Léonie Northedge
(Former Chatham House Expert)

The 'Friends of Yemen' discussions in London this week are unlikely to hit the headlines, yet the gathering of foreign ministers and officials representing 39 countries and international organisations on 7 March is a symbol of the international community’s continued attention to Yemen. The country's strategic location and highest poverty rates in the Arab world have pushed Yemen up the international agenda.

Predating the 2011 uprising and co-chaired by the UK and Saudi Arabia, the Friends of Yemen now offers international oversight - alongside the UN Security Council through its special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar - for the transition agreement signed in November 2011. This agreement, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, led to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down after 33 years at the helm in favour of a transitional government headed by his Vice President, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), now shares power with the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP, the opposition coalition dominated by the Islah party). While Saleh's removal was widely celebrated in Yemen, many do not see the unity government as a radical break from the previous administration, and JMP cabinet members are perceived to represent the established political elite in Sana'a. 

Turning pledges into aid

The international gathering will help coordinate aid to the Yemeni government, with the intention to shore up the country's crisis-hit economy, suffering from a long-term decline in oil revenues and stagnant economic growth – the consequence of which is staggeringly high rates of malnutrition, with some 10 million Yemenis regularly going hungry.

In September 2012, $6.4bn was pledged in aid at a major donor conference in Riyadh and by March 2013 the total had increased to $8.1bn. Yet according to the Yemeni government only $1.76bn has been spent, and so this week's meeting offers an opportunity for Yemen to press for the disbursement of the promised aid.

However the allocated aid is heavily weighted towards capital projects ($2.99bn), which are unlikely to translate into tangible benefits for ordinary Yemenis until 2014 at the earliest. Humanitarian agencies have raised the alarm over relatively small allocations to humanitarian spending: only $648m of the initial $6.4bn pledged was earmarked for humanitarian support. Additionally, the 2013 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan - a coordinated appeal by UN agencies - assessed needs to be 22% higher than in 2012. Spending cuts and competing priorities in the region mean that donors are less willing to commit funding, and agencies believe they will struggle to raise the $716m asked for.

Though Yemen needs aid for infrastructure improvements and long-term growth, the transition government is likely to struggle to design projects that donors are willing to fund. Furthermore, implementation of funds could be delayed by the ongoing political instability and volatile security situation. 

Crisis in the south

A priority at this week’s summit will be ascertaining progress on the National Dialogue conference, planned to start on March 18. The conference is an important milestone in the transition mechanism: while the original agreement to end Saleh's rule - and cease the fighting which threatened to descend into all-out civil war - principally relied on the buy-in of a small political elite in Sana'a, the National Dialogue is intended to bring all of Yemen's knotty issues to the table for open discussion by delegates representing a wide spectrum of interest groups. 

Already delayed and bedevilled by tussles over representation and seat numbers, the National Dialogue's goal of achieving popular support for the political and security reforms laid out in the transition agreement is a tall order. 

A renewed crisis in the south is now one of the greatest challenges to the success of the National Dialogue. Tensions between the increasingly powerful Islah and supporters of southern secession led to arrests of southern leaders and a crackdown on protesters in Aden on the anniversary of Hadi's election last month which included at least four deaths. 

Several groups of the loosely organised 'Southern Movement' have already stated their unwillingness to engage in the National Dialogue, and inflamed public opinion in the south - where many report support for secession is increasing - will make it harder for the conference to bring all factions round the table for a meaningful discussion. The National Dialogue is not the only mechanism for engaging with the Southern Movement, but a failure to address the crisis in the south will increase the risk that supporters of secession may take up arms against the transition government.

Keeping Yemen on the international agenda

Yemen is facing a complex set of economic, political and security challenges which will require sustained international support and attention. Two further Friends of Yemen meetings are scheduled, tracking the transition process to its planned end in February 2014 when presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place. While the international community is keen to keep to the schedule, there are considerable political and logistical hurdles to overcome in order to reach the 2014 deadline. 

Yemen's friends should be planning for long-term support beyond 2014, guaranteeing Yemen’s place on the international agenda even as competing priorities arise in the region. Failure to do so would likely leave Yemen a much more dangerous place, both for its people and for regional stability.

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