RIYADH // Spurred by fears over Yemen's deteriorating internal security, international aid donors ended a two-day gathering yesterday, determined to accelerate long-promised development funds to the impoverished Gulf state's ailing economy. The conference, organised by the Gulf Cooperation Council, brought together 22 delegations representing an array of donors, including Gulf states, western nations, the World Bank, the United Nations and other international aid organisations.
There was no final communique, but one western diplomat who attended the meeting said that new "momentum" behind efforts to assist Yemen could bring quicker action. "It's about making things happen," he said. Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, the director general of international economic relations for the GCC, said: "There is a recognition of the urgency of the situation in Yemen. "This time everyone seems to be enthusiastic about moving the process forward," he added, noting that organisers had turned down some requests to attend the conference for lack of room. "This is something new for Yemen."
Mr Aluwaisheg said the new sense of international urgency stemmed from recent events that underscored Yemen's growing political and economic disarray. A three-month military conflict between Houthi rebels from northern Yemen and the Yemeni and Saudi militaries only ended with a ceasefire on February 11. Hundreds of rebels and more than 100 Saudi soldiers were killed, and hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians were displaced as a result of the fighting.
Second, western donors, including the United States, were galvanised by the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound US airliner on Christmas Day by an extremist trained in Yemen by an al Qa'eda network. As the conference wound up yesterday, news agencies reported that thousands of Yemenis protested in the port city of Aden and in two other provinces for the second successive day, demanding independence for the country's south. Security officials were quoted as saying that 21 people were arrested in Dalea province during the protests. Demonstrators, some carrying the flag of the former South Yemen, blocked the main road linking Aden with Dalea, witnesses told the news agencies. South Yemen was independent from 1967 until 1990, when it united with the north.
The GCC's Mr Aluwaisheg said that discussions dealt mostly with technical matters as the delegates focused on how to get the rest of the US$5.5 billion (Dh20bn) pledged to Yemen in 2006 into the aid pipeline by the end of this year. "Lots of money was committed three years ago - it was an unprecedented amount for Yemen. And all of it was supposed to be disbursed by the end of 2010, which is the end of Yemen's Third Development Plan," said Mr Aluwaisheg.
"The challenge is how to get the rest of it disbursed in the next 10 months so we can meet that deadline." Up to now, only 58 per cent of the promised $5.5bn - $3.7bn of which was pledged by wealthy Gulf states - has been released to Yemeni authorities to use. What is more disturbing to donors is that even less - somewhere between 10 to 20 per cent - has actually been put to use on aid projects by Yemen.
As these bottlenecks were discussed at the Riyadh conference it became apparent, said Mr Aluwaisheg, "that Yemen's ability to handle the flow of aid has not improved". Although pledged aid had quadrupled, Yemen's technical expertise to handle that amount of aid has not increased. However, Mr Aluwaisheg said that there was greater willingness on the part of donors to do something about that, perhaps by funding experts to handle the implementation of specific projects.
"They are willing to make an exception with Yemen," he said. "Everyone realises that Yemen is a special case now." While Yemen bears responsibility for the aid bottlenecks, "it's also clear that the donors can do more as well" to improve efficient aid delivery, said the western diplomat. "We need to develop mechanisms so we can co-ordinate aid more effectively." Delegates to the conference also discussed Yemen's long-term development needs and steps it could take to reduce its worrisome budget deficit, which stands at nine per cent of its GDP.
"The ability of donors to commit more funds is going to be affected by the fiscal responsibility of the Yemen government," said Mr Aluwaisheg. In addition to caring for its 23 million citizens, Yemen is also coping with major humanitarian challenges. An estimated 800,000 refugees from countries in the Horn of Africa have sought a safe haven in Yemen. And in the north, the Houthi rebellion has led to an estimated 180,000 to 250,000 displaced persons.