Kate Seelye: Good morning everybody. I am Kate Seelye with the Middle East Institute. Thank you all so much for joining us today. We have a great turnout which I think is a great testament to the amazing quality of our speakers today given the torrential rains. If you haven’t gotten a sandwich please help yourself. I want to thank Hunt for making our lunch possible today. Today, we finally get to discuss Yemen. Remember Yemen, that other country where protests have been taking place, which has been overshadowed by protests in Libya and Bahrain?
Well just to remind everyone. Protests have been taking place since about January 27. Protesters have been demanding political reforms and demanding the resignation of President Abdullah Ali Saleh. He said he will leave office in 2013 but he doesn’t want to resign by the end of this year, as the opposition is calling for. However, just today, he said that he will put forward a new constitution before a referendum and said he would back a parliamentary system of government rather than the current presidential system. I gather the opposition has rejected that. Now although the Saleh government has pledged not to use force against protestors, force has been used against protestors both in Sana’a and elsewhere. As recently as Tuesday at Sana’a University two students were killed. In response to this there have been some very high level defections from Saleh’s team including several cabinet ministers and I gather the total number of resignations from the ruling party has come to about 16.
So all of this is happening in a country that was already suffering from enormous problems. We didn’t call it a “failed state” but people liked to use the word “failing state.” Protests are happening against a back-drop of cessation movement in the south, tribal movement in the north, security threats through the presence of Al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula and of course severe economic problems.
So what are the US concerns about Yemen? What can it do to help stabilize a state whose collapse in civil war and chaos would destabilize the Gulf, embolden Al Qaeda and of course create misery for its millions of citizens? Who are the players and parties in this growing opposition movement? What exactly are their demands? What is their flexibility? Who can be expected to fill the vacuum left by Saleh should he resign? What are the regional concerns and implications of a Yemen that falls into a civil war or a Yemen that is run by someone other than Saleh? What impact might these changing dynamics have on neighbors like Saudi Arabia?
Well here to address these many questions is an incredible gathering of Yemeni experts in a town where there are very few Yemen experts, as I know because I am always looking for them. We are extremely fortunate to have with us today our panelists including Amb. Janet Sanderson. She was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Arabian Gulf and the Maghreb in 2009. I had no idea that the State Department combined these two rather different regions. You are an extremely busy individual, needless to say. Amb.Sanderson served as Ambassador to Haiti and Algeria. She has held diplomatic postings in Oman, Kuwait, Tel Aviv and Dakar. A true Middle East expert at a time when they are desperately needed. Amb.Sanderson is also the recipient of numerous state department awards including the 1996 Herbert Salzman Award for International Economic performance.
Charles Schmitz is associate professor of geography at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a specialist on the Middle East and Yemen, particularly Yemen where he began his academic career as a Fulbright Scholar in the 1990s. He has written extensively on Yemen including in the book entitled “Yemen in the twentieth century: continuity and change” as well as for the Jamestown Foundation and other publications.
And finally, Christopher Boucek is an associate in the Carnegie Middle East program, where his research focuses on security challenges in the Arabian Gulf and North Africa, there seems to be a connection. He is a leading authority on terrorism, security and stability issues in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He has written widely on the Middle East on terrorism and counter-radicalization for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, the Christian-Science Monitor and many others.
I want to thank you all once again for joining us and we are going to begin with Amb. Sanderson.
Amb. Sanderson: I would like this to be a bit more casual if we can and first before I start let me thank Kate and Wendy for inviting me here. I have spent the last couple of weeks dealing almost exclusively with Libya so it has been quite a treat to come back to Yemen. Although I would note that I wouldn’t call myself, particularly with this distinguished panel, a Yemen expert. I am more a voyeur in many ways. Luckily on the ground, in our embassy and in our department we do have Yemen experts and they have certainly given me a lot of assistance over the last 20 months, as I try to grapple with this challenging, infinitely interesting but somewhat troubled country. And it has been particularly interesting over the last couple of months. You know as we have seen events in the last couple of months in the region, as we have seen the public cries for change in the Arab world, change that is tailored to particular circumstances and particular cultures, it has been easy I think to focus on the big names, on the Libyans, on the Tunisians, on the Egyptians, where obviously in Yemen the cry for change has been going on for a long time. I get a big kick out of the fact that Al Jazeera English has now become must-see TV in Washington but certainly I think it speaks to the interest we all have in the events of the region.
But we are here to talk about Yemen and it does seem to us as we look at the country from our perspective on C Street that it seems ever more imposed on the edge of some type of major transformation. As Kate noted, demonstrations are continuing, parties are caucusing and politicians as always are speechifying. With regard to demonstrations, despite our best efforts, I think it is very hard for anyone including our friends in the embassies on the ground to really get a good sense of what is going on. The participants vary, the numbers vary, the locations vary from day to day and we know that there have been student-led protests. We know that these have grown in numbers to include tens of thousands of people in Sana’a, in Aden and other cities. The protesters range from civil society to political parties to pro-regime protesters and we are beginning to see elements of tribal influence as well as Islamists.
