x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Yemen talks to reshape country post-Arab Spring begin today

Leaders of Yemen's political, tribal and religious groups are set to begin six months of UN-backed talks aimed at healing a divided country and ensuring the survival of the republic's institutions. Hakim Almasmari reports from Sanaa

Yemenis walk under a billboard advertising their country’s UN-backed national dialogue conference in Sanaa.
Yemenis walk under a billboard advertising their country’s UN-backed national dialogue conference in Sanaa.

SANAA // The leaders of Yemen's political, tribal and religious groups are set to begin six months of talks today aiming at healing a divided country and ensuring the survival of the republic's institutions.

The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) will bring together 565 politicians and officials mirroring the country's political and social make-up to forge a national alliance which will shape the country, post-Arab Spring, and allow the nation to build new foundations.

While the dialogue, part of political transition brokered in 2011 by the Gulf Cooperative Council, has been widely welcomed, the very nature of Yemen's multitude of issues ranging from violence, the threat of terrorism and an fragile economy can appear insurmountable.

One of the most difficult and long-running issues is how to appease calls for Southern Yemen to separate. Previously two separate countries, Yemen's north and south unified in 1990. An attempt by the south to break away again in 1994 led to civil war and its defeat. Since 2007, however, there has been a growing protest movement in the country's strategic port of Aden, calling for secession.

Despite president Abdurabu Mansur Hadi's best efforts to reconcile with Al Hirak , the south's secessionist movement, the south's leaders are boycotting the conference and called for massive rallies demanding their own state.

Ayman Mohammad Nasser, a member of the Supreme Council of Peaceful South Movement, said most southern factions would not take part in the national dialogue.

"The people of the South have completely gone to the streets, rejecting the dialogue and adhering to their demand of independence," he added.

The south's protests and calls for an armed struggle by radical "Hirakis" forced Mr Hadi in February to travel to Aden to appeal for calm.

The secessionists believe Yemen's government is attempting to manage the southern issue through a mix of empty promises and political repression, aimed at ending Al Hirak's growing momentum. The southerners have a long list of grievances including land confiscation, unpaid state benefits, pension discrimination and the looting of natural resources. More than 70 per cent of the country's oil wealth is in the country's south.

In the north, before the months of Arab Spring protests to topple former president Abdullah Saleh began in early 2010, Houthi rebels in the north fought an intermittent six-year war with Yemen government forces.

The Houthis, followers of the Zaidi offshoot of Shiite Islam, reject Sanaa's authority and its close ties with the United States.

"The Houthis have millions of followers and currently control large portion of Yemen's northern borders," said Ahmed Al Bahri, president of the opposition Haq Party. "They need to be recognised by all factions and be involved in Yemen's political making. The country won't go anywhere with the national dialogue if they continue to be ignored," he added.

With much at stake, Mr Hadi warned he would not tolerate any attempts by individuals or groups to derail the country's reconciliation efforts.

It was his predecessor, Mr Saleh, who said governing Yemen with all its factions and competing interests, was like "dancing on the heads of snakes".

Political feuds are not only slowing down the transition process but crippling the country's ability to rebuild its battered economy and institutions.

Observers fear Yemen could still become the Somalia of the Arabian Peninsula with all the danger it represents - terrorism, internal conflicts, a displaced population and widespread instability.

While many criticised the GCC-brokered proposal that led to Mr Hadi's leadership, arguing that Mr Saleh escaped three decades of dictatorship and pillage unscathed, foreign powers estimated peace and regional stability were worth the concessions.

The former president still heads the General People Congress party and cannot be eliminated from the political landscape.

"We revolted seeking change and wanted Saleh tried for the killings of youth protesters," Khaled Al Anesi, a leading reformist. "Instead he remains the president of his political party,"

Mr Saleh continues to live in Sanaa and wields considerable political influence, supporting a united country and condemning violence against southerners.

Jamal Benomar, UN special envoy to Yemen said the transition from Mr Saleh's three decades of autocratic rule is threatened by those who have still not understood the need for change.

Hanging over the talks are fears that militant groups will target the dialogue, which will initially be held in the presidential palace. New sets of security measures for the capital were announced last week. Dozens of security checkpoints were set up and 60,000 troops deployed throughout Sanaa. The military has pleaded with tribal and political leaders that their staff should not be armed during the dialogue. Despite the heavy security, many remain optimistic that the dialogue sessions would provide a framework conducive to change.

"Yemen is in a crisis and we need to be realistic in our demands and we need to put Yemen's interests ahead of any other," said Mohammed Abulahoum, president of the Justice and Building party.

"Failure of the national dialogue is not an option. No one wants to be part of a sinking ship."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae