Managing Expectations: Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference

Managing Expectations: Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference

With hopes ranging from better living standards and a more open and fair society, to improved public services and higher levels of security, Yemenis have justifiably high expectations of the country’s National Dialogue Conference, underway since March 18, 2013. The conference, part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan for the Arab Spring’s only negotiated transition so far, is of great significance not only for Yemen, but also for the wider region and beyond. Making a success of the conference is vital for the continued existence of Yemen as a state—literally, by offering a credible alternative to Southern secessionists, and more figuratively by avoiding a descent into a protracted civil war. In many ways, this is also the spectrum of success: a minimal version of avoiding violent anarchy and a contested state breakup, and a more maximalist approach that sees success defined by the more ambitious goals contained in those Yemeni hopes.

The prospects of success, however defined, are complicated by the wide range of diverse demands and political players inside and outside of Yemen. The youth movement, which was instrumental in starting and sustaining the protests that forced President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after more than three decades in power, has rather different expectations, and thus criteria for success, than do the representatives of the former Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), as South Yemen was known before it merged with the North in 1990. These representatives, in turn, are themselves split between those for whom a return to independent statehood for South Yemen is the only option, and others who would be content with significant self-government in a federal-style Yemen. Indicative of these problems is the fact that not all factions of the so-called Southern Movement advocating autonomy for Southern Yemen are participating in the National Dialogue Conference, and that some who are, or are part of the current government, including President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi himself, are not seen as representatives of broader Southern interests. The deep divisions within the South, and between South and North, explain why there has been virtually no progress on resolving those constitutional issues that pertain to the future territorial structure of Yemen.

The territorial reorganization of Yemen, and thus the issue of self-government, is also high on the agenda for the Houthi rebels in the far north of the country. The Houthis are embedded in the country’s Shiite minority, which is politically and religiously active in the revivalist movement of the Zaydi variant of Shiism and allegedly supported by Iran. Years of fighting for more recognition and local control between Houthis based in the northern province of Saada and Yemen’s central government in Sanaa—which is at times supported militarily by Saudi Arabia—have hardened attitudes on this front as well. Houthis now control a significantly larger stretch of territory than the Saada governorate and have established themselves as a significant political player in Yemen.

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