Yemen began the process of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in March to address the issues that have divided the nation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The dialogue brings together 565 representatives from various groups across Yemen. Each delegate’s votes and ideas are meant to carry equal weight, regardless of age, gender, background, or social status. By autumn, participants will detail a list of grievances, and suggestions for reform. The group will work together to develop conceptual ideas for a new constitution and system of governance. Of the many nations that have undergone a version of the Arab Spring, Yemen is the only country to enact such a dialogue. However, the NDC has been accused of being Utopian in its endeavours, as Yemen is facing deep issues that stem from decades long grievances. In order for it to be effective, the National Dialogue needs to address several dissimilar issues, and unite them into the definitive goal.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, due to a combination of factors including: declining oil resources, crippled economy due to political climate, and the lack of potable water for livestock and agriculture. Yemen’s economy is dependent on foreign aid and remittance from Yemenis who are employed in other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The majority of the nation survives on under $2 USD per day.
A report released in July by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 5 million Yemenis, over one fifth of the population, are suffering from severe hunger and an additional 5 million don’t have sufficient access to food. More than half of Yemen’s population does not have access to clean water and sanitation, and 6 million lack access to basic health care, including life-saving reproductive health services
According to a prominent Yemeni newspaper, Al-Thawra, nearly 80 percent of conflicts in Yemen’s rural regions are water-related. Water- and land-related disputes result in about 4,000 deaths nationwide each year. An estimated 13.1 million Yemenis do not have access to proper drinking water.
Decaying dams cause the loss of precious water, and wells for groundwater are contaminated by sewage. In 2011, water consumption from the Sana’a Basin was five times more than the natural rate of recharge. It is estimated that in a little more than 10 years, Sana’a will be the world’s first capital to run out of water. Yemeni officials have considered relocating the capital to the coast, or enacting desalination and conservation projects, and siphoning water from other source, but each option either delays the inevitable, or brings its own set of problems.
Further complicating the water crisis is the national addiction to qat (or khat). Qat, a narcotic and a mild stimulant, comes from a flowering plant which is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is a natural appetite suppressant, often chewed in place of meals. Due to its shelf life of only 48 hours, qat was not readily available on the market in Yemen until the 1970s when better roads were created which eased transport of the crop. Today, it features prominently in Yemeni culture. According to the World Health Organization, up to 90 percent of adult men in Yemen chew qat for three to four hours each day.
However, qat cultivation is extremely water-intensive, drawing as much as 40% of the water from the Sana’a Basin. Currently, qat production is also expanding at a rate of 12% per year, displacing vital crops and sending food prices soaring.
Yemen’s economic concerns existed at the outset of unification, as both parts of Yemen had underdeveloped economies. In the north, severe droughts had long-lasting damaging effects on the agricultural sector, particularly coffee crops— the nation’s main import. Shortly after uniting, and due Yemen’s support of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, nearly a million Yemenis were expelled from Saudi Arabia, cutting remittance that the nation relied heavily on. Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also drastically reduced economic aid.
Today, Yemen’s economy remains weak. The nation’s employment rate is roughly 35%, and a population boom with a growing youth sector searching for work continues to have detrimental impact on the economy. GDP has been declining at a rate of 10% per year since 2011. Yemen has also dealt with rapid inflation rates; in 1990, $1 US was equal to 11.70 Yemeni Rial. Today, one dollar equals 214.90 Yemeni Rial.
Yemen is predominantly agrarian, and suffers from dwindling natural resources. The economy depends heavily on the oil reserves in the south, but those reserves are expected to be depleted by 2017. This loss of oil could result in devastating economic collapse.
Apart from natural resources and economic weakness, the National Dialogue must also deal with a country divided. At the outset, representatives from South Yemen chose to abstain from attending the dialogue, as it does not address the secessionist movement. A delegate from the NDC was quoted as saying, “There are two Yemens: the Yemen inside the conference and the Yemen outside it.”
North and South Yemen were united in 1990. Following unification, residents in South Yemen felt economically and socially marginalised from the north. In May 1994, the country burst into a crippling civil war which would last for nearly three months, and kill 5,000 people. The North ultimately won the war, however in the aftermath, thousands of southern military and civil employees were forced into early retirement and given pensions below the sustenance level.
Residents of South Yemen continued to feel excluded from Yemeni society and governance. As the years progressed, the South Yemeni’s feeling of resentment and cultural distinction has continued to grow. In 2007, a group called the South Yemen Movement began calling for the re-establishment of an independent southern state. The South Yemen Insurgency embarked on a series of violent attacks aimed at seceding from North Yemen. In 2011, the Arab Spring became an opening for groups in the south to reassert their desire for federalism or separation.
In March, parties who advocated separating from the North announced their boycott of the NDC. Also boycotting are those who support federalism in a united Yemen. On 18 March, the opening day of the conference, a million-man demonstration took place in Aden calling for an honest dialogue. The demonstration’s motto: “The Decision Is Ours.”
TERRORISM, KIDNAPPING AND RADICALISED GROUPS
In 2006, 23 members of al-Qaeda escaped from prison in Sanaa. The group, calling themselves “al-Qaeda in Yemen” became the forerunners of the larger and more infamous terrorist organisation, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, (AQAP). The group surfaced following an announcement that Yemeni and Saudi terrorists were unifying under a common banner, and they intended to create a hug for hub for regional terrorism. AQAP soon became the most aggressive arm of al-Qaeda, and the most widely known terrorist organization in Yemen. The group is based in tribal areas outside of Sanaa, which for the most part remain largely outside the control of the Yemeni Government.
The US has been working with Yemen to fight al-Qaeda. On 28 July, a US drone strike hit two vehicles belonging to al-Qaeda militants. Six people were killed, three of whom were al-Qaeda militants. The strikes stir feelings of resentment in the Yemenis: although the US is conducting drone strikes to eradicate the terrorist group, the number of drone strikes has escalated. In 2011, the US conducted 18 strikes; in 2012 there were 53. While civilians were not targeted in the strikes, residents in the area have been killed, or had their home or land destroyed. The result is resentment toward not only the United States, but the Yemeni government, who citizens feel should prevent the strikes.
Al Qaeda-linked militants, as well as disgruntled tribesmen, have also been responsible for hundreds of kidnappings. In May, three members of the Red Cross were abducted, including a Swiss national. In June, gunmen abducted a Dutch couple, as well as two South Africans in the southern city of Taiz. On 21 July, al-Qaeda militants abducted Iranian diplomat Nour Ahmad Nikbakht in Sana’a. Hostages are sometimes taken as a bartering chip to release friends relatives, or demand improvement of public services. However, in more malicious attacks, the hostages are taken in order to make a political statement (particularly if the hostage is from the West), or demand a ransom.
The Yemeni National Dialogue has been applauded for being the first initiative to address Yemen’s needs with representatives from throughout the Yemeni diaspora. The nation has been applauded for the unique path that it has chosen to address deep-rooted issues in the hopes of developing a new constitution and preparing for elections in 2014.
It is imperative that Yemen, which is dealing with 20 hour blackouts, food and water shortages, economic instability, secessionists and terrorism, identify and address the impact that each issue subsequently has on the next. Political transition will be neither permanent nor widely accepted until the nation grapples with the humanitarian crisis. While the dialogue addresses national concerns, participants should be wary of neglecting the opinions of those who boycotted, particularly in the South lest they risk the ire of terrorist organizations or militant secessionists who anticipate being further marginalised.
However, hopes remain high within Yemen, as political figures and laypersons, for the first time, have equal footing in developing Yemen’s future.