Nearly every news article on Yemen begins with a detailed laundry-list of challenges the country faces on a daily basis (violent separatism in the South, humanitarian crises, unemployment); it is far more difficult to paint a positive picture of progress in a troubled land with deep political cleavages. However, in the world of glass half-empty vs. half-full interpretations of Yemen’s transition, it warrants acknowledging when there actually is some forward momentum. President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi just reached the one-year mark in his presidency, and although he inherited a complicated morass of issues to untangle, including the ongoing presence of former President Saleh, Yemen is certainly in better shape now than it was twelve months ago, and is slowly heading in the right direction.
At the risk of overstating the gains made and underemphasizing the significant shortcomings, it is worth highlighting reasons for optimism.
The Friends of Yemen (FOY) gathering in London today offers an opportunity to hold the government of Yemen accountable for progress on the transition trajectory and to press donor nations to follow through on their financial commitments. At the last meeting in September 2012, participating nations pledged a total of $7.8 billion, yet only a trickle has flowed to Yemen thus far, most which represent assistance programs, like those from USAID, that would have happened even without the FOY process. The largest pledges come from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, but they are waiting for assurances of political stability, the government’s capacity to effectively digest funds and implement projects, and a mechanism for accountability. It is unclear exactly what indicators the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and donor nations are waiting for, but the hesitancy is certainly political as much as it is technical.
Hadi’s government has been slower than molasses putting the building blocks in place, but the good news is that in last month Hadi finally authorized an independent body with fast-track authority to develop, coordinate, and monitor development projects to be implemented with international funding. This is a positive move, and now the government needs to tackle the lack of capacity and staff expertise in the ministries tasked with implementation. This new agency will report directly to the prime minister and the cabinet, and ensuring that it has real authority and decision-making powers will be essential for its success; without that, it will be but another layer of bureaucracy to overcome. With more than ten million people facing food insecurity and 13.5 million without access to basic sanitation and drinking water, Yemen desperately needs an injection of development assistance to address huge gaps in infrastructure, electricity, and health care. Let us hope that the Friends of Yemen platform will prompt more aggressive action and political will—on both the Yemeni and donor front—and that dollars on the ledger will soon become tangible projects on the ground.
The London meeting will also assess progress with the National Dialogue—a cornerstone of the GCC transition plan to overcome the thorniest political issues. After months of preparation and delays, the National Dialogue is now on track to begin on March 18 with the 565 delegates representing major stakeholder groups from across the country. The participation of the Southerners and the Herak movement has been a major sticking point for the past six months, but there appears to be an agreement that at least some factions of the Herak movement—which does not have unified leadership or demands—have agreed to participate and will submit names for their delegates. There are still hard-line factions that advocate for complete Southern independence and reject the very basis of the GCC transition agreement, but even some of their leaders are now starting to use the language of “dialogue” for the first time. President Hadi recently completed an eight-day outreach trip to meet with various Southern groups, and although the beginning of his visit was marred by clashes sparked by a pro-Hadi rally and violent reactions between Herak groups and Islah supporters, he is returning to Sana’a with the willingness of some to participate in the dialogue. Of course, Hadi should have made this trip a year ago, and returned multiple times for sustained outreach to bring the Southerners on board (their participation is critical for credibility of the effort). But better late than never; moving forward, Hadi and his government need to make every effort to ensure that Southerners see the dialogue as a legitimate and credible avenue to address their political, security, and economic grievances, rather than resorting to violence or ultimatums. Given that success of the dialogue has been in doubt each step of the way, just reaching the initial plenary session in mid-March with representation across gender, age, political affiliation, and geography will be a major accomplishment.
Another critical component mandated by the GCC deal is the restructuring and reintegration of the military and security services. Hadi has moved slowly in this process, but given that the two strongmen who led opposing forces during the 2011 uprising remain armed to the teeth—Ahmed Ali, the former president’s son and head of the powerful Republican Guard, and General Ali Mohsin, commander of the First Armored Division who defected to the opposition—it is no wonder that the president treads carefully. Despite this, there have been incremental steps forward, including the removal of some key Saleh allies and family members from high-ranking military positions, which sent important signals that change was coming. More importantly, after months of development and consultation with US and Jordanian advisors, the president approved a detailed plan to reorganize and restructure Yemen’s military forces. Among other provisions, the plan will redistribute forces across seven districts, thus diluting the power of individual commanders, and create a Special Operations Command that will unify and centralize counterterrorism forces under the control of the Ministry of Defense, rather than the Republican Guard.
Although this is a step in the right direction, if you ask anyone in Sana’a he or she will say nothing has changed. A reason for this perception is the lack of communication from the government to the Yemeni people, which leads to misinformation and disappointment. When details about the plan surfaced in December, what attracted the most attention was an announcement that seemed to indicate that Ahmed Ali and Ali Mohsen would be removed from their positions and yet weeks passed with no movement. In reality, the plan weakens these two pillars of military strength by reducing the number of troops they commanded and their sphere of influence. This may seem like a subtle nuance, but in a country awash in weapons and poised to fight, these changes have to be made delicately while ensuring a tenuous balance of force.
At each step of the way, there have been some tangible gains, but these are often obscured or overshadowed by the lack of transparency, and inability of the government to effectively communicate its vision of major changes ahead. When grandiose pronouncements are made without visible movement, it fosters a sense of distrust and impatience. In the case of military restructuring, Hadi and his military advisors have started to put the plan in place, but how each step fits into the overall picture is not spelled out, so it is easy to dismiss. The sense that the government lacks a clear path or unifying vision impacts expectations for the National Dialogue, the use of donor funds for development, and the military reorganization.
Hadi and his government face countless challenges, most of which are not his making, but some are within his control, like authentic and consistent outreach to the Southerners, open and transparent communication with the Yemeni people, and appointment of qualified technocrats in the government rather than selection based on political party affiliation. The president is blessed with near unanimous support from the United Nations, the United States, Europe, the GCC, Russia, and others—a fate that is unmatched anywhere else in the Arab world. But international interest will fade over time if Yemen does not deliver, and it would be a tragedy not to leverage this groundswell of support among those rooting for Yemen’s success. Now is the time for Yemen’s leading figures to demonstrate leadership and political will to benefit Yemen as a whole, rather than advancing narrow parochial interests. Hard as it may be, at least such a demonstration would give reason for optimism.
Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.