In order to examine the challenges and opportunities with Yemen’s much awaited National Dialogue, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) sponsored an event on October 25 featuring commentary by Atiaf Alwazir, a prominent youth activist in Yemen; Ibrahim Mothana, a co-founder of the new Watan Party; and Laura Kasinof, a journalist who covered Yemen’s uprising for the New York Times.

Three common themes emerged through the presentations and discussion. First, the potential for spoilers to sabotage the National Dialogue are immense. The two most likely scenarios are a fight between the rebel Houthi movement and al-Islah-supported tribal militias in the north, or refusal to participate in the Dialogue by separatist elements in the Southern movement (al Harak), which could prompt heightened tension and violence in the south. Second, both the US and the international community’s orientation towards Yemen is far too focused on Sana’a to the exclusion of other important population centers and rural areas. Information gathered and contacts made in Sana’a do not directly translate to influence in the entire country. Finally, a concentration on counterterrorism has led to a noticeable lack of effective public diplomacy. This has produced a situation in which the Yemeni general public only sees military operations and has developed negative perception of foreign intentions.

Atiaf Alwazir noted that expectations for the success of the National Dialogue are unrealistic and she fears an inevitable disappointment. The opaque process of the National Dialogue and politically-funded media outlets have resulted in confusion and misinformation among average citizens who do not fully understand the goals of the dialogue and have unachievable expectations. Yemenis believe that once the dialogue has concluded, all troubles facing the nation will be solved and that their day-to-day lives will rapidly improve. To create conditions for a successful Dialogue, Alwazir asserts there must be more open, unbiased media to share information, convey how the Dialogue process will unfold, and set reasonable benchmarks.

Ibrahim Mothana commented on the impact of the international community’s humanitarian aid and military support to Yemen. While the amount of money pledged at the Friends of Yemen Conference was laudable, many of the Gulf States have not followed through with transfers of funds. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen directly affects the deterioration in the security environment, and the pledged donor funds could be utilized to address basic needs of the average Yemeni citizen, and thus improve the security situation. Mothana also noted that funds that have been received have not made their way into the countryside, where the majority of the population is located, but rather have stayed with elites in Sana’a and may cause further rifts within Yemen. Mothana also noted that the US is focusing primarily on counterterrorism through military aid to the government and coordinated drone strikes, however this campaign against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is only further aggravating local grievances and not dismantling AQAP.

Laura Kasinof discussed the affects of US policy on domestic Yemeni politics and perceptions of various stakeholders. According to Kasinof, the average citizen in Yemen believes that Americans are controlling Yemeni politics through the US embassy in Sana’a. Therefore when the US Ambassador did not make an official visit to Change Square during the uprising, some Yemenis believed it was a signal to Yemeni elites that the US was more interested in maintaining the status quo than in truly empowering those clamoring for change. She emphasized that the major parties in Yemen view their own interests in direct relation to the policy interests of the United States. Members in the General People’s Congress (GPC), the party of former President Saleh, feel that they have been sidelined by a US-sponsored process and are unhappy with their marginalized role. Groups in the Southern Movement (Al Herak) are unhappy with US involvement due to the concentration of drone strikes in the south. The main opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Party (JMP), is pleased with the involvement of the United States, which has put a plethora of resources at their disposal through support for the transitional government in which they hold half the cabinet posts. As a result, no one in the current government wants to criticize the US for fear of losing access to these new resources, even though support for US drone strikes is costing the government credibility among the population.  

A discussion with:

Atiaf Alwazir
Co-founder, SupportYemen Campaign

Laura Kasinof
Sana’a-based Journalist

Ibrahim Mothana
Co-founder, Watan Party
Advisory Committee Member, Arab Thought Foundation

Moderated by:

Stephen McInerney
Executive Director,
Project on Middle East Democracy