Political Analysis

The Challenge of Federalism in Yemen

National Yemen

The Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East of the Atlantic Council hosted an issue briefing entitled “The Challenge of Federalism in Yemen.” The panel featured Rafat al-Akhali, nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, cofounder and former chairman of Resonate! Yemen; and Paul R. Williams, President and cofounder of Public International Law & Policy Group. Danya Greenfield, Acting Director at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East moderated the discussion.

Danya Greenfield first introduced the general situation in Yemen, noting that since the end of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in January, tensions surrounding the implementation of the dialogue outcomes have been growing, and problems that were not resolved during the course of the dialogue are now being addressed in this stage. She asked panelists to discuss the situation and comment specifically on federalism in Yemen.

Rafat al-Akhali began by confirming that federalism could be a resolution to challenges in Yemen as it could devolve power to more localized government from the highly centralized central government to help address some of the country’s most pervasive issues like corruption, lack of capacity, and the government’s detachment from its citizens. However, implementing the dialogue agreement, a federal model, is a very challenging task for Yemen. As the first step of the implementation, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was formed to finish the constitution drafting process in one year. Two divergent views regarding the framework of the constitution are prevailing. One option is a federal structure with a strong center, because a number of central institutions need to be created to coordinate with the regions. Alternatively, some wish to weaken the central government and devolve power to the regional level. Reaching an agreement in the negotiations between the two sides is a challenge. He said that public consultation would be conducted after a coherent package of the initial draft is created, and feedback from the public will be considered only at that stage. He then noted that since tangible fiscal challenges prevail in Yemen, it would be difficult for the government to sustain a working economy until the political transformation process is complete. Besides, vested interests at the center of the country will likely resist any endeavors to implement the decentralization initiatives on the ground. Therefore, al-Akhali urged civilians in Yemen as well as the international community to ensure the success of implementing a broader political transformation in Yemen.

Paul R. Williams agreed with al-Akhali and reiterated that federalism in Yemen is the only solution to current problems. He then likened the dynamics of the current constitution drafting negotiating process in Yemen to solving a Rubik’s Cube as different parties all seek to protect their own constituencies’ interests and try to solve a single portion instead of the puzzle as a whole. He stressed that the CDC will need to build a Yemenized “foundational provision” framework to lay out basic Yemeni options instead of operating a simple combination of other countries’ constitutions within Yemen. Moreover, Williams noted that divisions exist within the “Southerners’ group” as their political aspirations and expectations of federalism are diverse.

Greenfield shifted the brief into the Q&A session by raising her concern about the lack of consensus amongst political powers during the constitution drafting process. Al-Akhali expressed his disappointments about the lack of transparency in the process, saying that committee members negotiate “behind closed doors” without consulting public opinions. He noted that the process needs to be as transparent as possible in order to build a consensus that represents Yemeni people; the initial constitutional draft needs to show considerations of multiple stakeholders. Williams added that the CDC tries to keep its work confidential because of the CDC’s lack of trust in Yemeni society and in the bureaucratic national authority. Greenfield praised the Tunisian process, asking whether there are opportunities to influence the process in Yemen to open the space for the public. Al-Akhali said that the public consultation will happen in the period between the finalization of the initial draft and the referendum, but he believes robust changes would not be taken from the public proposals in that phase. Williams noted that the constitution planned in GCC’s peacebuilding initiative is not sufficient for a genuine transformation process. He believes that in order to ensure an outright success of the implementation of the constitution, the CDC would need to educate the population about federalism, share opinions with the public to gain feedback, and re-socialize the process afterwards.

Responding to a question on Yemen’s economic capacity at the national level, al-Akhali said that capacity building is the biggest challenge in the transformation process, expressing pessimism that the current government is not able to deliver any reforms. He mentioned the deal with IMF, reiterating the importance of addressing the government capacity problem. A question was raised on the international community’s interests in and strategies toward Yemen, and Yemeni perceptions and attitudes of the international community’s endeavor. Williams noted that countries have their own strategic interests to project in Yemen, and most of their interests are aligned. Al-Akhali expressed that people inside Yemen are very open to working with the international community and to bringing in expertise from abroad. He also mentioned that the Saudi-Iran rivalry is a “touchy issue” in Yemen.