Yemen: An Opportunity for the Arab League to Strengthen its Role?

Published on 7 March 2013 in Opinion
Anne-Yolande Bilala / / First published Feb. 27 (author)

Anne-Yolande Bilala / / First published Feb. 27


Yemen just celebrated the first anniversary of the passage of power, thus marking the end of the country’s revolution. Indeed, many embraced the epilogue when President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi came to power as a result of a consensus within the opposition coalition backed by the support of the international community. Yet Yemen's population continues to strive for a long-term democracy. While the uprising was a historical moment of truth, it has also been the impetus needed for the Arab League to undergo painstaking changes. The League, plagued by challenges and missteps, has been deemed a failed organization. In fact, it was not much at the forefront of the Yemen peace talks at all.

The instigation of the peace agreement was led instead by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which initially was conceived to be a forum for policy coordination. The solution often referred as “the Yemeni solution” is, rightfully or not, now considered a model in domestic peace building. Certainly, the fall of ex-President Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared to be a victory, ending months of protests and violence and steering the country into a peaceful transition. However, the solution has not particularly worked well, and optimism seems rather to be short-lived.

The aftermath is gloomy as Yemen, a failed state, is facing daunting challenges including political unrest and a stalled economy. A recent U.N. report stated that over 40 percent of the population lacked sufficient food supplies and had no access to water sanitation. As a result, an urgent call was made for international donors to pledge funds for what the international community has deemed one of the world's major humanitarian crises. Moreover, the ongoing presence of Al-Qaeda has made the country an incubator for terrorism.

Today, Yemen represents perhaps an opportunity for the Arab League to reinforce its mandate and truly engage in drawing member states closer together through post-conflict rebuilding efforts. As stated in its mandate, “The purpose of the League is to draw closer the relations between member states and co-ordinate their political activities, with the aim of realizing a close collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.” In a nutshell, the organization aims to strengthen relationships between member states through political, cultural, and economic cooperation.

Political Unrest and the Al-Qaeda “Specter”

The peace agreement involves a two-phase transition period lasting through 2014, under which an early presidential election was held on February 21, 2012, and changes to the constitution, political reforms, and parliamentary elections were to take place. Unfortunately, political tensions are on the rise as the March 18th starting date of the much-anticipated national dialogue approaches. The country is shattered, with the Southern Movement calling for secession, the Houthi Islamist tribal rebels armed with sophisticated weapons, and the ongoing security threat from al Qaeda militants.

Right from the start, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi’s main focus has been the country’s political stability, aiming to maintain peace but to also deter al Qaeda forces presently entrenched in the southern part of the country. Irrefutably, the upheaval has been an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to yet again strike Yemen with a series of bomb attacks. Although the government has been backed by the U.S. drones attacks amongst other counterterrorism activities, these actions have only fueled more antagonism.

Hadi’s first move to swiftly appoint a new head of security and a new commander of the southern military force was significant. But these actions may ultimately have been in vain, as clashes in southern Yemen between Al-Qaeda militants and pro-government fighters continue. Moreover, Foreign Minister Abu-Bakr Al-Qirbi has recently challenged Tehran’s regime for its interference through providing weapons to the Yemeni Shiites.

Economic Challenges

Yemen remains the poorest country in the Arab League as economic measures taken over the last few years have either been delayed or not fully implemented. After rapid improvement, mainly due to its oil reserve, economic development has nonetheless stalled primarily due to corruption, a shaky judicial system, and ongoing political unrest. With extremely high levels of unemployment, food shortages, and a weak currency, Yemen's economic situation is just as alarming as its political instability. More encouraging is financial pledges adding up to $8 billion to support national development efforts and the disbursement of a $93.7 million interest-free IMF loan to Yemen as part of the $370 million loan approved in 2010 to support short-term recovery.

So why is economic development so important? Terrorist organizations attract new members from communities in which terrorism is generally considered a job opportunity, as well as a viable response to perceived grievances. Yemen’s unemployment rate is estimated at 35 percent, and turning to al Qaeda could be the last resort for many. Beyond this, political unrest has made the country unattractive for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as many global investors lack confidence in Yemen.

A Potential Role for the Arab League? Between Myth and Reality

Attendance at the last Arab League summit ultimately reflected a disconnect between its mission and the rooted feuds between member states. Critics often stated the inclusion of member states’ own agenda and the lack of progress in democracy as being an impediment to the League's efficiency. So how can the Arab League help Yemen? It seems difficult for the League to truly weigh in Yemen’s political landscape without undermining its sovereignty, since several member nations are dealing with their own transitions. A meek declaration from the Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi urging all Yemeni political parties to provide appropriate conditions to hold the National Dialogue Conference may not enough to uplift spirits. The Arab League must exert proactive efforts to support Yemen in its political transition in order to ultimately decrease insecurity as a whole.

Indeed, any unrest could directly impact neighboring countries. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, which are part of the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Security Dialogue (GSD), could draw on their experience to exert regional influence to support Yemeni counter-terrorism operations, thus supplementing the U.S.-Yemen efforts. In other words, it is important to take a more “regional approach” as supposed to the international approach currently used.

Another aspect is the possibility for better targeted economic reforms through the League Economic and Social Council or Council of Arab Economic Unity (GAFTA), which could support further trade cooperation and provide an impulse for economic recovery. Indeed, member states such as Saudi Arabia have experience economic achievement in the telecommunications and energy sectors, and could serve as mentors to Yemen.

Anne-Yolande Bilala currently manages Market Research and Strategic Planning for DRS Technical Services Inc.