There is a call for change in the street and I have to say that as you look at it this call or this expression of public sentiment is refreshing and indeed a healthy aspect of Yemen. However it can be a combustible mix and unfortunately we have seen violence break out in a number of these demonstrations, most recently of course, the night before last. Our embassy in Sana’a is working to try to find out exactly what happened but we know that there were scores injured and at least one dead. And that and the violence in other demonstrations points to the fact that the situation is extremely unpredictable and it also, to me at least, underscores the need for leadership and all parties to listen to the people.
In Sana’a, as you are aware, there are pro-government demonstrations camped at Tahrir Square for over a month and anti-government demonstrators are camped around the university. Most of these protests have been peaceful and most of them have been relatively restrained no matter what we may read in the press. However there have been violent clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators and between protestors and government security protestors and I have to say that this is an issue of great concern for the United States government. We are particularly concerned with incidents where one group appears to be going after another and appears to be causing violent clashes. We have strongly urged the Yemeni government to investigate, prosecute any individuals in the security forces that are involved in inciting or conducting violence against protestors and we have continuously called on Yemenis of all stripes to refrain from violence.
We do believe strongly in the right of free expression and the right to convey one’s views to the government and we want to make sure that in Yemen and elsewhere in the world that these rights are not trampled.
Peaceful demonstrations, I don’t need to tell this group, are critical to the democratic process and as you know in every country it is really up to the Yemenis to decide how their country is going to be run. We have worked very hard at all levels of the US Government to continually engage with Saleh and his government as well as with leaders of the opposition party and with civil society activists on a range of issues of interest to the United States including political reform.
Let me be clear though, I get this question a lot and I want to make sure that I get it out once again, we support a peaceful, stable and unified Yemen and we strongly support the principle of dialogue among the political players. That includes the government, that includes the opposition, civil society, that includes all groups that want to have their voices heard and we call on all parties to engage in a serious, a productive and useful discussion about the country’s future. We do believe that it is only through this give and take between government, between people that the long term security and stability of any country is guaranteed. We know that there have been many proposals on how to bridge the gap. Most recently last night, President Saleh in a large gathering put forward some more plans, proposals of how to restructure the government and I think we hope that that is being seriously looked at.
When we talk about Yemen, as we talk about what is happening in other parts of the region, we do stress the importance of dialogue, setting the stage and paving the way for free, open and fair elections. There is a parliamentary election that is slated for later this year. Yemen has actually done some fairly good elections in the past. We and others will be watching what happens in this one quite closely but we do have some concerns about how it is structured and how it is organized. We know for instance that our friends at NDI have estimated that at least a million voters could be disenfranchised if the rolls are not completed accurately. We have encouraged the government to resolve this issue as it negotiates with opposition parties. As I said we are watching closely how this process unrolls.
Let me talk very briefly about another aspect of US relations with Yemen. Obviously the political side of the house is critical. But I think that those of us who look at Yemen, one of the biggest challenges it faces is on the economic side and at the end of the day, if you set aside the political messiness of Yemen, if you set aside the terrorism issues, it may be where the rubber meets the road in terms of Yemen’s future.
Our government has implemented what we like to think is a multipronged strategy towards Yemen. What this does is a whole of government, which of course is a term of this town inside the beltway but what we want to do is try to find various tools in our kit bag to help Yemen address the many challenges and threats that it sees. We are marshalling US resources to help improve Yemen’s macro-economic stability, to increase the delivery of services so that the government can better serve its people and to improve local governance.
Our primary security concerns, I don’t have to tell any of you in this room, stem from the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. You know this is a group that has shown the ability to reach the homeland so that makes it important to us. But it is also important to the Yemeni people because it is not only the United States and the international community that has been targeted by AQAP, it’s Yemen, it’s its people, it’s its government. So our strategic approach to both problems of terrorism and the serious political and economic challenges that the government and the people of Yemen face must be sustained, it must be comprehensive and we must be able to demonstrate that we are in this for the long hall.
