Yemen: challenges for the future

At the beginning of 2013, Yemen found itself at an historic juncture. Following the popular uprising that began in 2011 and culminated in the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh after more than 43 years in power, the country was attempting a political transition.

A key part of this process was the National Dialogue scheduled to begin in February 2013.

In January 2013, ahead of the National Dialogue, a conference was held in London which brought together specialists on Yemen from a variety of academic fields.

The conference, entitled "Yemen: challenges for the future", was organised by the London Middle East Institute and the British-Yemeni Society,

Below is a compilation of reports from the conference which originally appeared on Brian Whitaker's blog at

In all, there were 10 panel sessions at the conference, Five of them are covered here. They are:

A challenging year ahead

The London conference generated a surprising amount of interest. Some 270 people registered to attend and the organisers said a further 150 had to be turned away because there were no more seats available.

At the opening session, Alan Duncan, Britain's minister of state for international development said 2013 is going to be "very challenging" for Yemen and warned that urgent action is needed over the next year. He told the conference:

"Just over 12 months remain before the date of the presidential election which was promised to the Yemeni people by the GCC agreement [which led to the resignation of President Saleh], so between now and then a lot of ground will need to be covered.

"Given the preparations required for elections, substantial progress needs to be made in the next six months if Yemen's leaders are to keep their promise to their people."

Duncan said the national unity government has already made some progress towards establishing the National Dialogue "but it does remain off schedule, which is seriously undermining confidence in the transition process". He continued:

"The UK and others will continue to do everything we can to support [Yemeni] the government to overcome the remaining challenges and help establish the National Dialogue conference as quickly as possible, because the delivery of a successful National Dialogue on schedule would be a major signal to the Yemeni people that their leaders are serious about addressing the divisive issues which drive conflict in the country.

"In Riyadh and New York in September the international community came together in a show of unprecedented support for Yemen. Nearly $8 billion was pledged to support the Yemeni people in this hour of need. This money is ready and waiting to be spent on urgent priorities such as basic services and repairing damaged infrastructure.

"We are working with the [Yemeni] government and other partners to undertake decisive action to present project proposals to donors so that the funds can be unlocked and begin to flow to where they are desperately needed. We can't afford to have these promised billions sitting around unused.

"I think the biggest challenge facing Yemeni ministers ... is for them to work with each other and with the relevant Yemeni institutions and alongside international organisations such as the World Bank and development banks and other government so we can get this money moving into constructive projects."

Two Yemeni government representatives also spoke at the opening session: foreign minister Abubakr al-Qirbi and planning minister Muhammad al-Saadi.

Qirbi agreed that any delay in the National Dialogue will delay the second phase of the transition plan. There are a number of crucial questions to be debated – not least in the drafting of a new constitution. Is Yemen to have a federal system or not? A parliamentary system or a presidential one? There is also the question of southern separatism – which is "the one people disagree most on", Qirbi said.

Southern separatism was the topic for one of Friday's panel discussions. Others covered the Houthi issue in northern Yemen, and the international dimension. I hope to post reports on those in the next day or two, together with notes from Saturday's discussions.

Yemen's ambivalent transition

Yemen has become the focus for "two quite different and fundamentally contradictory phenomena", Sheila Carapico, an American political scientist, told the London conference on Yemen. One of them is an uprising for social justice and and the other is "a not-so-covert military intervention, including extrajudicial executions and other operations that are pretty much the antithesis of what you would mean by support for democracy".

Culturally, politically and sociologically, the protest movement that emerged in 2011 – in which women and youth played an important role – was unprecedented in Yemeni history and certainly in the whole Arabian peninsula, she said.

"It's related to the almost simultaneous uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that led to the removal of long-standing dictators in those two places, but also with a tremendously indigenous Yemeni local flavour. Compared with either Egypt or Tunisia, Yemenis stayed in the streets longer, they were incredibly tenacious, incredible determined ...

"In spite of the fact that Yemen is so well armed it didn't turn violent in anything like the same way as Syria or Libya. Although there has been violence, the uprising itself has been nonviolent and peaceful – and that's very important.

"Regardless of the outcome, and the outcome is certainly tenuous and uncertain, something very significant has happened already, in terms of the mass expression of popular aspirations for social justice and free democracy."

Parallel with that, the United States has become increasingly involved in Yemen militarily – even though it doesn't really have a policy on Yemen. Instead, Carapico said, the US has two related policies. One is a long-standing commitment to the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the GCC states. The other is America's anti-terrorism policy in which Yemen is treated as an extension of the AfPak theatre.

