Use national dialogue to boost the Yemeni economy

Published on 29 March 2012 in Opinion
Abubakr Al-Shamahi The Daily Star Lebanon / First published / March 20 (author)

Abubakr Al-Shamahi The Daily Star Lebanon / First published / March 20


On Feb. 21, Yemenis went to the polls to vote for their new transitional president. This election, however, was different. There was only one candidate, former Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The Hirak in the south – a large-scale movement that includes separatist groups – and Houthi rebels in the north boycotted the vote, showing that many Yemenis remain unconvinced that the election marks the start of a democratic transition. Despite the boycott the turnout was impressive – with over 6 million out of over 10 million registered voters participating. 

Now as the new president, Hadi should work to unite a fractious nation and initiate a dialogue among all groups so that the brighter future promised by the Yemeni revolution can become a reality. As part of this process, addressing Yemen’s economy will be critical.

The grievances of groups such as the Houthis and the Hirak are essentially economic. The north and south have had a complex relationship. Southern Yemen was once a separate country that united with the north in 1990, then split again in a brief civil war.

Today, the north and south form one country. However, southerners complain that their region has been neglected by the central, northern-dominated government in Sana’a, and that northern tribal sheikhs have deprived the south of the wealth it could receive from its resources, including oil. Hirak separatist groups have called for the territory that encompasses the former South Yemen to secede from the current Republic of Yemen.

As a whole, Yemen currently faces mass unemployment, a budget deficit of USD 3.75 billion and an economy that shrank five percent in 2011. Hadi’s first step should, therefore, be to bring Yemen out of the dire economic straits in which the country finds itself.

The private sector has struggled under the weight of corruption. The new government needs to convince Yemeni businessmen to invest in their country and create more opportunities for Yemenis by addressing the problem of corruption. It is vital that these opportunities be provided throughout Yemen, and not just in Sana’a and the region around it. Such opportunities would alleviate unemployment in the north and south, a doubly worthwhile accomplishment when we consider that armed groups typically succeed in recruiting from among the unemployed.

But improving Yemen’s economy is closely linked to establishing a national dialogue. Political dialogue is the way to solve the Houthis’ grievances, and may be the only way to persuade the Houthis to put down their arms and re-join the political process. 

The national government should also coordinate the wholesale reconstruction of the Sa’ada region in north Yemen, which is controlled by the Houthis and which has been decimated by war. In fact, if the Houthis agree to disarm, the stability so important for economic development would ensue.

As for the Hirak, they must be shown that a united Yemen is based on cooperation, not occupation; and they must be persuaded not to move from being a protest movement to becoming an armed rebellion. Hadi must work quickly to assure the south that its future lies within a united Yemen. The rule of law needs to be re-established in the south so that the state is perceived as fair and impartial – not simply an extension of arbitrary northern tribal power.

A quick way to bolster the economy, and for Hadi to show that he is serious about change, would be to renegotiate the Aden port deal with the Dubai Ports World corporation. Dubai Ports World has not been meeting targets for growth in south Yemen’s Aden, a city that is strategically located between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Getting a new owner with an ambitious vision could restore Aden’s port to its former glory, and provide much needed revenue.

Yemenis voted in relatively high numbers to oust Saleh, and Hadi retains a certain amount of goodwill. However, he must act quickly and prove that democracy is on its way. On its own, the election of a new president will not change Yemen’s outlook. Yemenis need to look past their grievances and work to rebuild their country. They want a new way forward.

Whether or not they achieve it will ultimately depend on their ability to breathe new life into their economy.