I want to stress that as we do this, we don’t see our role as big brother or Uncle Sam or whatever. As we put together a Yemen policy, we talk constantly with a wide range of Yemenis, in the government, outside the government, civil society; we are on the ground in Sana’a. We continue to be on the ground in Sana’a although you may have noted that the embassy has gone on what we call “authorized departure” since some family members will likely be departing but there has been a significant amount of outreach to the leaders and the people of Yemen, certainly in the last 18 to 20 months I have been on the job. Most recently, Secretary Clinton as you may know was in Sana’a and let me talk very briefly about this visit. This was the first visit by a secretary of state to Yemen in twenty years and it was a great visit. She left Sana’a enthused and invigorated by some of the conversations she had. She had excellent meetings with the political leadership, with the President, with the opposition but I think the high point of her trip was her encounter with the civil society. She spent about an hour and a half with a broad range of civil society leaders in Sana’a and she told Jeff Feltman, our assistant secretary, that it was the best group of civil society leaders that she had met on any of her trips anywhere. They were engaged, they had lots and lots of ideas, they weren’t afraid of speaking up and she took away from that, given some of the enormous challenges of Yemen, that if you have a civil society, even a core civil society that you couldn’t ever truly give up on Yemen. One of the reasons why the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has focused on Yemen’s civil society is because we do see that as one of the agents of change on the ground. The Yemen Program may well be MEPI’s showcase. We have a number of participants in seminars and training and in projects that range from political development, grass roots development, political parties, women’s issues, the issue of child rights and entrepreneurism. As you also know over the last couple of years of this administration, the United States has significantly increased our humanitarian development and security system to Yemen. We currently provide 300 million dollars and these funds are supporting a new US aid approach, which basically looks at areas that are in the most need and areas that have to show some real change in terms of meeting the people’s needs, for jobs, for services, for schooling and even such basics as water. The Stabilization program was launched in March 2010 and it is a pilot program, it is a test program. It is unusual compared to a lot of traditional aid programs and we will see how far it goes. The Secretary was on the Hill today and yesterday; we are currently caucusing with the Hill about our 2012 budget and of course, the 2011 budget is still subject to the continuing resolutions so that ebbs and flows. I want to leave you with a sense that the American policy towards Yemen is not a counter-terrorism policy, it is not a political policy, it is not an aid policy, it’s a combination of all of those. It is a whole government approach and it is done in such a way that we hope we can reach out and touch the broadest number of Yemenis and effect change on the ground in support of the priorities and the issues that the Yemenis themselves have deemed important. One more thought on that. You know we tend to focus in this town about what the United States does and what we should be doing and what we are not doing. The fact of the matter is that when it comes to Yemen we can’t and we shouldn’t do it alone. The Yemenis obviously have to be in the forefront of any effort to remake their country. The international community, though, is critical in this process. The United States, yes, but we join with our friends in the Gulf and we join with our friends in Europe to help provide a little bit with an economic balance, a little bit of the support that Yemen needs. The Gulf States are critical to this effort, the Saudis, the Omanis, the Emiratis, even the Qataris to a lesser extent have all made serious commitments and engagements in Yemen. Those are continuing. The British. Our partnership with the British is frankly one of the best I have seen when it comes to Yemen. We work together, none of us have any of the answers but we understand that what happens in Yemen affects us all and so it is not the preserve of the American, the Gulf States or whoever, it is an international effort. Our ultimate goal, I get back to where I stated, is a stable, prosperous, unified Yemen. That is a tall order, particularly given everything that we know about Yemen and all the enormous challenges that it faces. But I had a conversation yesterday with a gentleman who has enormous experience in Yemen and although I went into the meeting somewhat pessimistic, knowing everything that we know, I still left it with a lot more sense that we are moving in the right direction. He says that yes Yemen is difficult, yes Yemen has problems and yes it is wavering either way but there is an enormous capacity in Yemen to pick up the pieces and start over again. It may not be the way that we want it, it may not be the way the neighbors want it but to the extent that we can help it as it moves forward, I think that we as Americans can be proud of what we do. It is a work in progress and it is not over yet. And with that I will turn it to my colleagues.
Kate Seelye: Thank you very much Amb.Sanderson.
Charles Schmitz: First I would like to say that all bets are off, that when I first heard of the protests I didn’t give them any chance at all but as the protests continued, I said well maybe. But what I would like to say today is that you know it is really the same either way. That Yemen’s problems are Yemen’s problems with or without Ali Abdullah Saleh.
In that context, what I want to say is that we shouldn’t fear chaos. I think there is an emphasis in the United States and an emphasis from the outside to look at Yemen as a failed or failing state from the perspective of security, that the role of the state is to control its citizenries, to control its borders and I would just note that this is not the sense of a failing state when Yemenis talked about a failing state. When Yemenis talk about a failing state they talk about a state in the sense of a liberal state that delivers economic growth, that delivers services, that deliver security and so while the opposition in Yemen are saying failing state and we are saying failing state, we mean two very different things and I think that it is important for us looking from a Bavarian sense of a state, trying to increase state capacity, that we have to recognize that Yemen is different.
Politics in Yemen are about deliberative politics, they are about mediation, that there is no one person that runs Yemen. Yemen has a certain amount of chaos in it. It has multiple centers of power and that this is not a disadvantage or weakness. This is actually something that can be advantageous. I want push this point today, I want to move the discourse a little bit.
Ali Abdullah Saleh has dominated Yemeni politics and the reason he has dominated Yemeni politics is not because he has a big stick. It is because he is a master at building coalitions and preventing others from doing so and then undoing his own coalition and building a new one when its to his advantage and he plays the Yemeni game like no one has played it before. He is a master and that is why I say that all bets are off. He can play cracks in the opposition, he can, while they look very strong right now, he can turn them around. I would just like to note that the new proposal for a constitution and parliamentary system, which is all great and we like that, we like proportional government because it is going to give more voice to the opposition and this is also going to give Ali Abdullah Saleh a chance to get back into government. He is a very smart man.
