A Conference entitled Yemen: Challenges for the future was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London on 11-12 January 2013.
This was an impressive gathering with over two hundred participants, including a large contingent who flew from Yemen for the occasion, academics from all over Europe, as well as Diaspora Yemenis who came from all corners of the UK. Among the keynote speakers were the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yemen, Dr Abubakr al Qirbi and the Minister for Planning and International Co-operation of Yemen, Dr Mohammed al Saadi, as well as the Minister of State for International Development of the UK Alan Duncan. Participants age ranged from late teens to mid-nineties, and sitting in the audience were historical figures such as ex Aden Trade Union and nationalist leader, Abdulla al Asnag, as well as many British officials who were opposing him in Aden in the 1960s.
The conference was organised by the British Yemeni Society and the London Middle East Institute at SOAS, with funding from the Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa al Jaber Foundation.
The tone of the conference was constructive and engaging. The organisers tried very hard to keep the conference on an academic wavelength, but Yemeni activists in the audience continuously brought the discussion down to earth with sharp comments and questions. A large contingent of Southern Yemenis made their presence felt with continuous reference to the situation in the south and the need for the south to the given back its independence. Not surprisingly the two Ministers in their opening remarks made general statements about Yemeni unity, and highlighted the fact that Yemeni unity was also supported by all the international community.
In his speech Alan Duncan tried to introduce a note of urgency, saying that substantial progress needs to be made in the National Dialogue, which is about to be convened, over the next six months in order that preparations are in time for Presidential elections in a year’s time as envisaged by the GCC agreement on Yemen. He reminded the participants that US$ 8 billion of international assistance was on offer to Yemen but this depended on serious projects being presented to the international community. Duncan said that 2013 will be a challenging year for Yemen.
The highlights of the event where the panel on Regional and Global Considerations on the first day, and the panel Rural Development, Land and Water on the second day. In the first panel there was considerable criticism of US policy towards Yemen, including the use of drones, and the continued US perception of Yemen as a theatre for military operations rather than somebody’s country and homeland. The panel on land and water captured the gravity of the problem for Yemen, and the presentation on Qat by Jens Kambach summarised the problem wonderfully and in its proper political, social and economic context.
The session on the Saada Region was also very informative, effectively challenging some of the stereotypical perceptions of the conflict as seen outside Yemen. As expected the session on the Southern Question drew a barrage of questions and comments from the many southerners in the audience.
A small breakaway group on culture on the second day had a star presentation by Dr Katherine Hennessey from the American Institute for Yemeni Studies in Sanaa on “Theatre in Yemen before and during the Arab Spring”. The presentation captured admirably the struggle of young Yemeni artists to address social issues through the arts in complicated political conditions.
The Conference was described as the largest academic gathering on Yemen in Europe for two decades, and one can well believe that. The event was very useful and certainly helped in furthering the understanding of Yemen and the challenges that it faces.
Summaries of the discussions in the different panels, prepared by Brian Whitaker, are available on the web site www.al-bab.org