February 13, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Yemen: National Dialogue, Federation, and Fault Lines
On 10 February 2014, almost three years from the start of the popular protest that led to Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquishing the presidency, Yemen's consultative process reached a fragile agreement to divide the country into a federation of six regions. Of the 22 groups involved in the decision, only the Houthis, a rebel group in the North that is reported to receive assistance from Iran, rejected it outright. The socialist party in the south agreed to sign on, but with reservations, while other southern groups rejected the proposal. The current president, Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi, will now appoint a committee to draft a constitution to incorporate the new arrangement, and this will be put to a referendum some time after mid-June.
Yemen traces its history back to the Queen of Sheba and beyond, and this is just one stage in its modern development, but the success or failure of this constitutional process will have an impact beyond the country's borders. Yemen has more than enough internal issues and rivalries to make any agreement about its future nearly impossible to achieve, let alone create stability: it faces a severe water shortage; its oil reserves, the primary source of government revenue, are close to depletion; it has a huge youth bulge, with a stagnant economy, vast unemployment, and weak governance; an affiliate of al-Qaeda has become deep-rooted; it has a collapsed education system—and that's just a sample of its problems.
Externally, Yemen is largely excluded from regional labor markets and it has porous borders, which worry its neighbors. It is in danger of becoming drawn into the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and its allies are more concerned about keeping the Qaeda threat at bay than in investing the huge amounts needed to address the factors that allow terrorist and rebel groups to thrive.
Nonetheless, Yemenis have shown remarkable fortitude in the face of their problems and enough hope in the future to keep all the different factions talking since the 565 members of the National Dialogue Convention began their discussions in March 2013. Despite reportedly having more guns per capita than any country except the United States, Yemenis are more inclined to talk than to fight, and understand that the best agreement is likely to be the one that leaves everyone equally unhappy.
Unsurprisingly, in a tribal society with fundamental fault lines between north and south, disagreements stem primarily from the control and allocation of economic resources, with religious and cultural differences exploited as leverage. Already the Houthis, who have gained considerably over the last three years, are protesting that the agreement divides rich from poor and disregards the historical and cultural links between tribes and regions. They are also concerned that the new lines of the federation dilute their cultural and social influence among three proposed regions and deprive them of access to the sea, which will be important if in the future they need military supplies from outside the country. Similarly, the southerners are complaining that their area is divided into two regions, rather than merely following the boundary between North and South Yemen that existed before unification in 1990.
But overall, the Yemenis appear to have managed to kick the can a little farther down the road. An agreement that the division of the country will be up for review after the first five-year election period following adoption of the constitution gives hope to those who believe they got a worse deal than others. This has been the pattern of Yemen's stuttering progress towards political change since Saleh's protracted exit from the presidency; each step has been an interim one with plenty of opportunity to go backwards as well as forwards. There are also still many things that can—and probably will—go wrong, to force more compromise and lead to less central authority as the various political players look for ways to exploit weaknesses in the future arrangements.
But there are two key take-aways from what has been happening in Yemen, even if the country does revert to violence before the federation can take shape. The first is that Yemen's problems in its recent history invariably became worse through the involvement of outside parties until the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations Security Council decided in 2011 that there was a universal interest in preventing the country from deteriorating further. It will be important that these two bodies continue to support the future stability of Yemen against the shorter-term national interests of any of their members or other regional powers. The second is that if Yemen can succeed in achieving at least a pause in its downward slide through a negotiated agreement on federation, achieved through a national process—with support from, but limited interference by, outsiders—then there may be lessons to take forward into Iraq and Syria, which face similar problems but with many more resources to deal with them. Either way, the international interest is not just in seeing these three countries—Iraq, Syria, and Yemen—overcome their internal problems, it is also about denying ground to extremists of al-Qaeda’s ilk, which have been principal beneficiaries of their instability.
• The Houthis will not accept anything remotely resembling the current federation plan that separates clan lines and territory and denies access to the coast
• The drawing of lines that provide natural resources and economic viability to favorites and elites will negatively impact near and longer-term stability
• Yemen will continue to be drawn into the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while the international community will focus mainly at keeping the Qaeda threat at bay.
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