I think that when we think about Yemen we have to recognize that in the power of carrot and stick balance of power, Yemen is about carrots, it is not about sticks. It really is about carrots, okay? Ali Abdullah Saleh has taken this strategy to a particular stance, a particular way of dealing with this that has run the country into the ground. What he has done is to play the sides off one another, he keeps going a kind of controlled chaos so that there is a constant low level conflict underneath, that he can therefore be the mediator. He always plays, if you listen to his discourse, he is always the reasonable center and those in his opposition are extremes, either threatening unity or trying to bring back the Imamate or somehow bring chaos. That is the discourse today. They are going to bring chaos and he is the reasonable one in the center and he has been very successful at doing this for a long time.
The difficulty with it is that he wants to keep control over politics. In 1994 in the lead up to the war, the socialists I think got this, they nailed this. They said “Ali Abdullah Saleh rules by the telephone.” The Socialists of course were the masters of the committee meeting and that is why they wanted committee meetings. But Ali Abdullah Saleh rules by the personal relationship with people and he has with everybody he knows, he knows everybody. A friend of mine was just telling me that Ali Abdullah Saleh would much rather send his opponents out, even though they have just tried to kill him, he will send them out with an ambassadorial post rather than killing them. This is the style of the carrot in this sense.
The problem is that this style of personalized government has inhibited institutional development and institutional development is key to Yemen. It is key for the economy and it is key for politics right now and so with or without Ali Abdullah Saleh what Yemen needs in this next period is a building of coalitions, a broad base coalition of regional powers that come together on the basis of a process. Now one of the things that we know and that Ali Abdullah Saleh knows quite well is that the opposition hates each other, the socialists hate the Islah and the Islah hate the socialists, they spend a lot of time trying to kill each other. The people in the opposition, there are tribes there that fought against the Houthis, they are fighting against the Houthis in the north, the Houthis are now part of the opposition, they are wary of those people who are in that opposition that just a year ago were trying to kill them. The southerners are very wary of Islah, the southerners are very wary of lots of people, the southerners themselves in the Herak spend a lot of time trying to kill each other. Basically the entire opposition spends a lot of time killing each other so how on earth can they come together? They can agree to disagree. They can agree to disagree and I see this as a great potential for Yemen. They can agree on a process by which they can all stay together, they can institutionalize a process by which they can rule and this you say is crazy, everybody is trying to kill each other so how can they agree to disagree? Well I think that the opposition is a testament to that. The Mushtarak is the Ishlah and some Nasserists and Ba’athists parties and the Ishtiraki, it is the socialist party, they have done it, they don’t like each other. They have very different politics, you wouldn’t think that they would ever be able to get together but they have formed an effective opposition and they have institutionalized it and they have now brought in the Houthis. The Houthis are hesitantly with them. The southerners, number two in the Herak said put down your secessionist posters, we are going to join the protests against the President. This is very significant.
I think there is a basis upon which the country will stay together, that those very diverse sets of people can come together and agree to disagree. They can agree on an institutional process or politics because they are so diverse and this is really what we need for Yemen. This is what the future of Yemen is really about.
Let me say something about the tribes. Whenever we talk about Yemen, everybody says “oh the tribes.” Firstly, tribes are very different things in Yemen. There are many different things called tribes, there are many different institutions that are quite different regionally, they vary greatly regionally. Their relationship with the state varies greatly. Some of them are quite powerful and do not fear the state and actually have very high positions in the state. There are others that do fear the state and others that do not participate in the state. There are some whose Sheikhs are basically state representatives in the local area. They have been transformed as sort of tools of state rule in the local area. They are a sort of local government as it were and the Sheikh is not the representative of the tribe. The Sheikh is the representative of the government. There are many different forms and we should note that tribalism is not something fixed. All of Yemen is in rapid transition so don’t think of tribalism as some set thing, it is negotiable, it is changing and we shouldn’t get too fixed on something that we call tribes.
Now, very recently there was a defection, an alleged defection, he had already called it a year ago for the ousting of the President but he was still part of the ruling party and he went over to his brother Hamid in the opposition, resigning from the government party, the ruling party and at that point there was an announcement that Hashid and Bakil had now joined the opposition and everyone said, wow Hashid and Bakil, these are the powerful military tribes and this is it. Ali Abdullah Saleh is now done because as we know from the period of the Imam, these are the wings of power. Well ,they were going down to Amran to have this big rally of Hashid and Bakil to express solidarity to people , they couldn’t get down there because the government tribes had cut the road. So they are not so unified, Hashid and Bakil in particular are very divided and I should add that the Houthis in the north have added a new power center. They are effective in holding off both the Saudi and Yemeni military and they have established themselves as a power and the tribes are very divided between Houthis, between the leadership of the Al-Ahmar brothers, the government, the president himself, some of the opposition. They are not divided at all. The nature of tribalism is to be undivided. They are not determinants of power in Yemen.
Ok, the last thing I want to say. I am just throwing out some ideas here. I think that US role is critical and here, I very much like now that we have 300 million in humanitarian and economic social aid, as opposed to the 150 million or the military and counter terrorism, you know the proportions of the two are the important thing, but I would say that our money is not the biggest thing. We are not big economic players and our money is not that big a deal. That is sort of, for me that is a symbolic thing, you know we are getting more humanitarian than the counter-terrorism but the U.S. role is really in leadership, in helping these negotiations.
