Yemen: bleak outlook

Last Thursday, the Wilson Center hosted Youth and Civil Society: The Missing Powers in Yemen with Mohammad Al-Shami, a Yemeni youth activist and advocacy trainer. Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, gave opening remarks and moderated a question and answer session.

Al-Shami presented a bleak picture of Yemen’s predicament. For years prior to the current conflict, Yemen suffered from poverty, water shortages, youth unemployment, inadequate healthcare, divisions along many lines, repeated conflict, and the absence of rule of law. The government was highly centralized, weak and corrupt. Citizens needed to come to Sana’a for basic administrative needs and officials there often required bribes.

The military was seen as only representative of a portion of Northern Yemen. The National Dialogue process that occurred prior to the most recent conflict called for restructuring the military. Soldiers from the North were angered that they could lose their jobs to Southerners as a result.

The current conflict reflects the complex divisions of Yemeni society. The rebels are comprised of disparate elements, some of which are not allied with each other. Al Qaeda has filled the power vacuum in some areas, including the major city of Al Mukalla. Al Qaeda is able to provide stability and services, making those who do not necessarily agree with jihadi ideology turn to them for safety. When the war ends, reconstruction will be long and complicated. The underlying factors that led to the conflict will still be present.

According to Al-Shami, civil society in Yemen is plagued by a lack of expertise and cooperation. International donors provided some training to Yemeni civil society organizations but not crucial capacity building.   Civil society organizations did not collaborate on initiatives, and multiple organizations were often inefficiently working on similar projects simultaneously.

These organizations are nevertheless the primary providers of life-saving assistance on the ground. The conflict has forced them to focus on humanitarian rather than development work. They lack supplies and largely depend on Yemen’s weak private sector for materials. Despite these challenges, Yemeni civil society organizations are distributing food and water, finding people shelter, and setting up clinics. They are able to access villages controlled by different forces and serve as the best source of information regarding events on the ground.

In Al-Shami’s view, GCC airstrikes were not the only available solution to the upheaval in Yemen. The GCC does not value civil society and has neglected civil society in its initiatives. The National Dialogue provided an opportunity for a political solution and civil society could have played a role in a peaceful settlement. As the violence drags on, it makes reaching a solution increasingly complicated. The peace talks in Geneva will be more complicated than finding a political solution from the outset would have been.

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