“Friends of Yemen” to Convene Amid Unrest

Fernando Carvajal

Mr Carvajal is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter (UK),

he is also the founding co-Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal for Arab Studies

As events continue to develop daily around the Arab World, Western and GCC governments prepare for the upcoming Friends of Yemen meeting to be held on 22-23 March in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.  This meeting aims to follow-up on recommendations from the last meeting in New York held on 24 September 2010.

The gathering of European, US, Jordanian and GCC ministers was originally to be held on 1 March but was rescheduled due to a number of preparatory meetings cancelled in February, including a vital meeting between Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh and US President Barak Obama in Washington., DC.

This meeting could not come at a worse time.  Not only is Yemen engulfed by protests nationwide, inspired by the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and al-Thawra as-Shab in Egypt, but its neighbors around the Arabian Peninsula, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are themselves experiencing a number of demonstrations targeting the regimes.

The Friends of Yemen is a group of interested governments from Western Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, including the USA, formed during the one day Yemen Conference in London on 28 January 2010.

This meeting was convened by Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown following the Christmas Day attempt on an US airliner over Detroit (MI) by the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, associated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and believed to have had contact with US born cleric Anwar al-Awalqi during his stay in Sana’a while studying Arabic.

While the group continues to propose democratic reform in Yemen and promised to coordinate increased development aid for Yemen, its primary concern is stability in the country and containment of AQAP.

Security concerns dominate the agenda since January 2010 with the aim to target existing threats to Western interests, within Yemen and respective national territories.

Although it has only been les than a year and half since the first meeting in London, many analysts believe the process within the group of Friends of Yemen has been doomed to fail from the start.

The main reason for such pessimistic views rises from both the structure of committees and conflicting interests among regional neighbors and Western governments.

Until now, Western governments have focused on demanding democratic reform by Yemen in areas such as civilian command of armed forces, the judiciary and the electoral process.

Some observers mentioned that work on such issues has been stalled by Arab partners who are not interested in such priorities since at the end it will affect their own societies who will demand such reform in the Gulf countries as a consequence of GCC participation in the group.

Arab governments have failed to meet their own commitments toward Yemen by failing to participate in committee meetings or simply sending very junior diplomats unfamiliar with the topics on the agenda.

The upcoming meeting in Riyadh is not only vital for Yemen under the current circumstances, where it will have the opportunity to express the importance of aid needed to meet current economic needs and increasing budgetary deficits, but it is also a much needed opportunity for the UK to salvage their initiatives to engage a strategically vital country.

The group will have its hands full as it aims to tackle political, social and armed sources of instability in Yemen.

As the group meets in Riyadh it is clear that major interest to continue work on previous recommendations will primarily lay in hands of Western governments, with regional states preoccupied with their own internal challenges.

Yemen’s government will attend the meeting with higher expectations than any other single government or block.  Yemen’s priority is to gain further access to the nearly US$5 billion pledged at a similar meeting in 2006 following the second democratic presidential elections that granted Ali Abdullah Saleh a second seven year term.

In addition, Yemen will request quicker access to the newly established US Fund, US$150 million (to be disbursed over five years), for which the US has requested increased regional contribution.  The only consistent source of aid to Yemen so far has been direct military aid from the US and UK, which stands at nearly US$150 million per year from each government.

Western governments continue to question Yemen’s commitment to democratic reform, and current developments since President Saleh’s speech in parliament on 2 February, where he promised there would be no re-election on 2013, no handing of power to his son Ahmad, and withdrawal of pending constitutional amendments, have not yet convinced Europe and the US of implementation of recommended democratic reform.

As internal politics remain in constant flux, with many ruling party members resigning and the opposition providing no firm position on the National Dialogue process, Western governments will face a number of unanswered questions and increasingly unpredictable events as they gather in Riyadh within two weeks.

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