One of the things that you hear from the opposition is that they don’t trust the president, that words are nice but they know him too well and he is very smart, he broke Machiavelli. He is better than Machiavelli and so they don’t trust his words. They want guarantees and that is where the United States can play a very important role. We need to play a leadership role in bringing the people to the table and not just inside of Yemen but we need to play a leadership role in bringing the Gulf in and not just as friends but we are leaders and we are the superpower and we need to structure and bring people in with a little bit of arm twisting. The Gulf has not been all that open to some of the important proposals, particularly on the economy, for example letting Yemeni workers in. That is very important and it needs to be accelerated. Yemen’s problems both political and economic are regional and international and I think the United States is best positioned, not in terms of economic aid, not in terms of military aid, but in terms of this leadership role in bringing the parties and twisting some arms and helping to bring an institutionalized negotiated settlement in Yemen for the long term.
Kate Seelye: Thank you very much Charles.
Christopher Boucek: Thank you very much. It is a great pleasure to be here especially with such distinguished colleagues. I think what I would like to do is to make a few points and observations and picking up on some of the points that my colleagues have made.
I think a good place to start is kind of picking up on this notions that Charles had on all bets are off. I guess I would say that I go back and forth on Yemen. Some days I get terribly depressed and overwhelmed and on other days I will be not so depressed and be a bit more optimistic. I think today I am actually not that pessimistic. I say this because when we look at the protests that have been going on for the last six weeks and I think that there was a lot of initial, very serious concern but I think if we see what is going on, things are continuing to happen. President Saleh, to his great credit, has watched what has been going on elsewhere in the region and I think that he has learned some of the mistakes that other leaders and other regimes have made and he is working very hard not to do the same thing in Yemen.
I think the other kind of key point that I would bring up is that as long as the Americans, especially the Saudis, are supporting President Saleh and the Yemeni government I don’t think that there is a notion that the Yemeni government is going to fall in the next “fill in the blank.” It doesn’t seem very realistic to me. So I think we really need to keep this into perspective. There have been some very notable defections or tactical realignments not only with the Al-Ahmar but with the number of MPs and other kinds of notables inside. However, I think it is important to keep in mind that the government is still functioning and the government still has a majority and things are still going on. Yemen has not descended into chaos in the way that some people have thought. Protests continue and they continue to get bigger but I think we need to keep into perspective how big these protests are in comparison to the overall population.
A friend of mine noted that when we look at what is going on right now this is nothing compared to what happened during the bread riots. I think that is something to keep into perspective.
President Saleh went out and made some broad sweeping concessions early on in an attempt to placate the opposition, pacify the opposition. A huge number of economic concessions, which one of my big concerns is how this will be paid for. Yemen, I guess, is not a failing economy but Yemen will soon be a failing economy and adding on all these expenditures is a serious concern because I think when you look at what is going on in the country, the economy is central to everything and the failing economy is critical to all of Yemen’s other problems.
That said, other events in the region and high oil prices will result in more income for the government but still this is an untenable situation, how the government is spending money and what it is allocating in these concessions.
This is followed by a range of political concessions again which was meant to placate the opposition. Instead, it seems to be strengthening the opposition. In addition to saying that he would not stand for re-election or that his son would not compete in the election, one of the things that I think was not given much attention to was these efforts to empower local regions and I was very skeptical about the notion of devolving power in Yemen but I think more and more that this is where things need to go. Some of what the President has been saying recently I think hits on these points. I think we should not discount this too much.
I think the announcement of travel warnings by the Americans and British, Canadians and Dutch and international organizations, one of the concerns I have is that this will express a greater concern than maybe we should have about what is going on in the country.
I think there are three big concerns that I have when I am looking forward at all this. The first is the future of the military and the security services and the possibility of fractures to emerge within that. We had seen some hints of this early on but I think an important point is that the President and his immediate family are in control of every aspect of the military and security services, something that we don’t see in any of the other states that have gone through this wave of protest and unrest.
Probably more concerning to me is the potential for violence to escalate and unintendedly. I have this fear in a country that has so many weapons and so many grievances that things can rapidly spiral out of control and it seems that one of the things that the government has done thus far is to work hard to keep protesters separate and to keep weapons out of the equation. How long it will last and how long the government will be able to keep its control over other pro-government aspects that they might not have as much authority over for is something that we should be looking out for.
And the last point that I would make is, the last kind of big concern that a number of other people have raised, is how this current protest, opposition movement may gel or coalesce with other opposition movements. I think this is especially concerning in the south. I think building up on something that Charles has said is that is seems to me that the southerners are not in a position to go along with a compromise that maybe the official opposition, the JNP or others, may reach with the regime because I think they recognize that they will get the same deal from the government that they would get from the opposition. So I don’t think that there is a good resolution to that dilemma. While we are focusing on Sana’a and other places, I think we should really be looking at Aden and the fact that the government in the past has used violence in the south is something that we should be keeping in mind.
I think the final take away point that I have is that when we look at what is going on we see that we have an opposition that is not unified, it seems that the only kind of key point that they all have is that the President and his family need to go but there is no platform beyond that and I think that that is to the government’s advantage. Until they develop a more coherent approach I think that this is something which the government can manage through this chaos. But I think that at the end of the day this is all about maximizing the power elite inside Yemen. I think that at the end of the day it is all about negotiating and trying to get to the best possible position before you get to that stage where you negotiate. With that I think I will stop so we can answer some questions.
