Yemen: Saleh isn’t the solution

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 22 January 2010

Ahead of the international conference on Yemen to be held in London next week, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi has been lobbying to restrict its agenda. The discussions should focus on counterterrorism and economic aid, he says, but should not tackle questions of political reform and human rights, or the government’s war with the Houthi rebels.

Put bluntly, the message from Sana’a is: ‘Give us the money and we’ll try harder in fighting al-Qa’ida, but don’t get involved in our internal affairs.’ If the London conference plays along with that, it will certainly fail. Whatever happens on the terrorism front, unless political issues are addressed Yemen will continue to be a source of instability for the region and beyond, and the well-being of its own citizens will continue to be at risk.

The weakness of central government in Yemen, the stifling of opposition parties and civil society organisations, the institutionalised corruption, the suppression of newspapers and the arrests of critical journalists are all part of the equation and cannot simply be crossed out. While the exact nature of political reform is a matter for Yemenis themselves, countries providing aid have every right to insist that reform must happen – otherwise they will just be pouring money into a black hole.

Aid, if not skilfully deployed, is likely to do no more than perpetuate the status quo, while Western preoccupations with al-Qa’ida in Yemen provide a smokescreen for President Ali Abdallah Saleh: so long as he is seen to be tackling al-Qa’ida he can do as he likes in other areas. In fact, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, headed “How to apply ‘smart power’ in Yemen”, went further:

“Mr Salah [sic] is an unpalatable partner,” it said. “But he is the only partner we have in Yemen. If we want him to take our side in the fight against al-Qa’ida, we have to take his side in the fight against the Houthis.”

Regarding Saleh as a unique asset who must be kept on board at all costs is a fatal approach, though a familiar one in American dealings with autocratic regimes – and one where the obvious lesson never seems to be learned. When the regimes fall from power, people remember it was the US that helped to prolong their stay.

Saleh, who has been in power in Sana’a since 1978, is now in his final presidential term. To comply with the constitution, he must leave office no later than 27 September 2013. That date ought to provide a focal point for considering Yemen’s political future: first, to ensure that the constitution is upheld and, secondly, to prepare for the post-Saleh era. Of course, Saleh may seek to change the constitution to stay in power – as he has done before – or try to install his son, Ahmad, in the presidential palace. Either move would be extremely unpopular in Yemen, and Western connivance on the grounds that Saleh (father or son) is ‘the only partner we have’ would be foolishly short-sighted.

Yemen is certainly a difficult country to govern and not all its problems can be laid at Saleh’s door. But it is difficult to envisage much progress on the political front while he is still there, let alone a permanent resolution of the Houthi problem in the north or reconciliation with the separatists in the south.
The Saleh regime is based on patronage networks – tribal, military and commercial – which will have to be broken if Yemen is to move forward politically. The framework for that already exists in the form of an electoral system and multiple parties, though it is ineffective, largely due to the ruling party’s hegemony but also because the opposition parties are stuck in an oppositionist mindset rather than trying to present themselves as an alternative government.

The coming parliamentary elections (originally due in April last year) were rescheduled for April next year amid threats of an opposition boycott. The two-year delay was meant to allow time for electoral reforms. Meanwhile, the re-ignited Houthi conflict and the separatist agitation in the south are once again casting doubt on the prospects for holding them. If held, they could become a flashpoint for political turmoil; if postponed yet again, ditto.

To defuse the situation, there is an obvious need for a frank and open national dialogue. Saleh has promised this, under the auspices of the presidentially-appointed upper house of parliament, the Shura Council. It was due to start on 26 December 2009, but has now been postponed until the end of this month. How wide-ranging it will really be remains to be seen. As it stands at the moment, one key group – the Houthi rebels – will not be represented.

No one imagines Yemen can be transformed overnight. Among other things, it is going to need a long-term commitment of international support. In return, though, it is not unreasonable for countries providing support to demand a long-term commitment from Yemen towards sorting out its politics and establishing good governance, with measurable benchmarks along the way.