Ginny Hill
(Former Chatham House Expert)

Ginny Hill recently returned from Yemen, here she charts some of the challenges ahead.

'Diplomacy doesn't get more hands-on than this. It's like open-heart surgery', said one Western diplomat stationed in Yemen's northern capital, Sana'a, as we discussed the sequence of events that led to the election of Yemen's new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Hadi replaced his long-serving predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in February, as a two-year caretaker after months of intensive negotiations to broker a transition deal. The deal, which saw Saleh relinquish power in return for immunity, was sponsored by the UK, the US and the EU, and brokered by the UN under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council. 

Emboldened by their recent success in easing Saleh out of power, Western diplomats now speak of the need for Yemen's new president to make the most of his 'window of opportunity'. Western donors have more traction with President Hadi than they ever had with Saleh, but Hadi – a southerner, and a previous recipient of northern patronage rather than a major power-broker himself – is weaker. Each side in the current transitional unity government claims Presdent Hadi is in thrall to their opponents but, as yet, there is very little information about whom the new president consults or how he makes his decisions. 

Under the terms of the transition agreement, President Hadi is tasked with overseeing national dialogue and constitutional reform before initiating another round of elections in 2014. Hadi has already missed his deadline for setting up an outreach committee to consult with youth activists and civil society organizations, as a prelude to the main talks. In due course, a preparation committee is expected to clarify the purpose and function of national dialogue, as well as selection of participants and key stages, while a technical committee is likely to manage the dialogue process itself. 

Earlier in March, figures linked to Yemen's main political factions – including two southerners and a member of the rebel Houthi family from Sa'dah province in the north – met for talks in Germany, where they managed to reach an informal understanding regarding the basic principles of dialogue. Optimists claim these talks are a sign that new political opportunities are opening up in the aftermath of Saleh's resignation, while pragmatists in Sana'a are simply happy that the electricity is back on again after nearly a year of severe power cuts (although, already, electricity supplies are starting to falter again). Pessimists point to the scale of Yemen's underlying structural challenges: falling oil production, falling water supplies, rising population growth, rising food prices and sky-high youth unemployment. 

The initial stages of Yemen's transition process, culminating in Hadi's election in February, were pegged to clear milestones and a detailed timetable. Diplomats were able to exert sustained pressure on Saleh to encourage his compliance. The next stages of the transition process – including the national dialogue, constitutional reform and the parallel task of military restructuring – are more complex and nebulous. Taken together these tasks represent a valuable chance for Yemenis to resolve the failings of their current political system but it will be harder for Western diplomats to identify effective pressure points and maintain momentum. 

Slow or erratic compliance may keep the political process moving, while street protests continue, development indicators slide, and security conditions fragment further along regional and local lines. Yemenis who are still grieving for friends and relatives who died in last year's uprising will need even more patience before they see their vision of a civil state realised. Diplomats should keep the equivalent of surgical gloves close to hand, in case the patient returns to the operating theatre. 

Read more: Yemen Forum

Also read:

Reforming Yemen's Military
Ginny Hill, Foreign Policy, March 2012