Kate Seelye: Thank you very much. We have just heard that Yemen is a lot less brittle than its neighbors Egypt and Tunisia. I want to start by asking Janet a question and then the two speakers and then we will open the floor up. Charles called the US role in helping the opposition and Saleh to negotiate a compromise, I wanted to know your thoughts about that and what role the US can play. And my question to Charles and Chris is, is a compromise possible between the opposition and President Saleh and what would that look like?
Amb. Sanderson: Well we are certainly looking for ways to be helpful. You know we have had very serious conversations with all sides. We don’t want to place ourselves in the middle of all this to be perfectly honest because then it becomes an American solution as opposed to a Yemeni solution. To the extent that we can be helpful, we have an extremely active ambassador on the ground and we are prepared to do so.
Kate Seelye: Could you comment upon the possibility of compromise?
Charles Schmitz: I would say that it is yet to be seen but I do think it is possible for there to be both a negotiated settlement where Saleh to stays but there is a substantial transfer of power towards the opposition but it could also be that the President goes in some time frame and that there is a coalition government. I am more optimistic that the opposition can work it out and the southerners will be pulled into it. I think that it is very significant that they have put down their secessionist slogans and their flags and have joined the opposition in their call for the regime to fall. And let me leave it there.
Christopher Boucek: I guess the only part that I would add is that the last several weeks in the Middle East have probably taught most people not to make too many predictions about what will or will not happen. I think that when we are talking about what could happen is that while this can probably go on for a long time in Yemen it can’t go on till 2013. There will need to be something to move up the election and trying to come up with some new arrangement and what that is, I don’t have the answer for that.
Kate Seelye: All right, we will take questions from the floor. Let’s start with this individual here. Please state your name and affiliation.
Question: Mohamed Elshinnawi, Voice of America. Ambassador, how did the strategic operation with President Saleh affect the US handling of the Yemeni uprising and if the opposition rejected the dialogue and insisted on the ousting of the President, do you think the United States would support the aspirations of the Yemenis?
Amd.Sanderson: Well as I said earlier, the problems, the challenges that Yemen faces, Yemen has to come up with a solution and yes we have extremely good cooperation with the Saleh government across a wide variety of issues and we would expect that that would continue. We have a close relationship with the Yemeni people and we hope that that would continue. But it is for the Yemenis to decide what their future is going to be so it is not for us to dictate this leader or that leader.
Question: I am just wondering, did you expect this uprising?
Charles Schmitz: Well come on, people have been concerned about the Yemeni state for a long time, all Yemeni observers and the US government has been concerned for a long time. I was called into Washington from Baltimore in the beginning of 2009 when it wasn’t in the media a whole lot but clearly the US government and people who knew Yemen were very concerned about it. You know the political situation was bad, the war in the North, the secessionist movement in the south, which happened by the way at the height of oil revenue so you add on to that economic decline and you know it is a difficult situation and people will read about it. Perhaps it is like why didn’t it happen before? Really it is a surprise in Yemen that it didn’t happen before.
Amb. Sanderson: Let me just re-emphasize that factor. There are some people who think that the United States just woke up and discovered Yemen on December 25 of last year with the underwear bomb: that is blatantly untrue. Obviously we have been involved in Yemen for a number of years but certainly with this administration, as Charles said, we were looking at options, looking at what was happening on the ground. There were studies, there were discussions at the White House about Yemen two years ago. I think from our perspective we were concerned about the direction in which Yemen seemed to be heading with all of these various forces looking like they had the potential of pulling Yemen apart. But I think that most people, although you can’t exactly predict the day or even the event that might trigger something, I think that most people thought that Yemen was in a particularly precarious position.
Question: My question is how responsive has Saleh and his family members in the security services been to US concerns about Human Rights stemming from reports that Yemen security forces have been violent towards protestors, particularly in Aden?
Question: John Dalebroux from Georgetown University. I was hoping that you could address a little bit the current humanitarian situation and the potential implications of this in terms of the creation of IDPs and refugees and any anticipatory action that has taken place.
Amb. Sanderson: Let me start with the first question. We have had a rather rough dialogue with the Yemenis particularly about the increase of violence used in the demonstrations both publicly and privately and that is ongoing. We have expressed our concerns at a number of different levels. We don’t think that it serves either the Yemenis or the government or the police or the security services to commit violence against the demonstrators.
But I have to tell you that there does seem to be some instances of violence that the Yemenis have not been able to well explain either to their people or to interested observers like the United States or others that have raised the question. So we have to keep that in mind. The humanitarian situation maybe someone else can answer that?
Charles Schmitz: Well I found the question a little bit curious because the big humanitarian crisis was the war in the north, which has stabilized and a lot of those IDPs have actually started to head back north where things are more stable now. I am not sure that we are going to see that kind of conflict. This is a political conflict where you may see some conflict between protestors and what not but I don’t see a refugee crisis created in Yemen.
