x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Yemen is the surprise story of the Arab Spring

Much has gone wrong in the countries that have seen uprisings, but only one seems to have found a way forward.

Three years ago tomorrow, crowds entered Tahrir Square in Egypt. Arab uprisings, which had begun in Tunisia a month earlier, have now played out in several countries and continue in Syria.

Much has gone wrong since. In Tunisia, long viewed as a bastion of secularism, political stagnation is compounded by growing divisions, and extremists loom large in much of the country. In Syria, at least 130,000 people have died, one-third of the population have left home and half need urgent aid. In Libya, militias wreak havoc and impede any progress on the political and economic fronts. In Egypt, political and economic stagnation has plagued the country. The urge for peace and stability, all in all, has replaced the early euphoria and optimism that dominated the region at the time.

But one country seems to offer good news, at least on the political front: Yemen. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Yemen seemed unlikely to make much political progress. Yemenis’ protest rallies in 2011 were overshadowed by the country’s deep underlying problems, from a crippled economy to the intractable presence of Al Qaeda, to the smothering control of Ali Abdullah Saleh and his relatives on the political, security, military and economic sectors of the country.

It is hard to believe that in less than three years, Yemen has taken significant steps towards resolving many of these issues. The road map for transition, brokered by Sanaa’s neighbours in the Gulf Cooperation Council, has come a long way.

Importantly, Mr Saleh’s son, Ahmed, was removed from his post as the commander of the elite Republic Guard and the unit – to wide astonishment – was disbanded; Mr Saleh’s nephew was required to step down as deputy head of central security. Observers of Yemen’s power politics and Yemenis in general had deep doubts that such restructuring steps would succeed. But they did, and although the political process is moving slowly, transition is steady.

Equally important, president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has approved a federal system that will help to resolve arguably the country’s most complex issue, more autonomy to the south. These steps are hugely significant, saving the country from prolonged destruction and polarisation.

But make no mistake, the issue about Yemen is that its political scene is changing while its underlying economic and security issues are lagging behind. Failure to establish stability will continue to discourage tourists, investors and oil companies from operating in the country.

Despite these underlying issues, though, Yemen is a positive story of the Arab Spring. It at least has the chance to move forward, unlike other countries that are still struggling to reach a stable political order.