Peace talks in Geneva are a first step but they do not include all interested parties, writes Damien McElroy
Unravelling the diplomatic steps needed for peace in Yemen
In the two years since its liberation from Al Qaeda-linked factions, the port city of Mukalla on Yemen’s eastern coastline has reverted to its traditional role in trade and shipping.
As talks open on Thursday in Geneva over the future of the country, businessmen who make up the backbone of the city and the wider governorate of Hadramawt have some advice for the delegates gathering in Switzerland.
Fares Khalid bin Hilabi, vice chairman of Hadramawt Chamber of Commerce, told The National talks that make a difference to ordinary Yemenis are the only route to peace.
"People from Hadramawt have always been sensible with making deals, and bringing peace, if the negotiators take a Hadrami approach, they can find peace," Mr Hilabi said.
"If they sent the businessmen to negotiate, there would be peace tomorrow. They are much closer to the people, they understand what the population want – if we do a bad job, we go out of business."
On the eve of the Geneva meeting, a row emerged over the non inclusion of Yemen's Southern Transitional Council, an umbrella body that runs much of the south and eastern territory that has been wrested from control of the Houthis and the Islamist extremists.
The STC was angered by being excluded from the talks, and in a statement said Martin Griffiths, the UN Secretary General's special envoy for Yemen, had "moved away from a reasonable path of getting a resolution as a result of Houthi and other pressure". The group would not be "bound by any consultations or negotiations that the STC is not a part of," the group added.
Mr Griffiths issued a statement reassuring his interlocutors in the south that he would not neglect their interests.
The STC commands the loyalties of five regional governors, including Hadramawt’s Farraj Al Bahsani.
The grouping's flag flies in the streets and there is a consensus in the city that Hadramawt’s interest lies in running its own affairs within a very loosely-bound Yemeni federal republic.
On the pressing issue of how to deal with Houthi militia that overran much of the country in 2015, Mr Bahansi pulls no punches. He talks about the Houthis, who will be part of the consultations in Geneva albeit in a separate room from the delegation of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, Yemen's internationally-recognised president.
The governor refers to the Houthi "gang" as "terrorists" but at the prospect of working with a unified government perhaps featuring Houthi ministers, he puts his faith in the exiled government’s negotiation efforts.
"Whatever comes from those meetings, everyone will follow," he said.
Others in Mukalla, the capital city of Hadramawt, are less optimistic. Life has been improving since Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was beaten back with the support of the Arab Coalition forces spearheaded by UAE operations in 2016.
"Until they accept the people of Hadramawt want a federal system, there will be no peace. Hadramawt is at the root of peace in Yemen, we beat Al Qaeda, we know about stability," said Mr Hilabi, but insisting the current war is seen differently. "I believe that the situation will go on and on," he said.
Saed bin Badawar, 38, a local governorate employee fears any opening to the Houthis would disrupt progress but thinks it is worth taking a chance on talks.
"We do not trust the Houthis, like we do not trust Al Qaeda, but if they lay down their guns, we will work with them," he said. "It will be difficult for some Yemenis, because they spent a lot of time fighting. But if it is good for the country, we can make deals with anyone. We are a pragmatic people, a pragmatic nation, I hope they will be pragmatic in Geneva."
The scars of war remain too close for many to relish the diplomatic opening.
Ahmed Mohammed Omar Baddabayan, 50, is a Mukalla resident whose son, a fighter in the Hadramat elite forces was executed four months ago by Al Qaeda.
He said Houthi participation in the government would be a betrayal of his son's legacy. "We will not accept that; these people have already failed us before."
Yet there is a sense that the new UN envoy has reinvigorated the peace efforts since his appointment late last year.
Mr Griffiths is well known, partly as a result of a strategic communication plan that his office included in its outreach activities. While he has not brought all the Yemeni interests to the talks in Geneva, he has held a wide range of well-publicised meetings with Yemeni citizens and community groups. There is a colonial memory in Mukalla of the British as arbitrators between Yemenis that Mr Griffiths appears to benefit from and trade on.
"We hate the British empire, but we love the English people," said one businessman.
Dr Abdukader Bayazid, who works for the federal government, said local officials feel their representatives in the STC are listened to by Mr Griffiths, even though they will not be in Geneva.
Mr Griffiths's statement on Tuesday appeared designed to shore up that relationship.
"I have consistently affirmed that there will be no peace in Yemen if we do not listen to a broad cross-spectrum of Yemeni voices, including southern groups, and make sure that they are included in the efforts to reach a sustainable political settlement," he said. "In the past few months, I have consulted with numerous southern groups to reach a consensus on their meaningful participation in the political process. I have been encouraged by their openness to dialogue and to a peaceful resolution for their concerns."
The sense that a dramatic breakthrough is needed to change the course in Yemen is underlined by a worsening crisis of confidence in the rial which has slumped in recent weeks. Even in the relatively prosperous Mukalla merchant community, the losses have been unsettling. Most believe the currency crisis will not be resolved as long as there are two rival central banks operating in the country, a point that will be raised in Geneva.
That for most is reason enough to try to heal divide that has split Yemen for far too long.