Roundtable Discussion: Yemen’s Current and Future Challenges
Analyzing the Current Conditions in YemenThe first session explored the causes of the conflict and the current situation in Yemen, examining the conflict’s military, political, and economic dimensions, as well as the main humanitarian challenges.
Some asserted that although the conflict is often considered to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it should be considered a civil war. One participant argued that two factors fuel the war: a core struggle between Yemen’s northern elite and its patronage network, and Yemenis’ local grievances towards the elite. In this participant’s opinion, the United Nations’ peacemaking efforts have focused on the first but not the second, exacerbating the fighting and hindering the quest for a peaceful solution.
One participant argued that two factors fuel the war: a core struggle between Yemen’s northern elite and its patronage network, and Yemenis’ local grievances towards the elite.
The deteriorating humanitarian situation in the country was one of the main areas of discussion. Participants analyzed a wide array of issues, agreeing that food insecurity and skyrocketing prices of basic goods are the greatest problems that civilians face. The medical situation is also critical, with cities such as Taiz having very limited access to functioning hospitals and a severe lack of medical supplies. Logistical problems caused by damage to al-Hudaydah port, the closure of the airport, and difficulties with land access, have severely restricted humanitarian workers’ ability to operate. Transporting some needed medicines, for example, is blocked by the inability to maintain them at the necessary cold temperatures between their arrival in Yemen and delivery to hospitals.
The lack of a functioning economy expounds these problems. Participants argued that the banking crisis needs to be the focus of more discussion, as the Central Bank’s dwindling foreign reserves and cash shortages have dire implications.
Participants argued that the banking crisis needs to be the focus of more discussion, as the Central Bank’s dwindling foreign reserves and cash shortages have dire implications.
One million Yemenis are on the public payroll, and millions more are reliant on these employees’ salaries. Before these fundamental issues are addressed, aid agencies are not able to provide cash assistance, and no real reconstruction can take place. Some argued that the de facto embargo that exists on Yemen is one of the most damaging aspects of the conflict, because even before the conflict, Yemen relied heavily on external assistance. Participants concluded that the economic institutions in the country must be stabilized so that international institutions can operate and provide the necessary support.
Participants also discussed the security situation in the country. Participants stressed the localized nature of the conflict, as fighting is unevenly spread across the country. Yet, even areas without active conflict suffer from the pressure of internally displaced persons. Taiz was singled out as the scene of some of the heaviest fighting due to its strategic importance. The lack of security severely limits humanitarian workers’ ability to operate, and the absence of embassies in Yemen further exacerbates the risks for international workers. There may be more possibilities for local humanitarian and civil society organizations to play a greater role, and participants agreed on the importance of increasing support for them. International organizations operating in Yemen agreed that their local counterparts not only had lower levels of overhead, but they also have a better understanding of the community, culture, and situation on the ground in Yemen.
Participants stressed the localized nature of the conflict, as fighting is unevenly spread across the country. Yet, even areas without active conflict suffer from the pressure of internally displaced persons.
Participants also discussed the international dimension of the conflict. Although most agreed that it should not be considered a mere proxy war, they concurred that the international community’s actions (and inaction) are prolonging the conflict. They suggested that some international donors that are perceived to be more neutral should play a greater role in negotiations with the Yemeni Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. Doing so would help garner media attention and also foster communication channels. Finally, participants stressed the importance of addressing the negative perceptions that the majority of Yemenis have about some international players, including the United States, arguing that a more favorable view would benefit both international players’ interests and Yemen’s progress toward conflict resolution.
Yemen’s Future OutlookDuring the second half of the event, participants focused on a discussion of what should happen in Yemen in the next five years, and more importantly, what the international community must ensure does not happen. With the extent of economic collapse, the continuing spread of extremism, and widespread destruction, there are fears that Yemen could become a security vacuum. However, there was consensus that the conflict in Yemen is not a primary concern for the international community and it is certainly not considered a priority for the United States.
Some participants stated that the United States has only seen Yemen as a “dependent variable” on other issues, adding that it has failed to distinguish its own interests in Yemen from Saudi Arabia’s interests. Participants argued that it is in the United States’ interests for Yemen to be a unified, stable, and sustainable country, but that the focus on counterinsurgency, following Saudi Arabia’s lead, has been counterproductive in regards to these goals. As such, the United States’ pursuit of short-term goals will render its mid- and long-term goals impossible to achieve.
There is dissonance between Saudi Arabia’s priorities and the international community’s expectations, however. Participants disagreed over whether Saudi Arabia would prefer a weak Yemen, in order to keep it from posing a threat to its regional interests; or a prosperous, stable Yemen, which some argued would be beneficial to Saudi Arabia. Some participants argued that Saudi Arabia should seek to avoid increased sectarian warfare and the destabilizing impact of extremist militants, as well as the continuation of a conflict that affects its relationships with its allies.
Participants disagreed over whether Saudi Arabia would prefer a weak Yemen, in order to keep it from posing a threat to its regional interests; or a prosperous, stable Yemen, which some argued would be beneficial to Saudi Arabia.
There are many obstacles to forming a transitional government, so the international community must agree on a power-sharing formula that is fair. However, participants emphasized the need not only to create a solution to the conflict, but also to secure international commitment to the effective implementation of the solution. They feared that Yemeni power structures may be unwilling to operate in a way to bring long-lasting stability without significant outside involvement.