On December 22, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion, examining the prospects for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen, following the signing of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiated plan. Speakers included Muhammad Abulahoum, leader of the Yemeni opposition Justice and Building Party, Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist currently serving as editor in chief of Al-Arab satellite news channel, and Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, and a specialist on conflict resolution and Yemeni politics. The discussion was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, diplomatic, media, and business communities.
Muhammad Abulahoum began by distinguishing the Yemeni case from the other uprisings that have formed part of the Arab Spring, pointing to the fact that it had persisted for a full ten months. He argued that the GCC initiated deal – which grants President Ali Abdullah Saleh immunity from persecution in exchange for a pledge to stand down after elections in February – was “a good deal for Yemen.” He maintained that this plan represented a “real revolution,” albeit one based on compromise. Though many youth continue to oppose the deal, Abulahoum insisted that revolution cannot “be based on score-settling and revenge,” and that the Gulf initiative must be pursued in order to avoid an alternative “Syrian scenario.”
Turning to the challenges immediately facing the transition, Abulahoum stated that the worst case scenario would involve Saleh reneging on his commitment to cede power. Such attempts would involve Saleh portraying himself as “the only real player” and depicting the opposition as “insincere” in its approach to the deal. Abulahoum suggested that Saleh would have some grounds for doing so, in that protests against Saleh have continued.
In order to avert further conflict, Abulahoum argued that the opposition must “take it slowly” and minimize opportunities for Saleh to play provocateur. Vice President Hadi, meanwhile, must engage in the process on the basis that he may well be Yemen’s next president, fostering a dialogue with all parties on how to rebuild the country after elections. That dialogue should concentrate primarily on restructuring the military, resolving the Southern issue, and tackling a deteriorating economy.
These economic challenges must be met also by the Gulf states which have, Abulahoum argued, a “moral responsibility and duty” to provide assistance. This assistance though should come in the form of a “partnership for security and prosperity.” Abulahoum suggested that with Saleh gone, there was opportunity for “opening a new page with the Gulf states,” and making Yemen a real partner in fighting threats to regional security. These states then should help in supporting the developments in health and education that are needed to improve the lot of Yemenis – 75 percent of whom live in poverty.
Offering an analysis of Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the Yemeni crisis, Jamal Khashoggi said that the country’s leaders have been extremely worried about the situation in Yemen – more so than any other revolution in the region. While the uprisings in Bahrain were seen by Riyadh as being “controllable,” Yemen presented a possibility of chaos which it could not intervene militarily to resolve. Given the “steady stream of drugs, arms, and immigrants, some of them Al Qaeda militants,” Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen has always been a source of concern, Khashoggi said. He added, however, that Saudi involvement in Yemen’s crisis has been limited to the multilateral GCC initiative due to the fact that it is now facing a “genuine popular uprising,” rather than a succession crisis or intra-elite conflict. “The old Arab order has died,” Khashoggi said, “and its tools are no longer relevant.” He added that while Saudi Arabia had supported Saleh as a representative of stability, that calculation was no longer valid.
On the subject of the GCC deal, Khashoggi argued that President Saleh had “outmanoeuvred Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and the world” by securing immunity that was originally offered to generate a quick transition early in the year. Saleh has managed to secure both that immunity, and significant influence over the current situation, he said, adding that Saleh will likely remain president of the ruling party beyond elections. That said, there is no certainty that guarantees included in the deal will remain enforceable after elections.
In order to ensure that transition remains on course, Khashoggi advocated the establishment of a GCC and U.S.-backed “operating room” that is dedicated to monitoring the implementation of the deal and averting any attempt by Saleh to sabotage it. This body should also monitor three situations that are a potential source of further unrest: calls for secession in the South, Houthi expansionism in the North, and increased Al Qaeda activity across the country.
Concluding his remarks, Khashoggi stated that the current revolution in Yemen constitutes the resumption of a process that began in the revolution of 1948. The GCC now has a duty, he said, to ensure that there is the “sustainable stability” needed to ensure the culmination of that process, by supporting a productive, job-creating economy.
Ibrahim Sharqieh gave an analysis of the international community’s role in events in Yemen, arguing that while there has been consensus on the path forward, that consensus has come at the cost of adopting an assertive and forward-looking policy. The international support for the GCC initiative is positive, Sharqieh said, in that it has helped isolate Saleh and encourage better implementation of the peace deal, particularly under the supervision of the effective UN representative, Jamal Ben Omar. However it has involved a very slow response that has not evolved beyond the outlines set out by the GCC. In its approach, the United States meanwhile has been led by three principles: the fight against Al Qaeda, the need to secure its “security investments” of past years, and a preference for “regime renovation” over “fundamental regime change.”
All these limitations have meant that the international community has in fact “contributed to the risks” in Yemen, Sharqieh maintained. He saw that the GCC deal had preserved the “fragile, unsustainable stability” in the country, and left the power struggle at the heart of its crisis unchanged. He argued that there was a perception of two processes on different tracks – the military and the political. While the political track will offer apparent successes, with elections and the formation of government, it will not be complete until the two tracks meet, and the issue of reforming the security system is addressed.
While the GCC deal may be “imperfect,” Sharqieh concluded, it could be improved by building trust between stakeholders and immediately initiating a national dialogue that included the country’s youth. The success of the deal will depend on the nature of its implementation – those monitoring it should provide a clear roadmap, and must be strengthened through support from the international community. Finally, there must be a redirection of international investments in the country, towards socio-economic development and job creation over security systems and counter-terrorism.
The presentations from each speaker were followed by a question and answer session. Moderator Salman Shaikh asked about the likelihood of Saleh attempting to renege on the GCC deal, given the impact of such a move on his credibility. While Abulahoum insisted that real focus should now be on the post-Saleh period, arguing that he would be unable to make an effective return to politics, Khashoggi pointed out that his regime may in fact be able to survive without him, highlighting Washington’s fears of total collapse in the country.
Asked about the future of Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Yemeni revolution, panelists agreed that the group would be increasingly irrelevant, with Jamal Khashoggi pointing out that the group’s success had been a “product of stagnation in the old Arab world.” That said, Abulahoum insisted that Al Qaeda could become a serious problem “if the [GCC] plan does not go ahead.” He added that the United States’ use of drones should be coordinated first with the local authorities who might be able to deal with the threat without the need to have a strike in the first place.
Responding to a question about the prospects of Yemen joining the GCC, Khashoggi argued that while Yemen would receive greater GCC support after the formation of the government, it was unlikely to join the regional body – in essence an “economic club” – within the next 10 years. Abulahoum and Sharqieh, meanwhile, argued for the establishment of an accession plan that would be “beneficial for both parties,” based on a partnership that recognized Yemen’s underexploited resources, key role in regional security, and untapped workforce.