What Yemen Needs From Washington

Yemen’s President Abd Rabbo Hadi Mansour is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama today, culminating three days of intensive meetings in Washington, DC, with cabinet secretaries from the treasury, state, and defense departments. In each of these visits, US officials have reiterated support for Yemen’s transition and pledged ongoing assistance. Yet the nature of that assistance and the specific messages sent by high-ranking officials to President Hadi are of critical importance. Thus far, Hadi’s visit has not elicited any public statements about how the United States will support Yemen’s political transition process beyond the National Dialogue currently underway and slated to conclude September 18. According to Embassy of Yemen spokesperson Mohammed al-Basha, the purpose of President Hadi’s visit is specifically to focus on what comes after the dialogue and how the United States and the international community can help Yemen realize the potential achievements of the dialogue in the next phase. Yet most of the discussion has revolved around security cooperation and potential release of Guantanamo detainees, and very little on the political transition and assistance for democratic and economic development. 

The Obama administration has made considerable effort to expand US engagement in Yemen beyond the narrow spectrum of counterterrorism cooperation—both with its assistance dollars and public statements—and now is the time to amplify and deepen those efforts. The only recent public announcement came from the Pentagon earlier this month, pledging assistance to the Yemeni border guards, including twelve aircraft, one hundred military vehicles, and an integrated communications system in order to “fight arms and drugs smuggling, terrorist militants sneaking into the country, and combat organized crime.” A similar high-level announcement from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew or Secretary of State John Kerry pledging continued or increased support would lend weight to the White House’s assertion that the United States, in fact, does view Yemen beyond its partnership in combating terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula. 

With budget constraints, sequestration, and weightier debates about Egypt and Syria, there isn’t much appetite for foreign assistance in Washington, and it would be easy to check the box on Yemen’s political transition and move on to the next item. Washington is known for having a narrow bandwidth on Middle East issues, but losing sight of the real value of a successful political transition in Yemen would be a missed opportunity. While Yemen’s trajectory cannot be replicated elsewhere, the idea of a peaceful, negotiated transfer of power—with no victor, no vanquished—is a valuable model for a region in turmoil. Yemen’s political success is a vital national security interest for the United States, since a functioning government responsive to its people will lead to greater stability throughout the country. With authoritarianism on the rise in Egypt, political turmoil in Tunisia, and ongoing militia violence in Libya, Yemen’s path seems more optimistic and the stakes of its success should not be overlooked.

The National Dialogue—a six month process slated to conclude on September 18—was a key component in the GCC-supported transition plan that ushered former president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power and provides a platform for developing consensus to resolve the most contentious issues plaguing Yemen’s forward progress. Yet the real work of building confidence among Yemen’s various factions and implementing the outcome of the dialogue has yet to begin. This is the moment when US and international support and engagement will be most critical.

The United States has oriented considerable attention and focus on the national dialogue, including providing financial support for the secretariat and funding for civil society groups to conduct outreach and strengthen the capacity of community-based organizations to engage in the dialogue process. While the 565 delegates have been sitting in the “Republic of the Movenpick,” as a foreign diplomat to Sanaa recently quipped, the rest of the country has been largely disconnected from the day-to-day workings of the dialogue. It will require considerable effort and resources to convey the outcomes of the dialogue’s working groups to the country’s disparate communities and start the implementation process. Washington has a tendency to shift its development and assistance strategy in Yemen with far too much frequency, and one hopes that attention to the political process will not cease with the dialogue’s concluding ceremony. Levels of US assistance to Yemen over the past decade have ebbed and flowed based on the changing winds in Washington and the degree of fear about terrorist threats—the administration should reverse this pattern and ensure continued assistance as Yemen moves into the next critical stage, even if numbers of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may be on the decline.

Under President Hadi’s leadership, Yemen has proved to be a more reliable partner on security issues, but progress on institutional reform and improvements in the economic and humanitarian situation has been beleaguered at best. Hadi is under considerable pressure, but he has allowed his divided government to continue in a dysfunctional manner that has thwarted further progress in each of these areas. The United States needs to provide additional technical and financial support, but also continue to press for promised reforms. To help Yemen achieve real success through the dialogue process and what comes next, the United States should focus on several key areas:

  • Promote the idea that the next government must be a technocratic government based on merit and qualification rather than party affiliation or position, and encourage President Hadi to form a new, functioning government that can oversee this stage of the transition period and implement the outcomes of the national dialogue—perhaps even before elections are conducted.
  • Focus on what the United States can do best: developing human capacity through education and training. As it has done in Libya and Tunisia, the United States should increase support for scholarship programs and vocational training—both within the United States and Yemen—in order to prepare the next generation of civil servants, business leaders, and community advocates to bring Yemen into the 21st century. Without addressing low human capacity and the skills mismatch, it will be difficult for Yemen to make headway. 
  • Continue to pressure President Hadi on the need to meet reform benchmarks that he and his government have already committed to within the Mutual Accountability Framework, developed with the World Bank to guide international donor contributions, and raise the specter of aid conditionality if necessary. 
  • Support a sustained post-dialogue outreach program that empowers delegates to conduct “roadshows” in different parts of the country to share the conclusions reached by the working groups and explain the next stage of the process—the writing of the constitution, a constitutional referendum, and parliamentary elections. More importantly, these delegates would serve as emissaries of the process and can also serve as a vital link between average citizens and the Sanaa-based leadership. 
  • Convey a long-term US commitment to both democratic development and economic support through a targeted communications campaign that assures Yemenis that American interest in their country is not confined to short-term counterterrorism objectives.

In President Hadi’s remarks after meeting with Secretary Kerry, he said, “We’re going through this dialogue hoping that it will produce elements that would lead Yemen into security and stability and more development… [to] eliminate the poverty out of Yemen.” To be sure, security, stability, and development should be priorities for any government leading Yemen, but one should not forget that thousands of people rallied for a genuine democratic political process to open up political space, root out corruption, improve employment opportunities, and move beyond the narrow group of elites that have traditionally dominated Yemen’s economic and political scene. Even while Yemen is engaged with military restructuring, constitution-drafting, and port construction, the United States and other international partners should also help keep the country focused on reform commitments, respecting human rights, and defending freedom of expression.

Assessing the state of Yemen’s transition depends on the barometer of measurement. If the bar is set at averting a potentially bloody and divisive civil war and stemming a deterioration in security, then yes, Yemen’s transition may be on the right track. If, however, the bar is set at genuine democratic transformation, the rotation of power, an opening of political space beyond a narrow elite dominated by military and tribal allegiances, then Yemen has a far road to travel. Of course, this kind of authentic political opening takes years if not decades, but the central question is whether the current transition plan will ultimately lead in that direction, or further entrench the kind of corruption, mismanagement, and abuse of power that allowed Ali Abdullah Saleh to rule for thirty-three years. The United States, the United Nations, and other friends of Yemen all have a role to play in keeping these issues on the agenda and encouraging President Hadi and his government to model the cultural shift that is necessary to root out such tendencies.

Danya Greenfield
 is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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