Expert still doubts Saleh will step down

And what’s next for Yemen.

Questions:

1. As President Saleh said he will step down do you think it will contribute in positive way on solving  the political crisis in Yemen, and why?

2. I know this is very general one but: What’s next for Yemen as this country, with or without Saleh, face tremendous challenges (unity of the country, terrorism etc.)?

Answers:

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

1. Let us first see whether he really does step down. I have my doubts that he will actually do so. Saleh is the great survivor in Middle East politics and this may well be another instance of buying time and manipulating opponents. He may well say that he will step down ‘if the Yemeni people demand it’ and then claim that the ‘silent majority’ is in favour of him, rather than the demonstrators. But yes, him stepping down is necessary if the political crisis in Yemen is to move in a positive direction. Saleh’s strategy of political survival has lain at the heart of many of the political problems in Yemen, notably the southern secessionist movement and the Houthi conflict in the north-west. Neither of these will be resolved while Saleh is still in place. Moreover, Saleh has been steadily losing his support base among major Yemeni tribes and in the military, and can no longer govern effectively. That said, any successor will face daunting challenges and will also be in the difficult position of lacking the personal networks and patronage capabilities that sustained Saleh in power for so long. So the challenge in Yemen is twofold – first to ensure that Saleh actually steps down, and second to ensure that the transition of power is peaceful.

2. The primary challenge facing Yemen is imminent resource depletion. It will become a net oil importer by about 2017 and its economy is still heavily dependent on oil revenues. Economic diversification has so far failed to lead to any form of post-oil sustainability and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Just as serious is the water scarcity in Yemen. Water tables are dropping rapidly and underground aquifers are drying up, and Sana’a is projected to become the first major city in the world to run out of water. Estimates as to when this might occur range from 10-25 years. Falling oil revenues might be replaced by massive levels of foreign aid but this cannot substitute for water, so this is a huge challenge. But the problems are so interconnected – e.g. the majority of water is used for growing qat, which acts as a social safety net by offering employment to large numbers of Yemeni labourers and an income to farmers. Thus, any measure to conserve water by banning or reducing the growth of qat would put thousands out of work. Yemen’s challenges are so interconnected that it is difficult to know where to start, and international efforts to focus on one issue (terrorism) show how this narrow vision can backfire, as increasing military and financial support for Saleh has worsened Yemen’s other internal conflicts – as (for example) US military equipment provided for use against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has instead been used against the Houthi rebels. So, witho or without Saleh, certain challenges – economic and environmental – will remain to be tackled, but the political crisis means that this cannot yet happen. For this reason, because the window of opportunity is so short and closing so rapidly, it is imperative that Yemen finds a way out of this crisis as soon as possible, in order to focus on the real threats it faces.

Charles Schmitz, Associate Professor, Geography Department, Towson University

If the president really steps down then it may be a positive step.  Yemen needs broader based political participation, particularly from the southerners and from the al-Houthi.   These two groups need to be effectively incorporated into the national political body.  Yemen also needs to build institutions.  The president has kept political power in his personal hands and this has been a major factor contributing to the crisis in Yemen.  If the opposition groups that now are united to oppose the president can negotiate amongst themselves a set of political deals that institutionalize broader participation in politics that can contain the conflicts between the opposition groups, then the resignation of the president is a good thing.

Those that oppose the president right now are a very diverse set of actors who do not agree on many things.  Their disagreements are more numerous than their agreements and they have spent much of the past trying to kill each other.  So the future of Yemen is probably going to be unsettled.  If the president leaves, there is going to be lots of negotiations, tensions, announcements of resolutions, and then breakups of the government.  This could be a good thing if it results in government by process, government by institutions, rather than government by one man or one group.  On the other hand, it could result in a long period of unsettledness with no resolution, only more unsettledness.

The economic situation demands immediate attention.  Yemen has depended upon oil for the last two decades.  Now they need a coherent national leadership on the economy.  The most important factor is Yemeni private investment.  Yemen needs to cultivate its own private sector, to attract the Yemeni businessmen who invest their capital outside of Yemen.  This requires trust, and trust may take some time.

Also, the GCC states can play an important role in allowing Yemeni workers back into their countries.  They have not done so because of political reasons – they are afraid of Yemeni political ideas such as elections and republicanism – but the GCC’s security may require that they help stabilize the Yemen economy.  Saudi Arabia is the biggest factor here and the Americans could play a role in nudging the Saudis to help, but the Americans are too afraid of instability right now, particularly with the events in Bahrain.


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