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Yemen’s least bad option

No lasting solution for Yemen can avoid the issue of federalism, so the sooner it returns to the negotiating table the better

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

Despite constant north-south tensions and a few border wars, by the 1970s the ambition of a unified state was well-established among both the elites of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

However, the 23 years between Yemen’s unification in 1990 and the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 did not live up to the promise the union had instilled in the minds of Yemenis.

What got off to a bad start never really recovered. Less than four years into unity, during a short civil war with lasting effects, the southern socialist leader Ali Salem al-Beidh announced the creation of a new state with Aden as its capital. In an offensive that resembles the current push southward by the Saleh-Houthi alliance, northern military forces moved decisively on Aden and won the war, and Saleh dismantled the PDRY.

Power became deeply centralized in Sanaa, while southerners lost thousands of public jobs and grew resentful of northern exploitation of the south’s natural resources. These and other grievances were channeled into the separatist movement known by its umbrella name Al-Hirak, which has now been forced to put aside its divisions and focus its efforts on countering the brutal aggression from pro-Saleh and Houthi forces.

Geneva peace talks

The ongoing U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva between representatives of the various political factions, including Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi’s government in exile and Houthi rebels, will probably avoid touching on the sensitive but crucial issue of federalism.

No lasting solution for Yemen can avoid the issue of federalism, so the sooner it returns to the negotiating table the better

Manuel Almeida

Naturally, the focus is on a humanitarian truce during Ramadan and the absolute necessity of a peace agreement. Another sensitive and unavoidable issue is the future status of Saleh and his cohort. The initial refusal of negotiators from opposing camps to sit in the same room just shows how tough the process will be.

Given all these challenges, and the fact that many commanders continue to refuse to abandon Saleh, discussions on federalism would not only be premature, but also risk sending a message of detachment from the conflict and the dire humanitarian situation on the ground. However, no lasting solution for Yemen can avoid the issue of federalism, so the sooner it returns to the negotiating table the better.

One of the main foundations for the peace talks is U.N. Security Council resolution 2216, which supports the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Among them is the Regions Committee’s final report of Feb. 2014, which proposes a federation with six regions (four in what used to be North Yemen and two in former South Yemen), as well as the names of each region, their governorates and capitals. NDC delegates authorized Hadi to form the committee after the agreement in Dec. 2013 in favor of federalization that still lacked decisions on the number of regions and their borders.

Unfeasible options

Before the Houthis took over Sanaa in September last year, most political groups had declared support for a federation with more than two regions, including different factions within the ruling GPC and Al-Islah.

Opposing this arrangement were the Houthis, who favored a two-region federation along pre-unity borders, as well as Al-Hirak leaders, most of whom have insisted on separation despite divisions on the matter.

However, the push by NDC representatives of the eastern governorates of Shabwah, Hadhramout and Al-Mahrah, formerly constituent parts of South Yemen, for the creation of an eastern region also works decisively against the idea of a two-region federation.

Today, a permanent return to the status quo ante, with power centralized in Sanaa, seems unthinkable, but the return to two states looks equally impracticable. The Houthis are unlikely to be able to impose their preference for a federation with two regions only. They remain a northern force, not a national one, and their early military successes would not have been possible without the support from pro-Saleh military units.

The actions of pro-Saleh and Houthi forces have only enhanced regionalist feelings and strengthened the resolve of cities and governorates such as Taiz and Marib, previously part of North Yemen, to guarantee at least a degree of formal autonomy from Sanaa. In fact, these widespread regionalist feelings had been around for quite a long time before unification, as academic Stephen Day shows in his important book “Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen.”

It would be a sign of progress if Yemen’s politicians again find themselves discussing details of the federation, although the major challenges would reside in the details. One of the key challenges - allocating power and authority across the various levels of government - has been left for the Constitution Drafting Committee. Another big unaddressed issue is resource-sharing among the different regions.

Eventually, the talks currently centered on the ceasefire will have to focus on how the different groups can coexist in the future. The six-region federation looks increasingly like the least bad option for Yemen.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.