has continued to worsen and has now reached emergency proportions with about 16 million people in need of some assistance, including 10.5 million food insecure. Despite this, only 67% of the UN’s Humanitarian Strategic Response Plan for 2014 has been funded, leaving people wondering why such modest amounts by international standards could not be found. How does this reflect on the real concerns and commitments of the international community?

Yemenis will continue to interpret lack of development and humanitarian support, particularly from north Atlantic states, in favour of their single-minded focus on AQAP and the remote potential threat of terrorism in their own lands, as complete uninterest in the reality and daily problems they face -  with lack of employment, lack of water, lack of food or any of the other basics for a dignified life.

GCC perceptions of the situation:  what is to be done?

As demonstrated by financial contributions as well as involvement with the ‘solution’ to the crisis, the GCC states are the outsiders most concerned with the situation in Yemen. For the UAE, it remains a fairly distant country seeking the unlikely opening of GCC borders to its large unemployed labour force. Saudi Arabia has always seen Yemen as a threat, given their comparable population size and its regime which, since the demise of the Imamate in 1962, has been republican and manifested democratic features. Although Saudi Arabia currently has other urgent problems to address (a new king, issues of succession and power within the kingdom, the Syria and Iraq crises), Yemen remains a focus of concern. 

For the Saudis, right now, the situation in Yemen presents a series of dilemmas which are not easily solved. They don’t like the Huthis, seen as Iranian proxies, Hashemites/Sada and Shi’a, who, moreover, expelled the Salafi educational institution from its base; in addition the areas they control are along the most populated stretch of the Saudi-Yemeni border. Thus Huthis have a series of characteristics which, for Saudi Arabia, are markers of enmity.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is totally opposed to armed Salafis incarnated in AQAP which, among other things, attempted to assassinate Mohammed bin Nayef, currently third in line to the throne and Minister of the Interior, and which considers Saudi Arabia a major target. They also dislike former president Saleh for being an unreliable upstart military man. Southern Separatists also may be mistaken for socialists, yet another dreaded bogeyman. So at this point, their main option is to support a range of tribal leaders and others who oppose all the above-mentioned forces. President Hadi’s return to his functions is welcome, and there are rumours that Saudi Arabia played a role in bringing about his escape from Sana’a.

The future

Failure of the transition and its current lack of popular support can largely be attributed not so much to its political failures but more than anything, to the fact that ordinary people’s living conditions have shown no sign of improvement in the past 4 years. If Hadi is to build on the popularity he gained in recent days, above all else he needs to prove that he is the rightful heir to the 2011 revolution. This means improving economic and social conditions and enabling the people to live in dignity, not an  easy agenda, but possible if sufficient funds are made available to address the dire humanitarian situation and finance development projects with a longterm impact on the rural and urban community level economies, ocusing on skill development, production and marketing with small useful infrastructure. That is the kind of support Hadi needs from the international community, not just kind words and drones.

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