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How diplomacy failed in Yemen and why it will again

- May 11, 2017
Yemeni fighters of the southern separatist movement, hold the movement’s flag and brandish their weapons as they walk on a street in Aden’s Khormaksar district on July 15, 2015. (Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 11, key southern political leaders in Yemen declared a Transitional Political Council to represent the south in a step toward independence from the north. A week earlier, thousands of southern secession supporters rallied in Yemen’s port city of Aden against President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his recent decision to remove Aden’s governor, Aidarous al-Zubaidi from office. Al-Zubaidi is now the head of the new Political Council and the highest political authority in the south. Before that, leaders in the Hadramout region in the south announced their independence as a federal region.

The international community has been reluctant to deal with these regional grievances for several decades. As I describe in a new publication, these divisions been exacerbated by the ongoing civil war and have yet to be taken seriously, to the detriment of sustainable peace negotiations.

How the current negotiations focus on old elite

Since the 2011 uprising, the international community has been involved in political negotiations over Yemen’s future. U.N. Special Adviser Jamal Benomar worked closely with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the United States and Western diplomats to pressure Yemeni political actors to accept the November 2011 GCC-brokered deal. But to many, that initiative failed to address the demands of the people. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to protest the terms of what they considered a deeply flawed deal that sidelined their demands for political reform and kept in place the corrupt leaders they had risen up against. Because the GCC initiative focused primarily on resolving the conflict between traditional political elites from the northern part of the country rather than grievances from other regions, many actors felt disenfranchised.

The GCC initiative also granted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity for agreeing to the deal, allowing him to remain in Yemen, politically active and still in control of most of the armed forces. Saleh was then able to disrupt the political transition process, ally with the Houthis and overthrow the internationally backed government, dragging the country into civil war.

Since the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa in September 2014, the United Nations, through U.N. Special Adviser Benomar and his successor, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, have been trying to mediate a cease-fire and a political settlement to help put an end to the war. But the U.N.-led mediation as currently structured is only dealing with the northern Yemeni elites fighting each other for power. Key figures in Yemen’s internationally recognized government, including Hadi, Vice President Ali Mohsin and Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid Bin Daghr, were each integral members of Saleh’s regime and a part of the northern political establishment that has long dominated the rest of the country.

Contrary to most portrayals, the war isn’t two-sided

The war is often depicted as a struggle between the Hadi government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance, implying the majority of Yemenis back one side or the other. However, Yemen’s current conflict, and its roots, are far more complex and include the demands of a broad swath of marginalized areas outside of the north. The Hadi government and the Houthi-Saleh alliance only represent the politics and divisions within the northern Yemeni elite, fighting one another for power, resources and control of the country.

Yemen’s ruling elite comes mainly from landlocked and resource-poor areas in the north, while politically marginalized Yemenis tend to live in areas with oil, gas, fertile land and access to the coastline. The people of these resource-rich regions have historically resented northern rule and felt that their wealth and resources lined the pockets of northern elite, while their own areas remain politically marginalized and deprived of basic services.

The war has exacerbated southerners’ grievances against northern rule. North and South Yemen entered a hasty unity agreement in 1990. The unification arrangement gave the North control over national and local decision-making. The southerners tried to negotiate a federal system that would allow the south some autonomy, but that was rejected, leading to a secession attempt by southern leaders and a brief civil war in 1994 that the north won. In 2007, a loosely organized political group formed the Hirak movement to address southern grievances through peaceful protest. Saleh’s government responded with violence, and the movement’s mandate escalated into a demand for secession. The current war has dramatically intensified southern grievances as manifested by mass rallies in Aden.

Why peace talks continue to fail

To date, there have been three unsuccessful rounds of U.N.-led negotiations between delegations representing the Houthi-Saleh alliance and the Hadi government. In the latest round, the United Nations devised a road map for negotiations that both parties rejected. There doesn’t appear to be any real trust between the two sides, and neither party seems willing to act first toward a peace deal. Many Yemenis believe that neither side is genuinely interested in ending the conflict. The Houthi-Saleh alliance controls taxation and finances in the capital of Sanaa, and they have taken advantage of the conflict to develop a wide range of income streams through smuggling and other illicit activities. Meanwhile, Hadi may be wary of a peace deal that could require his removal or those he has built up around himself over the past few years, something they do not want to let happen.

The U.N. envoy recently announced that the organization will initiate a new round of talks, scheduled for this month. If peace talks are not broadened beyond the political elite’s struggle for power, it is hard to see how a sustainable peace deal will ever be reached. Any agreement that excludes regional grievances and key players on the ground will likely fail.

Nadwa Al-Dawsari is a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). You can follow her @Ndawsari