TSG IntelBrief: Yemen: A Cause For Concern For The World Powers
June 13, 2012


As of mid-June 2012,
the political transition in Yemen has entered its sixth month since the signing of the Transition Agreement in November 2011 in Riyadh. In some aspects, the Yemeni sides have made progress in implementing the Agreement with the formation of the Government of National Unity, the beginning of the restructuring of the armed forces, and the holding of presidential elections on 21 February that marked the completion of the first phase of Yemen’s transition. However, the overall political, security, humanitarian, and economic situation in Yemen remain dire as the transition takes place against a backdrop of serious security concerns, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and many unresolved conflicts.

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The Former President’s Enduring Impact

In his recent briefing to the UN Security Council on 29 May, Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, voiced his concerns more candidly than ever before and cited interference from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his relatives as a key obstacle to current President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi’s reforms. According to Benomar, the “obstructionist moves to impede President Hadi’s reorganization and control of the military and security forces could derail Yemen’s fragile transition process and could result in serious instability.”

In particular, Benomar noted his disappointment that despite seemingly successful discussions with former President Saleh and his son Ahmed Ali — who serves as the Commander of the Republican Guards — on the handover of two military positions occupied by Saleh’s relatives, a stand-off remains that prevents President Hadi’s appointees from assuming their positions. (Benomar was referring to the tensions that arose as a result of President Hadi’s decision in April 2011 to replace the Commander of the Air Force, Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, a half brother of former President Saleh, and the Commander of the Presidential Guard, Tarik Saleh, the former President Saleh’s nephew. Their refusal to follow President Hadi’s instructions to move to other positions created an untenable and potentially dangerous situation.)

In addition, the lack of inclusiveness of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative and Implementation Mechanism add to Yemen’s fragility. In the North, the Houthis (a Shi’a insurgent group) continue to assert their control in Sa’ada and parts of Hajjah, Amran and al-Jouf Governorates. Separatist sentiments in the South have also been on the rise. The Hirak, or Southern Separatist Movement, began in late 2006 as a rights-based movement demanding equality, non-discrimination, and a change in relations between North and South, all within a unitary State. This movement was met with repression, and a few years later groups within the Hirak began to advocate for independence of the South. Moreover, representatives of the popular youth movement were also not present when the GCC Initiative was signed.  

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Worsening Humanitarian and Security Concerns

The Government’s overall security capacity continues to be limited. In the southern Abyan province, Yemeni security forces are campaigning against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Ansar al-Shari’a. Despite this effort, AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’a have extended their reach into areas outside their previous areas of operations. On 21 May, 96 soldiers were reportedly killed and more than 300 others injured when a uniformed man blew himself up in the midst of a military parade rehearsal in the capital city of Sana’a, the day before Yemen was to commemorate its National Unity Day. Along with the recent foiled airliner bomb plot of early May, these events serve as reminders that AQAP remains a lethal  entity intent on striking both western and regional targets.

Other security issues — including incidents of abduction, assassination and hostage-taking — have been on the rise recently. The presence of armed forces and militia remains a reality on the streets of Sana’a and throughout the country. Further, oil and gas pipelines as well as electricity lines continue to be attacked frequently. Once again, many of these attacks are politically motivated while others are criminal acts committed in the context of the lawlessness that prevail in parts of the country. These attacks and sabotage cost the State an average loss of revenue for the national budget of around US$ 3 billion per year, a punishing sum given the fact that Yemen remains the poorest country in the Arab world with a fiscal deficit of around US$ 2 billion (or 7% of GDP).

Moreover, the current scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is unprecedented and the figures are much bleaker than previously reported. Ten million people — almost half of the country’s entire population — are “food insecure,” with many falling into the category of “severely food insecure” and in need of immediate assistance. Ongoing fighting only exacerbates the problems by displacing more than half a million Yemenis within the country. Yemen also struggles under the crushing demands of hosting 219,000 refugees and continues to receive an influx at record rates.

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The International Community’s Response

Following the “Friends of Yemen” ministerial level meeting in Riyadh on 23 May and Benomar’s briefing on 29 May, the UN Security Council decided to send a signal to show its support for President Hadi’s National Unity Government. It would appear that most Council members are concerned with the deteriorating security and humanitarian situations in Yemen. They consider the recent increase in terrorist activity as further underscoring the urgency for military and security reforms. Though some Security Council members also emphasize the need to distinguish between AQAP-related violence and inter-tribal clashes, where Yemenis are inclined to take up arms based on tribal affiliations.

The Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2051 on 12 June, which reemphasizes the need for the full implementation of the GCC Initiative and Implementation Mechanism. In particular, the text focuses on the second phase of the transition process. Specifically, it underlines the importance of an inclusive National Dialogue Conference, which would feed into the constitution-writing process that is to conclude by the end of 2013. (Following a 6 May presidential decree, a preparatory committee for the national dialogue is to be formed by the end of June.) General elections are then scheduled to take place by February 2014.

Another key step in this second phase of the transition, one that has the Security Council deeply concerned, is the restructuring of the security services. Resolution 2051 also addresses obstructions to the implementation of presidential decrees, specifically concerning military and civilian appointments. It also demands an end to all actions aimed at undermining Yemen’s Government of National Unity and the transition process.

Significantly, the new resolution also expresses the Security Council’s willingness to consider further actions if attempts to stymie the transition process continue, including sanctions under Article 41 of the UN Charter. As could be expected, Russia and China were wary of the reference to Article 41 in the text and its implicit threat of sanctions against former President Saleh and his family. However, most Council members seem to agree that the former president and his relatives pose a serious threat and has the capacity to potentially derail the current phase of transition. As a result Council members seem willing to send a strong signal to any spoilers.

The international community’s apparent unity on Yemen, particularly within the context of the current Security Council discussions on Syria, is notable. While resolution 2051 only alludes to sanctions rather than imposing them, the Article 41 reference indicates the members of the Security Council essentially see eye-to-eye on the issue. There is common concern about the growing number of attacks in Yemen carried out or financed by the AQAP, as well as clear backing for the transition process. In the end, the worrying scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is also a major driving force behind the Council’s full support for reforms in Yemen.

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