LINKS (DAR) Executive Director, Dr Dennis Sammut highlighted the humanitarian cost of the war in Yemen and called for urgent dialogue between all concerned parties to end hostilities, so that the long process of reconciliation and reconstruction in Yemen could start. He was speaking at an event held at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London on Thursday, 21 September 2017. The event was organised by OXGAPS (The Oxford Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies Forum). Other participants in the panel discussion were Dr Noel Brehony, (Chairman, Menas Associates), Rafat Al-Akhali, (Former Minister of Youth and Sports of Yemen) and Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy, (Fellow, Overseas Development Institute). The event was chaired by Commodore Neil Brown.
In his remarks, Dennis Sammut said that Yemen is the most serious current humanitarian crisis in the world. Out of a population of 27 million people, more than half of the population lacked food security, and 3.3 million people were acutely malnourished; 14 million people lack access to adequate quantities of safe water or sanitation services and adequate healthcare. The country was now facing a cholera epidemic, and 700,000 were infected by cholera since the beginning of the year, and the numbers were expected to grow. The International Committee of the Red Cross has described the situation as “unprecedented”. Dennis Sammut said that there is a sense that governments and international institutions are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems in Yemen.
Dennis Sammut said that whilst it was understandable that there is frustration in the international community with the continuous internal squabbles and fighting, and inability of the Yemenis to find enough common language to start addressing some of the big challenges facing them it was important not to give in to the temptation of succumbing to a view of Yemeni particularism that somehow the Yemenis were ungovernable, or destined to remain caught in a cycle of violence and poverty. A British colonial official in the 20th century described Yemenis as being “allergic to government”. It would however be wrong to attribute this to some sort of Yemeni particularism – it is more a sign of bad governance, rampant corruption and the sheer harshness of the conditions of life, where death from famine, disease or war was, and is, always so close. This has changed little from the 19th century to the 21st, from the time of Imam Yahya to the time of Ali Abdullah Saleh. In this context the relationship between the common Yemeni and the dawla (state), especially outside the main cities is a very thin one indeed, almost non-existent. As a century ago, so even today, if you are Yemeni, “you depend on God”.
Dennis Sammut said that foreign entanglements in Yemeni affairs have been ongoing also for centuries. Ottoman colonialism, in the north until 1918, and British colonialism, in the South until 1967, had a light touch, never came anywhere near to addressing the problems of society, nor to build the institutions of a state, but they did leave their mark in different shapes and forms.
Beyond colonialism there were problems with the neighbours to define the border where sea and sand had not done the job, essentially with Saudi Arabia. This entanglement took a dramatic turn after the 1962 revolution, when Saudi Arabia, with covert British support and considerable British instigation backed the Royalist forces against the new republican government. One can say that ever since Saudi Arabia has remained very much involved in Yemeni affairs, although for most of the time this involvement was in the form of carrots rather than sticks – and although no figures are available, Saudi support for different groups and personalities in Yemen since 1962 very likely amounted to tens of billions of dollars. That Saudi Arabia reverted from using the carrots to wielding the stick in 2015 is certainly, at least partly, due to the fact that those on the Saudi payroll were becoming increasingly greedy – demanding evermore higher amounts of money – very little of which filtered down beyond a small elite to a larger mass of people, and Saudi Arabia eventually ended up having to foot the bill of the salaries of the army and most of the civil service. Even then it could not prevent a hostile group seizing and holding control of most of the border regions.
Could the collapse to civil war in 2015 have been avoided? Certainly, if Yemen was more under the scrutiny of world opinion and the attention of the international community things could have worked out differently and better.
The national dialogue that emerged out of the events of the Arab spring was, by and large, an inclusive framework, and the work done was substantial. Its failure can be seen with hindsight as having been a major setback and a missed opportunity.
It failed because there were too many competing and incompatible agendas, and because it could not address satisfactorily the issue of statehood – should there be one, two or several Yemeni states? As things stand now a unified Yemeni state can only be held together by force.
Questions needed to be asked about the role of the international community: Could the international community have done more;? Was the external financial and economic assistance promised enough, did the assistance arrive in a timely manner; was the disbursement fair?
The role of the regional players exacerbated the situation. Riyad, Abu Dhabi and Tehran hosted considerable numbers of the Yemeni elite coming from several generations of turmoil, who had axes to grind and scores to settle, and saw external intervention as one way of doing so. Some may have thought that there was a quick fix.
The Arab intervention soon degenerated in the sort of campaign that the British had tried to wage in the 20th century, and the Americans after, namely air bombardment. Good governance has never been achieved as a result of air bombardment, and in this case there is no Yemeni particularism. It is not going to happen in Yemen either. Now it is not only remote villages that are being bombed, but residential areas in downtown Sanaa.
However, it would be very wrong to blame all the ills of Yemen on the Saudi led intervention. Before 2015, almost half of all Yemenis lived below the poverty line, two-thirds of youths were unemployed, and social services were on the verge of collapse. Almost 16 million people were in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. The civil war of the last two years has simply exacerbated the situation.
Dennis Sammut said that the only way forward was through dialogue and reconciliation, and that and end to the fighting was an absolute prerequisite to start addressing the huge challenges in the spheres of health, education, infrastructure and institution building, Someone must make Yemen a priority, and as things stand now that someone can only be the UN – with other players such as other Arab states, the EU etc in a supporting role. Many external and internal players in the war were showing signs of conflict fatigue. This was therefore a good moment to push for an end to hostilities, for negotiations and for eventual reconciliation. Oman, a neighbouring country that had not participated in the fighting, and that has reasonably good lines of communication with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as with Yemeni stakeholders, can also contribute to the process.
The issue of whether there is to be one, two or more Yemens will always hover in the background. Yemen is a clearly identifiable geographical space; it is also a cultural space that connects also with the large Yemeni diaspora. A single Yemeni state has only existed for a short time in modern Yemeni history, and even then, its control on some parts of its territory was doubtful. It should by now be clear to most that one state in Yemen is only possible for the foreseeable future in the loosest of possible configurations, as a federation or confederation. In that scenario the risks of secession will always remain high, but can be avoided with good and skilful governance.
International assistance will be required, and on levels much higher than has been the case so far. This needs to be channelled in a way that is transparent and honest, but also that takes into account the need to ensure that all parts of the country benefit, not through buying loyalty but through sustainable development. This will require a long-term approach with a vista of 30-40 years, but with staggered target cycles of 5-7 years, and using the concept of more for more – the more district or tribal area achieves results in key areas of development, the more assistance it gets.
In conclusion, Dennis Sammut said that Yemen must not become a forgotten conflict, nor must it be categorised as a hopeless case scenario. It presented the international community with a major challenge, but not one that was insurmountable.
Concluding the event at RUSI, OxGAPS Vice President, Adel Hamaizia thanked the panel and the participants and said that Yemen will remain in focus in the work of OxGAPS and will feature also in the next issue of its publication Gulf Affairs.