Last week, MEI scholars Allen Keiswetter, a retired Foreign Service officer, David Newton, former ambassador to Yemen, and Roby Barrett, author of (2011), gathered for an informal discussion about Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which began in March. The NDC, which features 565 representatives of all parts of Yemeni society, has been tasked with discussing the country’s problems in nine separate working groups in order to put forth recommendations on a new constitution and system of government. The NDC was scheduled to deliver its recommendations on September 18, but the deadline has been extended. After the NDC reports, the plan is for a constitutional commission to be formed that will have three months to produce a new draft constitution. In 2014, a referendum on the constitution will take place, followed by new elections.

Keiswetter moderated the discussion, with Newton and Barrett weighing in—often with differences of opinion, which made for a lively debate.

AK: We will take up three topics: What are the prospects for real change in Yemen? What are U.S. interests in Yemen? And what are our recommendations for U.S. policy?

As of today, seven of the nine working groups have completed their work. The two most important—the state building group and the southern group—have not.  Their problems have been severe enough that a special committee called the “eight by eight committee” has been formed, composed of eight southerners and eight northerners, to try to come up with solutions. The committee reportedly now favors a so-called federal solution in order to retain unity in the face of calls for southern secession, but it disagrees on whether the country should be composed of two or more than two areas.

What are the realistic prospects for change?

DN: Granted that today’s problems are much more complex, I have a high regard for the historical ability of Yemenis to talk together about their problems. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what they talk about gets actually implemented, but it keeps the dialogue going. You can go back to the 1960s civil war and to the post-unity splits between the north and the south to see this phenomenon. And I think that this is what gives me the most hope—that they can at least continue to try to deal with their problems. One thing that strikes me is that I am impressed by the president [Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi]. He was not a strong figure under [former president Ali Abdullah] Saleh and he has no power base, but in a way this is as much of a as a minus because he is not identified with one particular faction.

I think we should also remember that to a significant degree, for quite some time Yemen has been a functioning democracy, even if it has been dominated by the north. It had freely elected parliaments.  Saleh gave a certain amount of space for the government to function, though of course he made sure that it did not interfere with his own profits and those of his supporters. There are some very dedicated Yemeni ministers, like the foreign minister and the presidential advisor, who have a lot of experience. I think there is hope that they can keep advancing the process, but this is going to take, at best, a long time to solve.

AK: Roby, I suspect you have different views.

RB: I think unity is a long shot. You have a ruling group within Yemen that has the lion’s share of the say and the benefits. And when you say Yemeni, there are probably six different identities—maybe more. So I see very little hope for a functioning national state. Yemen is a failed state but not necessarily a failing society. This means that parts of Yemeni society often function largely independently of one another and outside of a state structure or what they view as government interference. This independence is not democracy; it is autonomy. The odds of a functioning democratic national state that represents the interests of most Yemenis are very low.

AK: Roby, in your monograph you wrote, “Think carefully about the present and ask yourself if it perhaps all happened before.” Is there a parallel point here?

RB: The fundamental divisions in Yemen go back centuries. There were significant differences in the population and almost never real unity in almost any historical period. Look at the Rasulid Dynasty of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, for example. Along the coast, you had southerners who were really a part of the cosmopolitan Indian Ocean trading culture. You had a state that functioned because it kept, for example, the Zaydis pinned up in the hills. The historical divisions, like the contemporary ones, were fundamental.

The West—America in particular—has ideas that it can transpose Western ideas about democracy, state control, good governance, and civil authority onto Yemen.   Such ideas and attempts to implement them represent a form of Salvationist hubris that not only creates problems but also, in almost every case, fails miserably. 1990 to 1994 is an example. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south was fundamentally different from the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north, yet the West in general and the United States in particular bought into the idea of the unified state. The conflict between north and south  today is a natural outgrowth of what happens when you attempt to force two fundamentally different societies together. In many respects, the only commonality that they share is the label—Yemeni.

AK: David, do you agree?

DN: My view is that there is a sense of being a Yemeni people, as opposed to being northern Arab, Saudi, or Gulfi, and I am only defining success or failure as keeping some kind of a state together and not having it break up. I am not suggesting that it is suddenly going to turn into a strong state or a model democracy, but I think the minimum is there to keep it somehow surviving, and I think a lot depends on the policies of the government, especially giving the south some sense that staying is in their interest.

