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Why the progress of the peace talks are the least of Yemen’s worries

May 23, 2016 at 5:18 pm

With much of the attention on Yemen focused on the Kuwait peace talks, there seems to be an illusion that much of the fate of Yemen’s future is currently in the hands of Kuwait and the delegates in the Gulf state. So far, no tangible progress has been made and they are constantly being interrupted by the lack of commitment to the pre-conditions to the talks, including the Houthis refusing to accept and implement UN Security Council resolution 2216 and demanding that an agreement of power sharing signed after they orchestrated their coup in September 2014 be respected. Government officials were forced to sign this agreement in the presence of armed men. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi rejected the agreement when he escaped to Aden in February 2015.

While the peace talks are becoming increasingly futile and repetitive due to a lack of trust between delegates, there have been a number of changes within Yemen that are central to the future of the country. Little attention is being paid to these.

When the Houthis forcefully took over the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, in 2014, they did so under the guise of fury and necessity. They abused the fact that they protested against the government’s decision to raise fuel prices in an opportunistic attempt to create an illusion of being the country’s guardians, making Abdulmalek Al-Houthi the country’s saviour. They promised an end to corruption and ensured their takeover of the state was a continuation of the popular revolution of 2011.

Since then, their advances have been primarily through force, displacing civilians, looting schools, hospitals and local and regional charities, planting landmines and kidnapping children, intellectuals, activists and anyone who they knew would be a barrier to their mission.

Though they justified their actions by using the country’s economic situation and the people’s financial struggles, Yemen is now in a worse financial crisis. According to the country’s Foreign Minister Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi, there is now $4 billion missing from the Central Bank. The bank is in Houthi controlled Sana’a.

Though he did not name suspects, it is difficult to deny that the Houthis have a role to play in this, especially when they need $25 million a month to finance the war.

With over half the Yemeni population suffering food insecurity, and over 80 per cent being in need of some sort of aid, the repercussions of the destabilisation of the Central Bank can be potentially catastrophic. It can also make post-war reconstruction even more difficult.

Since the government went into exile after the Houthi takeover, it has found it increasingly challenging to rule the country.  As a result, we have begun to witness the growth of local authorities both in power and autonomy. Local governors across the country are taking charge of the wellbeing of their province and are put in situations in which their decisions have a greater impact than they did two years ago as the grip of the central government begins to loosen. This is particularly prevalent in the southern city of Aden.

Naturally, in time of war, national unity becomes less important and any pre-existing sectionalist sentiment tends to increase in momentum. Though many of the reasons behind the consensus of southern sectionalism trace back to the days of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule in which he marginalised southern Yemenis and forced their soldiers into early retirement, paying them lower pensions than their northern compatriots if they received a payment at all. Southerners were also heavily marginalised in state institutions. Many were unable to obtain certain scholarships which could only be processed if the applicant made a trip to Sana’a, something most were unable to afford.

Though Saleh’s rule was over-all dystopic in Yemen, but to many in the south of the country, he was a northern invader.

With the current government’s inability to ensure the security of Aden, local authorities have increased their influence, from policing and issuing a ban on khat to expelling northerners. The future of the unity of the country could go either way, but for an appropriate decision to be made, it must be made strategically, post conflict and should be something that only Yemenis are able to decide upon. Having interference from any outside source on any side would yet again drown out the voice of Yemenis at a time when their voices are vital for peace in the short term and ensuring mistakes from the past are not repeated in the long term.

Though the peace talks in Kuwait may be significant, they do not give a clear picture of the facts on the ground in Yemen. Both Yemen’s past and present are surfacing in ways the current structure of the peace talks cannot fix. For now, it is clear that the country’s fate will not be decided in comfortable hotel lobbies and meeting rooms in Kuwait as much as on the ground in Yemen.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.