Viewed from Washington, Carapico said, Yemen is not a real place where people are demanding social justice and democracy so much as it is a theatre of operations in Saudi Arabia's backyard.

"Yemenis, now, are confronting the confluence of these two very disparate historical junctures," she continued.

"The so-called GCC initiative is a crisis resolution initiative. It's intended to maintain stability in Yemen, to avoid too much upheaval, in particular to avoid upheaval that might spill into Saudi Arabia or upset the stability of the other Gulf countries. It's not, by any stretch of imagination (as conceived by the GCC) intended to respond to the popular demands."

Despite that, Carapico noted, the GCC initiative has given rise to the Yemeni National Dialogue which is due to start next month. She warned that this is going to be "a very difficult path", but the dialogue needs to address the building of a civil state in Yemen as well as questions of regional stability.

Two other speakers on the same panel – Adam Seitz and Ludmila du Bouchet – discussed civil-military relations inside Yemen.

Referring to President Hadi's "momentous" decrees in December formally restructuring Yemen's military command, Bouchet said the significance of this lies in its political nature: "If implemented, this will put an end to the military disjuncture that has beset Yemen since 2011, and the political gridlock." But she added that it is still unclear how far this reform will herald a "systemic break" with the past.

She then outlined the legacy of state-society relations under Saleh and the political economy underpinning it – in which the military has been an integral part.

"The military is not seen as being restricted to self-evidently military matters. The military is inherently bound up with Yemen's social, economic and political relations."

The political crisis of 2011 "revolved to a large extent around inter- and intra-elite struggles and negotiations for power that have taken place right at the heart of Saleh's inner circles and have been manifested in rifts within the military".

The uprising both revived and engaged long-standing personal differences as well as deep-seated fissures. One illustration of this, she said, was "the military stand-off that characterised Sanaa until recently" where the city had been divided into areas each controlled by a military faction.

Under President Saleh, distribution of power did not lie with formal institutions but instead with "informal, highly personalised ad hoc rent-based patronage networks". She continued: "Saleh shored up his position partly by multiplying competing forces within the army and partly by creating new ones outside it."

As a result, it is still impossible to accurately quantify the number of troops in the regular army, she said. "Far from being a well-bounded cohesive professional body dedicated to the provision of national defence, the regular army acts as a loose social and economic institution specifically as a social safety net on a par with the civil service." It has also been a means for integrating certain tribes and rewarding them.

"However historically momentous, Yemen's uprisings have not produced a revolution as conventionally understood," Bouchet said. "The GCC-brokered transition agreement is based on an elite compromise. This predicament holds the potential for what is most promising and most ambivalent about Yemen's transition and National Dialogue conference."

Returning to President Hadi's military restructuring, Bouchet said there is a distinct possibility that General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and Saleh's son, Ahmad (the two most problematic figures) will retain military command in the new security architecture. "Both have retained their military position, both have retained the colossal business interests that they built, and the patronage networks that surround these positions."

This raises the question of the persistence of authoritarian enclaves within the framework of democratic transition, she said.

President Hadi – Saleh's replacement – has also shown a preference for appointing in individuals from his family, his clan and his home region of Abyan which leads some Yemenis to suspect they may be witnessing the creation of new patronage networks in place of the old ones.

Colonial echoes in the south

There is no doubt that southern Yemenis had a raw deal under President Ali Abdullah Saleh – though they were by no means alone in that. There is also no doubt that southern grievances and aspirations will have to be addressed in the forthcoming National Dialogue if Yemen's political transition is to have any hope of success.

In theory, Saleh's departure and replacement by a southern president, together with the National Dialogue, has given the south a once-in-a-generation opportunity for redress. What seems to be missing from this, though, is a politically realistic set of goals on the part of the south.

The southern separatist movement, al-Hirak, is engaged in one of the world's oddest "liberation" struggles: it seeks to re-establish a vanished state which was the accidental product of British and Turkish imperialism.

When the British withdrew from Aden in 1967, the southern part of Yemen became the Arab world's first (and last) Marxist state. The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen survived until 1990 when it merged with President Saleh's northern state, the Yemen Arab Republic.

At the time, unification was a voluntary choice by the southern leadership, though circumstances probably pushed them into it – including an economic crisis and political disarray as communism collapsed in eastern Europe. Soon afterwards they began to have second thoughts and in 1994 fought a brief war of secession with the north, which they lost despite having Saudi support. Since then, many southerners have complained about northern "occupation" of the south.