Question: In one of Saleh’s speeches he said that this is a flu…he accuses Israel…is this something coming from the people?
Charles Schmitz: I would say that this is Ali Abdullah Saleh trying to stand in the middle, you know saying these are extremists, these are people influenced from the outside, these are not your sort of man on the street Yemeni. This is the kind of approach that he is always going to take. He is always going to say “I am the moderate.” He sends the Ishlah against the Ishtirak in the war of ’94 and said we are in the middle, we are the moderate ones and he is always going to try and position himself in that way. There is of course an element inside of Yemen stemming from certain turns within Arab nationalism that like to see this thing as a sort of chaos spurred on by the United States and Israel trying to impose their program or what not but you hear it sometimes but it doesn’t have a lot of currency inside Yemen.
Question: Andrew North, BBC. Question for Charles Schmitz. Can you give me your view of US government policy, of Obama administration policy on Yemen in relation to the other uprisings because it has seemed very uncertain. I mean with Egypt, it was a sense of backing Mubarak until late, with Qaddhafi it was eventually you’ve got to go, with Tunisia we didn’t really get a clear line but with Yemen the sense we get is that the US government would prefer Saleh to remain in power for reasons of counter-terrorism, cooperation, this kind of thing. But what is your sense of the kind of message that is coming across and is the US risking by now appearing of taking a more hands-off approach, actually losing influence there if eventually Saleh is forced to go?
Charles Schmitz: No I would say that, you know the ambassador offered his offices numerous times for negotiating settlements and this is something that the opposition wants. I would like to see the opposition step up and take advantage of that. I think that would be a good move on the opposition part and take the US up on that offer. I think it is a wise move because we don’t know what is going to happen. Nobody knows what is going to happen and to be in the position of mediating, that is where you want to be, the one who rules Yemen is the top mediator and the United States does not want to rule Yemen and the United States doesn’t want to appear to be imposing anything but we can be the good offices and we can with our political capital kind of twist some arms and say this is a good place to be. I think the place Ali Abdullah Saleh really panicked was when Obama abandoned Mubarak and all of a sudden you saw his discourse change really fast. So we do have this political capital. I would think that we need to play a more local leadership role and when negotiating and I think so far in that sense it is quite wise.
The Yemenis are quite afraid of US counter-terrorism actions. That is what they are really afraid of. They are afraid that the United States is going to overplay the counter-terrorism and is going to take unwise actions. There have been two cruise missiles shot and they didn’t really hit their targets and caused the collateral damage and they are very worried about that. But the United States is sort of a political leader. This Ambassador, as we know, is quite active. He has gone places that the other ambassadors have not gone and I think that is very good. That is what we need right now. I think they are actually doing a pretty good job.
Kate Seelye: Chris, do you think we have gotten the right tone?
Christopher Boucek: I don’t think I would disagree with anything that Charles had said but one thing looking forward is that I think we need to have a policy that…Yemen’s future lies in large part with the Gulf and Saudi Arabia needs to be front and center in this relationship and I think that the Americans and Saudis want the same thing in Yemen, a stable Yemen that is not a threat to its neighbors, that is territorially together but I think you know and this was said earlier, we have a limited voice in what happens no matter how much money we give, the relationship we have and everything else, Saudi Arabia has a much deeper, longer and more extensive relationship. Saudi Arabians will have a policy with Yemen no matter what and we need to make sure that we are all together on the same page because otherwise we run the risk of going off and it will be too late to figure it out. So I think we need to make sure that the Saudis and the Gulf states but the Saudis especially, are front and center on this.
Charles Schmitz: I would add one point to that. The way Saudis see their security in Yemen and the way Yemenis see it and we see it is quite different and that is where we can twist some arms.
Kate Seelye: But how should the Saudis be front and center, Chris?
Christopher Boucek: In a perfect world, I think it would not be just giving out money, I think it would not be about just bringing suitcases of cash. The Saudis have an important role to play in helping the other Gulf States to come to a different approach on Yemen and letting in more Yemeni laborers, increasing Yemeni exports into the Gulf, about not just manual labor but kind of semi-skilled and professional labor and greater investment. I think there needs to be a closer relationship and one way or another, Yemen is going to have a relationship with the GCC and they need to figure out what that is going to be. This can’t be all about security. I think security is the reason why there is that concern but it needs to move beyond security. I think that a lot of the Gulf States can do things to help build the capacity and institutions that we need to see in Yemen.
Amb. Sanderson: If I could just pick up on that. One of the things we have seen over the course of our conversations with the Gulf Sstates and others is the growing realization that it can’t just be about security and about their concerns that the Yemenis are going to flood into their markets. Certainly we are going to see among the Saudis and Emirates a much greater appreciation that the Gulf has to deal with Yemen as it is now, not the way it was 10 or 15 years ago and not the way perhaps the Gulf would like to have it. It is not there yet. The Saudis have taken a fairly active role in the Friends of Yemen Process and will be hosting a Friends of Yemen meeting in Riyadh on 22nd and 23rd. We are pleased with that because that indicates to us that they are beginning to take ownership of this process. One of the things that we have been working with the Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis and a couple of the other Gulf States is how do you begin the process of transitioning that aid relationship, that assistance relationship which frankly overshadows anything that we in the West do in Yemen to a much more organized and institutionalized relationship with conditionality built into it, that it doesn’t just become as Chris said trading suitcases in the halls somewhere. We are not there yet but these are questions that the Gulf States are asking and we are reaching out to them. There is a very strong group now on the ground with Ambassadors both from the West and the GCC states that are dealing with the Yemenis on this and so what we are hoping is that we can build into this process a little bit of oomph.
