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Federalism and Yemen's great game

Dr Philip LeechOvershadowed by the Civil War in Syria, Yemen a troubled state on the periphery of the Middle East, is in danger of becoming a new site for proxy war and instability. A recent agreement to federalise the state may prevent that, or it may just be a new phase in Yemen's 'great game'.

Yemen's National Dialogue Conference (NDC) concluded on 23 December 2013 with a promise of federalism. However the agreement was overshadowed by a new wave of violence. The NDC - comprising over 500 representatives from across the spectrum of Yemen's political and societal factions - had been negotiating since 18 March 2013. With an ever more uncertain environment the prospects for a successful implementation of federalism remain unsettled.

Speaking to this author, Fernando Carvajal, a political analyst based in Sana'a, the capital, explained that "instability is one of a million threats to drafting and implementing a federal system in Yemen. [Threats to the political transition] will continue to be driven by money, al-Qaida and revenge politics. As Yemenis say: 'talk of federalism is part of Yemen's great game' and not many people know where that is going".

The NDC began as part of Yemen's transitional process after the collapse of the 33-year regime of President Ali-Abdullah Saleh. This was Yemen's 'Arab Spring' and it was one of the most violent in the region with approximately 2000 casualties, according to Yemen's Ministry of Human Rights. Following sustained protests, in February 2012 Saleh transferred power to his vice-president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi who, with the consent of Yemen's main opposition - the Islamist Islah party - became president following uncontested elections.

Hadi's original mandate was to address a range of long-term issues and create a new constitution. The NDC was set up to facilitate this agenda and has attained backing from both Western allies and the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional organisation of Yemen's resource rich neighbours. The NDC ran under the slogan "by dialogue, we make the future" and a key goal was to find a "just solution" to secessionist claims by popular movements in south Yemen. In this respect, federalism has been welcomed as a "quantum leap in resolving the southern question", by UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar, in remarks to AFP.

Yet support for the NDC as a transitional body is tempered by some scepticism among Yemenis. According to Taufik al-Dobhani, a Sana'a based analyst, the NDC is considered by many to be "a consultative platform for major interest groups". In a presentation shared with this author, al-Dobahani also accuses the NDC of being a medium for advancing the goals of Yemen's elites [or] a means to reduce "undesired violence" and "buy time" for those elites to reorder their priorities. Moreover progress has been slow; the new constitution remains unwritten despite an extension of Hadi's term by another year.

Instability throughout late 2013 and into 2014 has highlighted additional challenges. A coordinated terrorist attack on the Ministry of Defence in Sana'a on 5 December, that killed 52 and injured over 100, the kidnapping of several foreign nationals and an attack on the German ambassador were all claimed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a regional franchise of the terrorist group. Further, following a short-lived truce, escalations in violence between Shi'ite Houthi militias and fighters from powerful Hasid tribe, have further demonstrated limitations of Sana'a's power.

In a diplomatic visit to the US in August 2013 Hadi sought additional support. However, the US would not promise new direct financial aid, support which may have bolstered his position in the domestic sphere. Instead according The Hill, a Washington newspaper, the US would fund equipment and facilities that Yemeni forces may access, a move which may demonstrate Washington's obsession AQAP to the exclusion of other challenges to Yemen's stability.

The US continues to undertake its own military strikes on AQAP. According to estimates by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US may have conducted between 59 and 69 drone strikes in Yemen and killed up to 71 civilians. These attacks frequently cause resentment and play into the hands of opposition groups.

The Iranian-Saudi dynamic is also critical and the situation in Yemen mirrors clashes between proxies of the two regional powers elsewhere. Hiraq al-Janoubi (the Southern Movement) aligned with Ali Salim al-Beedh, the exiled former President of South Yemen - an independent country until 1990 - has been rumoured to be tied with Tehran. The lack of a clear denial of this fact by al-Beedh - who has a strong following in Hiraq - has only added to public suspicion of a link. "If any group wants to help us, then we will accept help in building our state. The Southern revolution was not started in Iran or anywhere outside the South." al-Beedh told the International Crisis Group, in June 2013.

Tensions were raised further when, on 23 January 2013, a ship carrying arms, apparently heading from Iran, was seized in Yemeni waters. This event sparked international condemnation, including from the UN Security Council which expressed "concern over reports of money and weapons being brought into Yemen from outside for the purpose of undermining the transition," on 15 February.

Further complicating the situation, former President Saleh, traditionally an ally of Saudi Arabia with a reputation for manipulating crises for his own benefit, maintains some influence over parts of the military, the ruling Congress Party and through tribal ties. Saleh's continuing influence was recently decried by Tawakul Karaman, a leader in the Youth Movement and Nobel laureate: as "a war criminal and a spoiler [of Yemen's transition]" on the third anniversary of his resignation on 12 February, 2014.

It may be the case that the federal agreement represents a "workable" next step in the Yemen's politics. But until it is clearer how the government will deal with the various competing forces vying for their own interests it does not yet represent a credible solution.

Dr Philip Leech is a Lecturer at in International Relations at the University of Liverpool. He is the editor of and is on twitter at @phil_haqeeqa

This page was updated at 09.45am GMT on the 18th Feb 2014 to replace the incorrect image of Dr Philip Leech


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