Yemen in Crisis: What Can Be Done?
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on February 17, 2016, about the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the possible political solutions that can be achieved in the near future to resolve the conflict and save the country from further turmoil. The panelists included Mr. Rafat Al-Akhali, former Minister of Youth and Sports in Yemen; Ms. Iona Craig, the Times of London Yemen correspondent; and Rajeh Badi, a government spokesman and advisor to the prime minister of Yemen. Dr. Ibrahim Fraihat, senior foreign policy fellow and deputy director of the BDC, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, and media community.
Fraihat prefaced the discussion by reminding the audience that five years have passed since the outbreak of Yemen’s peaceful revolution. For the past ten months, Yemen has been plagued by a war that left 21 million people in urgent need of humanitarian aid, 2.5 million people internally displaced, and over 2,800 civilians killed. Focusing his first question on the implications of the current situation on Yemen’s future, Fraihat emphasized the importance of a constructive discussion that focuses on the future to save the country from further turmoil.
Al-Akhali pointed out that the majority of Yemen’s youth have lost hope in the future. Comparing current sentiments in Yemen to those in 2011, he said the hopeful narrative used at the onset of the revolution has been replaced by a language of extremism and sectarianism. This pessimistic discourse has made it easier to recruit into fighting helpless people, who increasingly feel that they have no opportunities for a better life; this fuels the existence of extremist groups such as al-Qaida and, increasingly, the Islamic State group (IS).
Al-Akhali pointed out that asking how to end the conflict is not the right question. Rather, he asked, “How can we improve things till the war comes to an end?” Al-Akhali emphasized the importance of reviving the economy to restore the youth’s hope in the future. Through creating temporary jobs during the conflict, finding ways to develop a war economy that facilitates the exchange of goods and services despite the war, and disseminating motivating rhetoric that reminds the people of the importance of their lives, Yemenis will rid themselves of the “war mentality.”
Craig added that the war has had a devastating effect on society at the local level. Despite months of bombing and attacks by the Saudi-led coalition in coordination with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government, the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh continue to hold their ground. The ongoing conflict has had a polarizing impact on the social fabric of Yemeni society.
Craig emphasized the importance of practical solutions and the necessity of international humanitarian initiatives. With sieges and blockades on many Yemeni cities, reconciliation on the local level will be harder to achieve even if the conflict ends in the near future. Craig stated that easing the pressure on the population through humanitarian efforts and focusing international efforts on depoliticizing the food supply are the two main practical options to save Yemen from further suffering. Craig added that Yemen’s civil war is underreported in the Western media which is extremely problematic; the lacking coverage obscures the development of humanitarian initiatives and resolutions that may alleviate the effects of the conflict on the citizens.
Badi highlighted the historical context of the conflict to help better understand the current challenges facing the country. He explained that after the outbreak of the Yemeni revolution in 2011, the country was taking its first steps on the right track by negotiating a political system during the national dialogue; he stressed that the negotiations encompassed all political groups in Yemen, including the Houthis. Badi explained that the conflict in Yemen is not a civil war but a coup led by the Houthis against the legitimate power of Hadi’s government. He described the Houthis as an ideological religious movement comparable in principle and aims to IS. Therefore, the international community should not legitimize the Houthis and should contest any efforts that allow them to remain armed.
Fraihat then shifted the discussion to the current situation asking what a potential resolution would look like. In response, Badi argued that the war was imposed on Yemeni society. He criticized what he perceived as a lack of seriousness from the Houthis part to negotiate an end to the conflict. He stressed the necessity of implementing international resolutions and preventing the Houthis from owning weapons; the goal should be to reach an effective ceasefire instead of a fragile peace. Moreover, the government is helpless, as the Houthis have seized most of its national weapons during the coup. The Yemeni government, he claimed, doesn’t even have $1000 within its accounts. Given its lack of resources, the international role is imperative in saving the country.
Touching upon the Iranian role in the Yemeni conflict, Al-Akhali noted that Iran did not have any positive impact on Yemen and should not be allowed to intervene or have any future role in the conflict. Al-Akhali then shifted the discussion to answer Fraihat’s question about the evident inconsistency between the publicized pledges of humanitarian aid and the absence of humanitarian initiatives on the ground. He indicated that coordination and arrangements among the two main aid donor groups, in the Gulf region and the Western world, have to be addressed for serious humanitarian initiatives to take place.
Answering questions from the audience about the feasibility of working on development during the times of war, Al-Akhali emphasized the importance of developing a “war economy” that provides jobs and fills some temporary gaps in demand, he noted that that does not entail serious reconstruction projects or city planning but simple initiatives that meet needs during a war that may take years. He further stressed the importance of devising development plans to prepare for the future to be able to start reconstruction as soon as the war ends. Craig stated that there are youth workshops and artists trying to repair the divisions among the society; however, their role is very limited and their impact is restricted to small circles living in cities.
Al-Akhali, in a final remark, added that despite the current challenges facing Yemeni society, Yemen is a country with a rich history and civilization that is full of aspiration and hope to restore its stability, cohesion, and place in the world.
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