x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Yemen transition is hopeless without reforms

Yemen has a new president, but any real transition requires a fundamental reform of political institutions.

Yemen has a new president and, in theory, Yemenis have an opportunity to turn a page on the political unrest of the past year. But that is all Yemen has right now - a chance. And it is a chance that will evaporate if this proves nothing more than a change of faces in the top office.

Even that, however, might be misleading. The former president Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to the country before his successor officially took office. Mr Saleh, for all his travails of the past year, still wields considerable power. Among his many family and fellow tribe members in key positions, his son Ahmed Saleh (and formerly his presumed successor) commands the elite Republican Guard.

Since the country's uneasy formation in 1990, power in Yemen has always been distributed through the patronage system and tribal affiliations rather than formal political institutions. While Mr Saleh may be officially routed from office, the system that he perpetuated - the system that kept Yemen underdeveloped and unstable for three decades - will not be reformed so easily.

In his speech to parliament after assuming office on Saturday, the new president, Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, said the right things. He called for a new constitution and urged national unity. Neither will be easy, as we were reminded on the same day when a car bombing attributed to Al Qaeda killed dozens and wounded many more.

It was an ill-favoured beginning in more ways than one. Yemen does face serious security threats, not just from Al Qaeda-related terrorism, but from secessionists in the south and the well-organised Houthi tribe in the north.

But just as pernicious has been the response to those threats. Mr Saleh made an art of provoking and balancing crises, negotiating for foreign funds to fight security threats that were both real and imagined. With a constant stream of Saudi and US aid, there was little incentive to build the institutions that would support a state that could stand on its own. Faced with economic stagnation and an agricultural crisis, Yemen desperately needs leadership that will genuinely pursue development goals.

More than 60 per cent of eligible voters turned out at the weekend for a ballot that hardly deserves the label of "election". While Mr Hadi was the only option, the turnout did show a popular mandate for this transition. The GCC transition plan, which angered many by offering Mr Saleh immunity, gained at least some domestic credibility. Mr Hadi faces a difficult task to turn that mandate into desperately needed institutional reform.