The Southern Question (as it's known) was an obvious topic for discussion at the London conference.

One of the speakers, Thanos Petouris, gave a bizarre picture of contemporary southern political discourse in which the accepted historical narrative of the colonial period, and to some extent the socialist era too, has been turned on its head.

"The colonial past of the south is no longer being seen as a period of oppression, social injustice and political marginalisation, as the rhetoric of the nationalist organisations would have it, but it has been transformed in collective memory into a period of almost golden age proportions, the restoration of which is to be desired.

"Essentially, the political and ideological language of al-Hirak, in so far as it can be seen as a unitary organisation, appears to have been locked between two extremes. The almost unreserved glorification of an imaginary colonial golden age on the one hand, and the political resurrection of former southern leaders on the other."

He pointed out that three-quarters of the south's youthful population has no direct experience of the socialist period, let alone of British colonialism. [Many will also be unaware that Ali Salim al-Baidh, the inept politician who has now resurfaced at the head of al-Hirak, was the man who led the south into Saleh's arms in 1990.]

Meanwhile, according to Petouris, al-Hirak seems to be hopelessly out of touch:

"Whilst in the Sixties the nationalist movement was in direct connection to other Arab and Third World anti-colonial movements, the Hirak appears to be completely isolated from what has been going on in the rest of the Arab world, and also within the country itself. This has led to the movement's failure to mobilise larger segments of the southern population and, more importantly, to connect it to the youth uprising."

Another speaker, former diplomat Noel Brehony, began by noting that Yemen's independent southern state lasted for slightly less than 23 years and that unified Yemen has existed (so far) for roughly the same period of time – an intriguing fact, though perhaps not a particularly useful one. More interestingly, he pointed out that the south has not been ruled by an imam since the 18th century – a significant difference with the north where the imamate continued until 1962.

The young and politically inexperienced Marxists who took over from the British faced a terrible inheritance, Brehony said. They set up a centralised state modelled on the Soviet Union – totally different from the north – and were "pretty ruthless" about it, with not much regard for human rights.

In comparison with the north, though, the PDRY did have its good points: good social services, rights for women, limited corruption and very little difference between the poor and the rich. It also made a valiant but failed attempt to reduce tribalism, treated Islam as a private matter not a state matter, and kept qat use under control.

By the early 1980s, the PDRY appeared to have a stronger and better organised state than in north, Brehony said. But in 1986 political quarrels led to civil war which more or less finished off the PDRY as an independent country. When the fighting stopped, 70% of the central committee were gone – dead, arrested or in exile – and this tipped the balance in the north's favour.

Aspirations of Yemeni unity were an essential part of the PDRY's rhetoric. "Every speech, every party document, every political meeting began with unity – this was their goal," Brehony said. "Unity was very central to the politics of the PDRY – though they didn't quite mean it."

Talking of unity without actually achieving it was one way of managing relations between north and south, while each side continued building its own separate state. However, there were some – notably socialists of northern origin – who really believed in unity and wanted to bring it about by spreading the PDRY's system to the north.

According to Brehony, the latter idea was also prevalent among the southern leadership around the time of unification: they believed that once the country was unified they could take control of the north through the ballot box.

(They were wrong about that, of course. Had they been right, we might now be seeing northerners demanding separation from the south. If unification and its aftermath holds a lesson for the National Dialogue, it's probably that everyone should stop trying to dominate everyone else.)

Yemen and the Houthi conflict

Since 2004 the Yemeni government has waged a series of wars against the so-called Houthi rebels in the far north of the country, close to the Saudi border. This conflict is currently in abeyance but a long-term solution will be needed if Yemen is to undergo a successful political transition.

In the most recent episode of fighting (2009-10), which the government called Operation Scorched Earth, the conflict became internationalised when Saudi Arabia carried out bombing raids in Yemen with President Saleh's blessing.

Details are still obscure because journalists and aid workers were not allowed into the area but that thousands were killed or injured and an estimated 350,000 were forced to leave their homes.

At the London conferenc on Yemen, a panel of experts shed some light on the origins and nature of the conflict.

Shelagh Weir said the conflict is often described as "tribal" in a derogatory way, implying that those opposing the government are unruly and inherently anti-state.

