Small Wars Journal

Talks about Talks – Does Yemen Need More Time?

Fri, 05/25/2012 - 6:56am

The GCC plan for a Yemeni National Dialogue is not a new idea, but for Yemen it represents a major task.  There are many groups who could, should, must be included if the desired outcome is to be achieved.  Who to include is as difficult a decision as who should not.  The GCC plan sets the next Yemeni Presidential Election in 2014 after Army restructuring, national dialogue and a rework of the constitution.  Maybe Yemen does not have the human capital for these demanding timelines.  Maybe the underlying conflicts between groups have not yet been truly mapped and analyzed to avoid catastrophic failure at the negotiating table.  Maybe 2014 is a bridge too far which might or will lead to further instability and conflict.  Is more time needed? 

Yemen has had more than its fair share of rulers but unfortunately no leaders as stated by a senior Yemeni commentator at a recent conference event in Washington DC.  It is therefore little wonder its many assets have not been developed and its deficiencies actually made worse.  Dictators, to stay strong, - the same commentator suggests - must make the people they rule weak both economically and educationally.  The middle class must be destroyed.  Saleh achieved this by creating four sub-classes of people: a ruling class made up of family members close to him, the majority still remain; a military class;  a business class; plus an intellectual class who are allowed certain favors based on their loyalty to the regime.  These four classes ruled over Yemen and maybe still essentially do.  They made sure the poor masses remained too weak and too busy trying to make ends meet, to rise up against the regime.  Meanwhile, Saleh plundered his country bare.

2011 marked a turning point in Yemen’s history.  Not only was Saleh finally thrown out, but for a short time Yemen united as his departure from power was achieved.  Many Yemeni factions wanted and still want their grievances addressed, but they banded together under the youth slogan to push Saleh out of office first.  Their grievances have not been addressed and fester in the margins of Yemeni transition.

The youth approach defeated Yemen’s military dictatorship because it was peaceful and non-violent; it caught Saleh unprepared.   But despite the non-violent nature of the struggle, Saleh’s regime struck back with violence and 2,000 people died. 

Building Yemen’s next republic, therefore, is a major undertaking because there is less coherence across groups than the revolution might have initially suggested.  It is clear from the brokering, jockeying and positioning of the various groups so far, despite the unifying nature of the Hadi government, that we are far from a negotiated or dialogue induced settlement. 

There are too many agendas at play which mean a successful national dialogue event by 2014 may be too demanding even if there is sufficient human capital, anyway.  More worrying, the press for that outcome may destabilize the fragile peace currently in place.

It therefore seems logical that the planned national dialogue should not be rushed.  Most are disagreeing about the representatives, the agenda and even the name of the event.  Some hard line southerners question the legitimacy of a national dialogue event preferring to consider it a negotiation between two independent states.  Clearly the youth have not gained the necessary traction, are divided, and as such are not able to influence the event as they would wish. 

There is sufficient disagreement, we believe, to suggest the first step in the process should be talks about talks.  Talks about talks allow all groups to be involved in a long process determining, with common agreement, who must be involved and why.  Talks about talks do not threaten the outcome but they ensure everyone feels represented.  Talks about talks allow people to air their grievances rather than have those grievances pop up within the actual discussions where and when their presence could blow the whole thing apart.

There are so many problems facing Yemen right now.  Yemen is failing as a state, by Western standards, in almost every conceivable metric and measure.  Generalizing, 50% of the people live on less than 2 dollars a day, 50% are unemployed and 70% are under the age of 35 years.  Water and oil is scarce – largely through mismanagement – and the youth bulge will double the population with 50 years. 

Yemen is so fragile right now that pressing too quickly for a national reconciliation dialogue might threaten the state itself.  In supporting and mentoring the Yemeni transitional process, we urge the GCC and international community to take more time and use the process of talks about talks rather than rushing to a looming 2014 self-imposed deadline.

About the Author(s)

Robert Sharp is an associate professor at the National Defense University's Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies.  The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.