Question: James Filpi, Department of Commerce. A question along those lines, how realistic is it for Yemen in the near term or the long term to actually become a member of the GCC? You know, the GCC States often mention this issue and they are very accepting of the Yemenis. What can you tell us about the genuine perception of some of the other Gulf States, you mentioned Kuwait. When often hearing Yemen, the Kuwaitis are still upset because of the first Gulf War and there are political undertones of that. So one: how realistic and when could they become a member of the GCC? What has to happen? Two, what are the perceptions of some of the accenting Gulf States?
Question: My question that I would like to ask is how much emphasis is the US making with the GCC and the remaining Middle East countries to come together and attempt to bring some form of a solution with Yemen? I mean obviously it will be done within the Arabs and I think they can bring solutions amongst themselves. Now the US can assist, as has been previously stated, the US is obviously assisting in orchestrating to the point where they can bring all stakeholders together but I go back to the question, what emphasis is the US making in the attempting to bring all those stakeholders together?
Amb. Sanderson: Let me start because the questions are somewhat related. I am certainly not in the position and would not want to make in relation to the GCC. The relationship between the GCC and Yemen is something that is going to have to be worked out. I think that in terms of our informal conversations both with the Secretary and the GCC members, they are conscious of the need to find some way to effectively deal with the Yemenis and move them forward, whether that comes through open markets, whether that comes through investment, whether that comes from some of the other ideas that have been talked about. I think that the GCC is going to have to work out with the Yemenis directly. They are looking for ways to, I won’t say integrate Yemen into the GCC but certainly put the Yemen issue on the agenda and that is important. With regard to the Kuwaitis, well they have long memories and I think in the fullness of time these issues will be worked out but the GCC is only as strong as the individual countries want it to be and of course over the years that has ebbed and flowed.
With regard to the role of Yemen and where Yemen is in our agenda, in our discussions with certainly with the Gulf Arabs or with the broader Arab community, I can tell you that over the year and a half that I have been on this job it has been in the very top of the agenda at all levels. Whether with the President, the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary have spent a lot of time and I think that that has been reflected in the visits that we make to the area. I think that is reflected in the public comments that are made either from the podium or by the other secretary of states, the Secretary and others that have visited Yemen and the Gulf. We understand, I think, that Yemen has its own intrinsic value but also what happens in Yemen will affect the broader region. It will affect the Gulf and it may even affect beyond that, certainly if you look at the Horn of Africa there is a direct link. So yes it is part of the conversation. It is one of the most important elements of the conversation and I frankly don’t see that changing in the near future.
Charles Schmitz: Let me add a couple of things on that. When I said that Saudi interests are not the same as Yemenis inside of Yemen, the Saudis see Yemen as their backyard, they don’t want anyone else in. I strongly suggest that the Americans bring for example the Qataris in, you bring them in and the Saudis will be front and centre with you because they don’t want the Qataris being involved. The other thing about the Saudis is they fear Yemen so this idea of a more institutionalized, stronger Yemen, they don’t particularly like. They like to have personal relationships of doing cash and sort of cash here, cash there. So they can often be quite destabilizing and there is a place where the United States can play some twisting arms role because I think the future of Yemen has got to be more institutionalized, something the Saudis are worried about and we can help the Saudis transform their views of what their fears are in Yemen and what would be good for them. This is what I mean by a leadership role, really getting in there.
Christopher Boucek: I would just add that I go with what Charles said. I think that the Yemen policy in Saudi Arabia is very much a domestic policy issue. It is not a foreign policy issue. I think that right now it seems that Yemen policy in Saudi Arabia is in a state of flux. I think some of the other Gulf States, whether it is the Emirates or the Qataris have spent a lot of money and are a lot more focused on Yemen than they were a couple of years ago. But I think when it comes back to the United States I think something that would be really great is if we could have one point person to deal with in Yemen, one person to interact with the Yemeni government instead of a range of officials. One person who would interact with the Friends of Yemen. I think that the fact that there is not a senior American representative, like the Dutch and others have to deal with the Friends of Yemen, says a lot about how we view this organization. So I think that would go a long way I think towards sending one message to the Yemenis and having one message that other partners would get.
Kate Seelye: and a response from Amb.Sanderson?
Amb.Sanderson: Point taken.
Kate Seelye: Well, we are actually very lucky that Ambassador Sanderson could even make it today because she is in the middle of a Libya crisis and actually has to leave early so I think we are just going to stop the panel early and thank our speakers today for a wonderful insight. Thank you all for coming.
About this Transcript:
Assertions and opinions in this Transcript are solely those of the above-mentioned author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.