Thanks to a recent report by the Mareb Press, a controversial proposal from Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference has been made public.
The document presents a plan for a new federal system in Yemen. Under this proposal, the country would be divided into five provinces – Amran, Sana’a, Taiz, Zinjibar, and Al-Ahqaf – and two capitals that shift based on the seasons; Sana’a would serve as the summer capital and Aden as the winter one. The plan also creates a new presidential system for the country.
The Dialogue, which was already facing heavy criticism inside and outside Yemen, needed some good PR. This proposal seems, however, to be having the opposite effect.
The plan’s proposed provincial borders are in distinct tension with popular sentiment in Yemen. They do not reflect common understandings of regional boundaries, and ignore the political changes demanded by the country’s recent uprising.
Rather than addressing Yemen’s vast regional differences, the plan reflects what many Yemenis feared at the start of the Dialogue: that it is an effort to legitimize a new government, andcontinue the same inequitable practices carried out by disposed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Yemen’s New Provinces
Many critics have highlighted thesize of the Al-Ahqaf province under the new proposal.
Though the province’s ambit is based on population numbers, nearly all of Yemen’s natural resources are located within Al-Ahqaf’s newly delineated borders. Central-East Yemen, where the province would be located, is home to almost all the country’s oil fields and natural gas reserves.
In a federal system, situating all resources in one province has dire consequences to say the least. In Yemen, this problem is aggravated by historical tensions between the northern and southern regions, which have involved disputes over resource allocation. Given these circumstances, economically valuable natural resources would be better distributed amongst multiple provinces.
By failing to equitably divide Yemen’s resource wealth, the Dialogue proposal is anything but a politically progressive effort in line with the popular demands of the country’s uprising. Instead, it appears to be a ploy to weaken southern claims to oil fields. It also represents an effort to ensure those who have made investments in the gas and oil production sector can conduct business as usual, without hinderance.
Under the new plan, territory in South Yemen is grouped together with several northern communities into one province. For example, under the proposed plan, Lahj, a southern province, will find its capital in Taiz, one of the north’s most important cities.
The central Yemeni government has historically faced on-going problems with tribal groups and secessionist political movements in both the northern and southern territories.
Mareb is one of the tribal capitals of North Yemen, and is one among several places in the northern region where the government has been unable to control local tribes. Marebis regularly conduct daily attacks on power plants in the area in order to win political concessions from the central government.
The southern-based al-Hirak, a peaceful independence movement, has gained momentum since the downfall of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Although the Dialogue’s federalist system seems designed to appease southern demands while maintaining a united Yemen, most factions of al-Hirak have boycotted the Dialogue. Nearly all southern provinces are witnessing on-going weekly protests.
In light of these circumstances, the decision to combine parts of the northern and southern regions seems intended to weaken these actors.
With rumors milling around about a formal Declaration of Independence by groups in South Yemen, a federal plan dividing and marginalizing southern territories is the last thing this transitional period needs.
Other provincial borders further reveal the government’s feeble attempt to weaken Yemen’s various troublesome regions.
The Amran province encompasses land from just north of Sana’aall the way to the Saudi border, and is a clear response to growing Houthi influence in the north of the country. The Houthis are a religiously-based political movement based in the northern Sa’ada region that has increasingly occupied the attention of the National Dialogue.
By grouping government-aligned regions with Sa’ada, the capital of the Houthi movement, and refusing to make Sa’ada the capital of this newly formed province, Dialogue members have proven their unwillingness to negotiate with and make concessions to the Houthis. This is a deliberate attempt to weaken and divide the Houthis, which will only further solidify their belief in Sana’s unfair and unjust practices.
The new province would also combine geographic areas that are vastly different from one another. The province of Hadramout, in southern Yemen, has always been one of the country’s most distinct regions with a unique history and economic ties around the Indian Ocean. It stands in stark contrast to the mountainous and isolated Mareb.
A Dual-Capital System?
Adding to the geo-political issues at stake in the Dialogue proposal is the seasonal dual-capital system.
A Yemeni colleague from the northern part of the country joked “Does this mean they will all live in university-style dormitories in Aden? Or will there be another rush to steal the land in Aden so all the northerners can have their winter homes?”
In light of continued attempts to silence the south, this shallow effort to appease southerners by making Aden a half-capital is a weak concession. The plan’s glaring lack of details about how a two-capital government would logistically function further contributes to the perception that the Dialogue is operating blindly.
Presidential Representation … every 28 years
The Dialogue proposal also suggests four-year presidential term limits, with the president coming from a designated province each cycle. This system is meant to ensure that every province has a turn at the presidency.
Assuming that both the capital provinces of Sana’a and Aden merit representation under this system, (another point not fully explained in the document), this means that a president will come from each region once every 28 years.
What is suggested is essentially a quota system. While the goal is to allocate representation to all provinces, the result is a system that, through gerrymandered provincial borders, fails to give equal chances to all political parties and regional organizations to field presidential candidates.
Unfortunately, the Dialogue’s proposed plan confirms suspicions that the body aims to do little other than legitimize the status quo and give a new face to old inequities.
Fortunately, this is just one of many plans the Dialogue will be putting forward in the coming weeks, and is unlikely to be reflected in the final outcome.
What Yemen needs now is an indication that transitional leaders are listening to popular demands. This includes addressing grievances held by the Houthis and the al-Hirak Movement, among others.
At this stage in the political transition process, Yemenis need reassurance about their leaders’ competence; the latest developments from the National Dialogue have done little to provide this comfort.
*Kevin Alexander Davis is an M.A. Candidate at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. His focus is on contemporary Yemeni culture and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.