Who can help in Yemen

The meeting about the situation in Yemen took place in London. Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis said on the eve of the meeting: “We want to see Yemen’s neighbours make a more significant contribution and we want the international community to come together and recognise that supporting the government of Yemen is crucial to the stability of that country but it is also crucial to the stability of the world.”

Questions:

1. What is the role of Yemen’s neighbors in the process of stabilizing the country?

2. Is the current government of Yemen the right one to put our trust in this leaders or we just do not have a choice?

Answers:

Kristian Ulrichsen, Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science

1. Qatar has been actively involved in mediation in the al-Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen. In 2008 it brokered a deal to give the Zaidi community better recognition, but this quickly collapsed, due (I believe) to the government’s failure to implement it. Qatar has long had an active role in diplomatic mediation in the Gulf region and this makes it the natural choice for any regional mediation efforts.

Qatar does not carry the historical baggage that Saudi Arabia has in Yemen – a legacy of the Saudi-Yemeni war in 1934 that resulted in Saudi annexation of parts of northern Yemen (which are now Saudi provinces with significant tribal and socio-cultural ties with Yemen, another point of Saudi concern). Also, in 1990-91, Saudi Arabia expelled up to 800,000 Yemeni workers after Saleh supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

In terms of the other Gulf states, the priority given to Yemen tends to recede the further removed the state is – obviously Oman shares a border with Yemen and is concerned for its border security, but in Kuwait (for example – and another state with very complicated relations with Yemen due to ill-feeling following the 1990 occupation) the feeling is that Yemen should be contained within its own borders. This strategy of containment (by building security fences along the Saudi and Omani borders with Yemen) is short-sighted, in my opinion, but in many meetings throughout the Gulf States I have consistenly failed to spot any real impetus toward seeking long-term sustainable solutions that address the root causes of the failing political economy. The general feeling I have encountered is that the problems are too complex to even begin to resolve and that therefore it is better to try to contain them and prevent the spillover of instability to the Gulf.

One thing the GCC states could and should do more of is to increase FDI and other forms of economic assistance. However one thing they will almost certainly not do is to open up their labour markets to Yemeni workers. The Gulf States have worked hard to depoliticise and control their labour forces by bringing in workers from East Asian countries, and would not wish to see a potentially politicised Yemeni workforce disrupt this strategy.

2. The current government headed by Saleh is not ideal. Saleh is a master manipulator who has managed to remain in power since 1978 by playing off factions against each other and by co-opting tribal support when and where necessary. His control is now deeply disputed both in the north by the al-Houthi rebellion, and in the south with the growing secessionist movement. Thus, the very legitimacy of the central government is disputed, and I fear that simply increasing political, economic and military support to the government will only make the problem worse, as it will be channelling support to an actor that is not seen as impartial in Yemen’s problems.

In many ways Saleh is part of the problem in Yemen rather than part of the solution. In addition, the international community should not assume that Saleh shares the same priority as, say, the United States, for which tackling Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most important. For Saleh, that is probably at best his 3rd in priority, after the secessionist movement and the al-Houthi rebellion. So, simply increasing international support for Saleh may help in combating AQAP but it will not do anything to address the other 2 problems, and given that these issues already reject the legitimacy of the government, will actually make them worse.

All these factors make it very problematic to increase support to Saleh. The best solution might be to encourage the holding of free and fair elections but these have now been postponed for 2 years after the opposition parties refused to participate in a process that they felt was clearly loaded against them and was designed more to legitimise the ‘democratic nature’ of the regime rather than offer a realistic prospect of a fair contest.

Lars Berger, Lecturer in Politics and Contemporary History of the Middle East, University of Salford

1. Saudi Arabia is obviously the most important neighbour Yemen has. It is the dominant country on the Arab peninsula and therefore does not only shape Yemeni politics directly such as happened during its attempts to help squash the rebellion in Yemen’s North, but also indirectly when it comes to shaping Yemen’s relations with other countries of the Peninsula. So, in many ways, most routes to stabilizing Yemen lead one way or the other through Riyadh.

2. Obviously, the Yemeni government has caused much concern in the West with regard to its inability to establish efficient governance. On the other hand, the long-standing animosity of many Yemenis toward foreign interference means that any attempt to change government from the outside would be bound to fail.

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One Response

  1. Interesting commentary.

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