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National Dialogue Conference: Key to Peace and Stability in Yemen

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • March 26, 2013

    The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) which started on 18 March 2013 is a landmark event in Yemen’s political transition. As agreed in the power transfer deal mediated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the NDC includes all the political parties, civil society representatives, southern movement, Houthis, women and youths. A total of 565 delegates representing different sections of society are involved in the NDC to build a roadmap for the future. In short, the National Dialogue has endeavoured to bring all the political parties and other factions under one umbrella and prepare for a smooth transition in the aftermath of the revolution. The NDC will discuss issues such as formulating the constitution, government structure and political system, the southern issue, the Houthis, achieving national reconciliation and transitional justice, and other social and economic issues.

    Ironically, even as external forces are making efforts to keep Yemen united, internal fighting is leading to the country’s destabilisation. The lack of internal unity provides more space for external players to intervene in Yemen’s internal affairs and thus the ability to influence the process of transition. How seriousness these divisive elements are will be put to the test in the national dialogue. The dialogue will also test the ability of political parties and other organisations to work in tandem to accommodate various interests in the national mainstream. The fact that internal forces like the Houthis and the Southerners are armed groups who retain the capacity to create further instability in the country at any time is a major concern which acts as a threat to the national dialogue and establishment of peace. In the meantime, these groups are also taking the opportunity to increase their legitimacy and acceptability among their followers and among the general public.

    The Southern movement poses the biggest challenge for the transition process. The grievances of the Southerners are many and they continue to remain unresolved. Southerners feel that there is unequal distribution of wealth between the north and south. The vast natural resources of the south are being exploited by the government and the benefits of which are going to the north. The south has the majority of oil resources, yet it remains underdeveloped. Besides, Southerners have also accused the government of looting their land and abusing their people and forcing people from the south to retire from government jobs. The feeling of continuing neglect by the government led the Southerners to initially decide to boycott the NDC. After many deliberations, they have been persuaded by the UN special envoy and President Rabbo Mansour Hadi to participate in the dialogue process. But their future course of action remains unpredictable.

    Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi Shia sect, form the other major faction. They are fighting against the government accusing it of widespread corruption, socioeconomic negligence of the Shias, permitting the growing influence of Sunni Wahhabism in the country and allying with the USA. The Yemeni government for its part has alleged that the Houthis have established links with Iran. The Houthis are also accused by the government of intending to create a state in the northern part of the country. The capability of the Houthis to launch an armed campaign also remains a cause of concern for the government, which fears that such a step may derail the efforts towards peace. Though Houthis have joined the NDC, they have refused to put down their weapons and this remains a concern for the government.

    Some other groups and leaders are dissatisfied with the number of representatives from various factions in the dialogue. Further, some influential Houthi as well as southern leaders have allegedly decided not to join the dialogue process. Nobel laureate Tawakul Karman and Hamid al-Ahmar of the Islah party have reportedly boycotted the NDC.

    As the internal situation has worsened, external forces have started intervening even more. In this context, the role of the UN, GCC and USA becomes important. They not only make efforts to bring the different political parties and groups to the table for the dialogue but also chart the future road map for the country. The apathy of some of Yemen’s groups towards the dialogue has made the external powers more assertive to prevent Yemen descending into further chaos.

    The UN is playing an important role in the Yemeni transition. UN Envoy to Yemen Jamal Ben Omar has made serious efforts and has urged all the parties to come together and work for the smooth transition of the country in a peaceful and democratic manner. Similarly, the GCC has been an important player in bringing the different factions together for the dialogue. The GCC has remained concerned about Yemen being a lawless and anarchical state in its neighbourhood with a faltering economy, growing social problems and becoming a hub of al Qaeda activities which the state will not be able to control. The USA has been concerned about the growing al Qaeda activities in Yemen and thus supports a united and stable Yemen. Even as it has been supporting the dialogue process, the USA at the same time has launched drone attacks in the al Qaeda dominated areas which has created a lot of dissension in several Yemeni quarters.

    It is too early to predict the outcome of the national dialogue process, but at present it looks like that the national dialogue is the last chance for peace in Yemen. Various political parties and other major factions have been brought together for a comprehensive dialogue; and as all of them represent diverse interests, attempts to reach a consensus over any issue would certainly not be smooth. Such a dialogue is, however, absolutely necessary for an inclusive political process during the transition period.

    The worst situation for Yemen would arise if the NDC fails to come out with concrete solutions. In such a scenario, there seems to be no alternative in place, neither with the government nor with the opposition factions. Even the external forces, who are deeply involved in bringing the different factions to the table, do not seem to have any other alternative proposal. With several forces still discontented with the NDC, the failure of the conference will provide them an avenue to protest and that would lead to further instability in the country. If the NDC fails to reach a solution and allows the chaos and insecurity to continue, Yemen may plunge into long term chaos.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.