x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Bridges on the road to a stronger Yemen

Reform of Yemen's political infrastructure, but also improvements to the nation's physical infrastructure, are needed to bridge its many divisions.

In the two decades since the birth of modern Yemen, its diversity has often been more of a burden than a blessing. North and South Yemen came together in 1990 but developing a programme of national reform to bridge the country's many different interests has been an ongoing challenge for the Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

As thousands protested in Yemen yesterday, both its diversity and differences were on display. In Sana'a's Tahrir Square there were secular socialists, members of the Islamist Islah party, unemployed youth, and students from Sana'a University, all calling for reform. Pro-government demonstrators marched nearby. The protests were not limited to the capital. In Yemen's southern region, rich in oil and gas, the distribution of the country's resources has long been at the centre of debate. And while there were few protests in northern parts of the country, a battle against the Houthi movement is ongoing.

Mr Saleh announced on Wednesday that he would not seek re-election for president in 2013 but that was not enough to prevent yesterday's protests. And clearly, addressing the country's challenges involves more than one man, as some demonstrators in Sana'a were keen to observe. "We are calling for change," the leader of an umbrella organisation for Yemen's opposition groups, Mohammed Al Mutawakal, told journalists. "It's not about specific people, it's about moving toward real democracy."

It is also about development. At the centre of Yemen's difficulties are a growing population and dwindling resources. Two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25. Rural poverty has caused mass migration to the country's bigger cities, where more people compete for fewer resources.

Mr Saleh has tried to stimulate growth and distribute wealth with fuel subsidies but they have had unintended consequences. Rather than create jobs or a higher standard of living for the poor, subsidies made it easier for the wealthiest Yemenis to pump water out of the country's aquifers, as James Spencer explained in these pages last month.

None of Yemen's problems, nor their solutions, fit neatly within any of the slogans shouted at yesterday's demonstrations. Reform of the country's political infrastructure is required to bring its many different interests to the table and to diffuse its many tensions. Improvements to the country's physical infrastructure are just as important. It is the disconnect of so many Yemenis from the global economy, and their isolation from their countrymen, that has allowed groups such as al Qa'eda to operate in the country. The building of roads and bridges will prove a far more effective remedy against this problem than any bombing campaign. It is these kinds of national projects that should be at the top of the list for Yemen's donors.

No matter who is in charge of the country, only a long-term commitment to improved governance and stronger infrastructure can address Yemen's many different interests and challenges.