Also, though Yemenis have fought a civil war and there is fighting between north and south, Yemenis are not accustomed to internal violence. They were shocked by the fighting and the bloodshed of the transition, with the army turning its guns on people. I think that shocked people a great deal, and I think there is an element of that that keeps Yemenis talking. They do not want to go back to that kind of situation.

AK: I am struck by the work of the political scientist Dankwart Rustow, who said that the requisite for democracy is identity. Roby, what is your take on Yemeni identity; would you say that there isn’t enough of a unified one to create democracy?

RB: I would say that Yemenis, as opposed to Gulfis or Saudis, do have a particular identity, but that it is based more in differences than in synergies. The odds of them being able to co-exist in a loose autonomous federation—similar to a Lebanon system—may be feasible. But such a loose confederation also complicates the situation.  The big issue is oil, because most of the oil is in the south or in Jawf, and in those areas the people are diametrically opposed to the Sana-based Yemeni political structure. The south, with its smaller population and its oil production, might be able to create a state that looks something Oman, but with a weaker central authority. I don’t think southerners will ever agree to their oil being taken to develop the whole country.

DN: I think that autonomy has to happen. And I think that we already have signs of it in the efforts of the government in Sana to implement Hadi’s program.  If he can convince southerners that his government’s program is serious and credible , I think that there is enough glue there for a single state to survive. I’m not suggesting a well-functioning democracy, but Yemen has never had a strong central government.

AK: Yemen is doing moderately well compared to the other transition states. Look at what’s happening in Syria and Egypt and Iraq. In Bahrain, there’s a national dialogue that has made virtually no progress. In Tunisia, the record is not bad, but like Yemen, Tunisia is going through a testing period. What’s your opinion in a comparative sense?

RB: I think the Yemen situation is fundamentally different from that of Iraq, Syria, or Libya. In all of those places, you had a central, controlling government (I’m speaking of Iraq prior to 2003). Yemen has never had that. Saleh’s statement that ruling Yemen was like “dancing on the heads of snakes” was exactly right. It is so diffuse, so fragmented that an authoritarian state has never existed. That is dramatically different from the other Arab republics of the region, with perhaps the exception of Lebanon.

DN: I think another point worth making is that the north-south differences are essentially cultural differences, not religious differences. There is a good book on this subject by Bernard Haykel regarding the Zaydi imams in the Middle Ages; Haykel notes that the medieval Rasulid rulers constantly downplayed the difference between Zaydism and Shafism. Religious judges are now trained in both schools of law. There has always been a degree of religious tolerance, and so now it really is the cultural differences between the north and the south that are most evident.  The high degree of corruption the north introduced into the south has exacerbated the problem.

RB: I would like to ask David a question. When you talk about autonomy and we look at the south, that’s obvious. But when we look at the north, we look, for example, at Sada and we look at the so-called Houthi Zaydis. Sada has always been relatively autonomous. Do you see areas like Jawf and Sada with a kind of autonomy that parallels what you see for the south?

DN: I think that there should be a degree of autonomy in Sada because the differences are so great, but not to the degree of the formal autonomy that might be given to the south.

AK: Sort of like the Kurds in Iraq.

DN: In the north there are those differences, but the situation is much more complicated. It goes beyond Sada. The differences have been increased, to a degree, by the Saudi-promoted fundamentalism in the north. The Zaydis now fear that they may not survive, as they have no imam and little power, and the fundamentalists are growing stronger. Hence the problems are more complex. I am just suggesting that the Yemenis can hang together because they don’t want to hang separately.  I don’t think that the NDC is going to provide a solution, but I think it can move us along.

AK: I think that is an excellent summary of your position. Roby, could you give us a two-line summary of where you stand on the prospects?

RB: I think that the trajectory in Yemen, just like the trajectory in Syria and Iraq, in Libya and in Lebanon, is toward fragmentation and regionalization of control and resources. So I see the NDC as providing the basis for separating even further.

AK: What are the major interests that the United States has in Yemen that should be guiding policy?

