Still Hope for a Deal in Yemen, Despite Saleh’s GCC Snub

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Some observers have dubbed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative to end political stalemate in Yemen a “golden parachute”, in part because it was meant to save the country from additional violence and potential civil war. If enacted, the deal will require the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to step down within 30 days and for elections be held within 60 days of his departure.

In return, Mr. Saleh, his family and aides would receive immunity from prosecution after the president’s resignation.

But on Saturday, the chute appeared to collapse as the GCC secretary general, Abdullatif al Zayani, left Sana’a empty handed after Mr. Saleh refused to sign the transition deal.

Despite this setback, the initiative is still capable of bringing peace to Yemen, but only if certain roadblocks are addressed at the outset.

The first obstacle is the broader issue of legitimacy. Though acceptance of the GCC initiative by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) – a coalition of six opposition parties – is important, there are other significant segments of Yemeni society whose approval will be necessary to move forward.

In total, the JMP occupies only 22 percent of Yemen’s parliament. More importantly, for the past four months, large-scale demonstrations have been mobilised and led by the youth in Al Tagheer Square in Sana’a and elsewhere throughout the country.

These youth opposition leaders have firmly rejected the GCC initiative and continued to call for the immediate departure of Mr. Saleh, while rejecting the premise of immunity. To help the GCC initiative succeed if it is resurrected, then, a rigorous outreach campaign to these social forces should begin now.

The second issue is trust. While the GCC initiative is based on a formula to trade “justice for peace” – or immunity from prosecution in exchange for Mr. Saleh’s resignation – it expects the opposition to trust Mr. Saleh for 30 days before he leaves.

To improve the chances of success and revive the measure, the GCC initiative must first neutralise the trust element by offering Mr. Saleh immunity for an immediate departure, rather than granting him a month to depart. Such an agreement would be more likely to garner the support of younger factions represented in Al Tagheer Square.

On this issue the onus is largely on Mr. Saleh. The president has a history of making promises but failing to fulfil them. Indeed, even before his snub on Saturday, he waffled on the deal, initially accepting the GCC initiative but later announcing that his resignation would only take place under the guise of what he called “constitutional legitimacy”.

This was meant to allow him to submit his resignation to parliament rather than step down immediately. And because Yemen’s parliament includes 77 percent representation of the General People’s Congress, Mr. Saleh’s ruling party, it could easily reject the president’s resignation, thus allowing him to stay in power “constitutionally.”

Such manoeuvres only deepen the mistrust between Mr. Saleh and his people and therefore make implementation of any agreement with him difficult.

The final element that any future deal must include is more inclusive dialogue and active engagement.

The current mediation approach is characterised by compromises, trade-offs and promises. For example, the JMP announced publicly that its acceptance of the GCC initiative came after receiving “assurances from regional and international parties” that Mr. Saleh would implement his part of the deal.

But such an approach does not support a sustainable solution. Mediation should be educational, engaging and transforming. Both Mr. Saleh and the opposition should be convinced, through active engagement and dialogue, that accepting the GCC initiative would serve their best interests.

To make it sustainable, the parties should accept that the GCC initiative truly is a “golden parachute” both for Mr. Saleh as well as for the opposition, as it will avoid a prolonged cycle of violence and possible civil war.

Despite Mr. Saleh’s refusal to sign the deal, the GCC initiative has already shown considerable promise. It remains the only official peace proposal made and communicated between the government and the opposition. Further, it has brought the parties the closest they have come to each other in resolving the political impasse. Addressing issues of legitimacy, trust, immunity and mediation would further solidify the initiative’s approach towards a sustainable resolution.

Members of the GCC, and Saudi Arabia in particular, should make it clear that their initiative may not stay on the table forever and that peace and change in Yemen may soon become an elusive goal if this initiative is abandoned.