She pointed out that the tribes in the area, far from being anarchic, have their own traditional systems of law and governance. They exist in a symbiotic relationship with the Yemeni state, coordinating with local government officials such as governors, sharia judges and police, but they are also strongly self-reliant. In the absence of government help, for example, they constructed much of the rudimentary local infrastructure themselves.

"Tribes and their leaders are not anti-state," Weir said. "However, their compliance with state officials has always been conditional on fair governance."

"Where officials or regimes have been corrupt or oppressive, have flouted their cherished values, or threatened their welfare or vital interests, they have opposed them ... This also chimes with one of the basic tenets of Zaidism, the dominant religion of the highlands of northern Yemen – khuruj, the right and duty to oppose unjust rulers.

"Until the 1980s, all the highland population of the governorate of Saada were Zaidi Shiites and of those about 5% were sayyids, members of the Zaidi religious elite who claim descent from the Prophet and from whom the imams [rulers of Yemen] were formerly chosen.

"One of the most prominent and respected Zaidi religious scholars was Badreddin al-Houth, the father of Hussain al-Houthi after whom the Houthi wars are named."

A major factor leading up to the Houthi conflict was rivalry between the majority of Zaidi Shiites and a growing minority of men who had converted from Zaidism to the salafi or Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam, Weir said.

Though ostensibly religious, this rivalry also had a social dimension, she added. Converts included men who occupied the bottom of the traditional status hierarchy and bitterly resented their social disadvantage, as well as youths who resented the power of the older generation or were attracted by the charisma of salafi leaders and their obvious financial resources. "Certain sheikhs openly or tacitly supported salafism for personal or anti-Zaidi reasons or because of the subsidies they received from Saudi Arabia."

Weir continued:

"During the 1990s the growth of socially-divisive salafism within the heartlands of Zaidi Islam was encouraged and funded by officials and business interests in Saudi Arabia and in Yemen – including President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

"Salafis increasingly mocked or questioned the beliefs and rituals of the Zaidi majority, threatening them in mosques and accusing them of wanting the return of the imam [i.e. the end of the republican system] – though this was publicly denied by the Zaidi clerics."

Inevitably, the aggressive salafi/Wahhabi proselytising triggered a response from the other side. Hussain al-Houthi founded his Believing Youth movement – initially a local effort to defend Zaidi rights in the Saadah region. "Gradually it expanded to provide educational and social services and became increasingly politically vocal in opposing President Saleh's perceived pro-American stance after 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq," Weir said.

"A number of violent incidents took place between Houthi supporters and soldiers. Then in 2004 government security forces assassinated Hussain al-Houthi, allegedly during an attempt at a mediated peace settlement.

"This extrajudicial murder not only violated the cherished tribal ideal of settling disputes by negotiation through respected intermediaries but it also sabotaged the possibility of an early resolution of the Houthi conflict and stoked its escalation."

In another presentation to the London conference, Madeleine Wells, a PhD student at George Washington University, examined government rhetoric linking the Houthis with Iran.

She said her purpose was not to discuss the accuracy (or otherwise) of this rhetoric but to consider its effects. She argued that the rhetoric had made the conflict more difficult to resolve. Background noise about "foreign" influence "muddles our ability to perceive real signals about what groups actually want, she said – adding that it has also "put the Houthis in a position where they now may actually have nothing to lose by associating with Iran".

Initially, Wells said, the Yemeni government looked favourably on Houthi's Believing Youth movement, supporting it financially as a counterweight to Saudi-Wahhabi encroachment in the north of the country.

"This changed in 2002 when [Hussain] al-Houthi began specifically mentioning Iran in his rhetoric. After 9/11 he picked up increased sensitivity about a global war on Muslims, he mentioned Iran as a laudatory example of anti-western resistance."

Although Houthi had spoken of Iran in the context of a larger Shia struggle, President Saleh latched on to it, Wells said, rallying support for war in part by charaterising the Houthis as proto-Hizbullah footsoldiers for Iran.

She continued:

"The rhetoric has ratcheted up to such a degree that it's hard to see how much worse the political stand-off could possibly get if the Houthis did accept external aid.

"Perception and rhetorical emphasis on Iran's role in the conflict is just as dangerous as real support. Because of the regime's inability to perceive the Houthis as independent agents with legitimate grievances, it gives them nothing to lose in pursuing actual foreign ties."

Regime rhetoric, she added, has also had social and political ramifications that cause elements of the National Dialogue to doubt Houthi commitments to an equitable and local Yemeni solution.