RB: The United States has one real strategic interest in Yemen, and that is the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Secondarily there are important but tactical security interests. AQAP is a serious security problem, but not in and of itself a strategic, existential threat to the United States or the global economy, and it should not be treated as one. It has been a boon for the Yemenis, though, because the United States is paying $300 million a year to chase around 300 jihadists. You could make the point that AQAP destabilizing Yemen could cause a big Saudi problem, but I think that even that threat would be exaggerated. We are so obsessed with counterterrorism and the latest version of AQXX that we often fail to identify and act on our real strategic interests.

DN: I agree about Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. I have always said we should never try to balance U.S. interests in Yemen against U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia. That’s an absolute non-starter. Nevertheless there are more Yemenis than Saudis and Gulfis put together, and there is a great potential problem if the Yemeni state disintegrates and many Yemenis try to get out to Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf. As for AQAP, the problem is the group but it is also violent jihadi fundamentalism in general.

Also, we have been trying to help Yemen since the late 1950s and 1960s. After the civil war, the United States saw it as a laboratory for development, a kind of tabula rasa that was completely underdeveloped such that the United States could try out all its theories. So there is also an interest in trying to promote democracy, but the overwhelming interest is the strategic one, related to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, as well as to not providing a safe haven for al-Qa`ida and other violent fundamentalists.

AK: I agree that the real strategic interest is Saudi Arabia, but I am more reluctant to just leave it at that. I still think location is important, even in the age of globalization, and terrorism plays a part. For instance, I remember when the U.S. ambassador was in Washington trying to promote trade in Yemen, but a guy from Fed Ex said, “What about all those bombs that we intercept from time to time?” There is something to be said for the problem du jour, which frequently has a Yemeni name on it.

RB: On its face, I think that argument is somewhat convoluted, but the argument stands if AQAP managed to totally destabilize Yemen—an unlikely event given the diffuse nature of Yemen society. Then it would be a serious problem for our primary interest, Saudi Arabia.

AK: Let me summarize policy in three points. First, the United States feels strongly enough about Yemen that it is investing about $350 million this year in it; a little more than half goes to counterterrorism and the military, and nearly half goes to humanitarian aid and economic assistance. The second prong is to encourage the peace process and others to support the transition process and, frankly, for the Friends of Yemen to come up with a lot of money.  And the transition is going to take a lot of money if it is going to work, to the tune of several billion dollars a year from Gulfis in particular. The third prong is close counterterrorism cooperation, which in some ways did not head  policy priorities  under Saleh. It was number two or number three on the priority list when the United States wanted it to be number one. Under Hadi, it has a higher priority. The controversial issue is the use of drones.

What are your recommendations for policy?

DN: I think we are pretty much on the right track, but I think that with the economic aid there should be at least in the immediate few years a strong emphasis on visible aid. We need to show the Yemenis, and especially the Yemenis in the south, the value of the process and the value of having other countries coming in to help them, like supporting anti-poverty and feeding programs and maternal and child health programs.

The second point is that, whenever I am in a public talk, people immediately start talking about drones. I think that it is simply impossible to expect the U.S. government not to use drones under the current circumstances. These people are dangerous to the United States. It is absolutely crucial, though, to avoid or at least to minimize the use of signature strikes because the pickup truck full of armed men is a common thing in Yemen. They simply want to get to the next village or go visit their friends—and the damage is great when you make a mistake. Leadership strikes are different; we have to do those because of the danger. But we really have to be careful, because they do have an effect on public opinion.

AK: Roby, your opinion about policy?

RB: I think that if you make the argument that Yemen’s primary strategic importance is relative to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, then policy has to be tightly coupled with Saudi security policy. The Saudis are working closely on counterterrorism with us, and they are a huge asset in our campaign against AQAP.

In terms of Yemen’s economic and social problems, if an implosion occurs, then it is very important that the implosion is largely confined to Yemen. Supporting Saudi efforts through regional policies and border security efforts to insulate the Kingdom from problems in Yemen is the paramount U.S. interest in Yemen.

Also, there has been official encouragement for U.S. investment in Yemen when the history of investment there is problematic, with companies losing their outlays. It borders on irresponsibility.

AK: I would like to ask you both for a final one-liner.

RB: I think in terms of Yemen being able to pull itself together into a national, democratic state, it’s not going to happen and Washington needs to accept and deal with that fact.

DN: I think we are just looking for “articles of confederation,” and I think people do realize that you have to give autonomy or the country will break up.