Yemen, water and qat

A panel discussion on land and water in Yemen inevitably led to the issue of qat-growing and several sprigs of qat – probably Ethiopian-grown – were passed round the audience (purely for educational purposes).

Although the depletion of Yemen's water resources is often talked about in apocalyptic terms, yesterday's presentations from experts in the field were moderately encouraging. Solutions do exist. The problem, as always in Yemen, is implementing them before it's too late.

The session was introduced and chaired by Professor Tony Allan, a world authority who is noted for having developed the concept of "virtual water". Growing wheat, for example, takes a lot of water. A country which is short of water can thus acquire "virtual water" by importing wheat rather than growing its own, and use its existing resources more efficiently.

Allan also makes an important distinction between what he calls"big water" and "little water". "Little water" – used for washing, drinking and cooking, and in industry –accounts for only 10% of the total, while "big water" – basically used in food production – accounts for 90%.

"The extreme case of Yemen is that it doesn't have enough water for the 10%, and if you are allocating water to growing the interesting crop qat then you are tending to make it even more difficult," Allan told the audience on Saturday.

Water problems are generally solved beyond the water sector, he said – mainly by trade. "You solve water problems in the political economy by developing a diverse and strong economy."

A diverse and strong economy, of course, is something Yemen doesn't have. In Yemen's case, Allan said, "I am now on the side of giving the technical solution some sort of priority."

He pointed out that desalination of water is now a lot cheaper than it used to be and James Firebrace, one of the panellists, presented a case study of water in the Yemeni city of Ta'izz which strongly suggested that desalination is the only realistic solution in the light of its rapidly growing population.

Considering that water is such a crucial issue in Yemen, it's astonishing that the government had no explicit policy until quite recently. After years of debate, a Water Law was finally passed in 2002, accompanied by the creation of a Ministry of Water and Environment. Even then, though, Helen Lackner told the conference, some of Yemen's landowners opposed the new ministry, with the result that irrigation water (an important part of the overall water use) was left in the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture – a situation that persisted until 2011.

Lackner noted that uncontrolled drilling of wells continues and that water-related conflicts in the country are becoming increasingly frequent and serious. On the other hand, there is more awareness of the problem and some agricultural practices are changing, with greater emphasis on drip irrigation and rain-fed crops.

She argued that water issues must be addressed in Yemen's forthcoming National Dialogue, and water governance mechanisms should be included in the new constitution. She offered five recommendations:

1. Give the state final authority over water resources, especially groundwater (though authority can be delegated where appropriate).

2. Ensure all decisions are implemented in the interests of the population as a whole.

3. When necessary, used the power of the state for enforcement – especially with respect to drilling.

4. Develop desalination.

5. Use sophisticated techniques to increase awareness.

Two other speakers discussed conflict resolution methods – Jens Kambeck in connection with land disputes, and Gerhard Lichtenhaeler in connection with disputes over water.

Lichtenhaeler presented a case study from the Amran basin looking at how tribal customs can be used to deal with problems of water stress. His preference for local solutions appeared somewhat at odds with Lackner's advocacy of intervention by the state. In the question-and-answer session, Lackner did not object the local solutions in principle but said they were not always appropriate – for example when aquifers don't fit neatly inside administrative boundaries.

Problems identified by Kambeck in relation to land disputes included the weak rule of law (with potential for influence at all levels), the lack of an accurate land register, and a judicial system "burdened with distrust in its neutrality".

Kambeck also provided an interesting statistic: that half of the privately-owned land in Yemen belongs to just 200 families. (Privately-owned land accounts for 80%-85% of the total, he added.)

The last few months have seen renewed debate in Yemen about qat, with talk of eradicating it over the next 30 years. Peer Gatter, author of the recently-published book, Politics of Qat (which looks like becoming the standard work on the subject), that most Yemeni qat users are aware of its detrimental effects but he insisted "you can't stop qat farming".

He explained that there are 494,000 farmers currently growing qat; 3.9 million people depend on it for their income, while 6.7 million (34% of Yemen's population) depend at least in part on qat-related businesses.

There has been talk of encouraging farmers to grow coffee instead, but Gatter said: "It's an illusion to substitute coffee for qat." Coffee prices are more volatile, making it a riskier crop for the growers. Alternatives to qat should probably be found in rural activities outside the agricultural sector, he said – such as quarrying.

Overall, he thought a better approach would be to try to reduce demand for qat rather than the supply.