Multiple conflicts have raged for years in Yemen, one of the poorest and most neglected countries in the Arab world. In the north, the ethnic group Houthis battled the government, while separatists vied for independence in the south. Elements of a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been going on as well, while strife between branches of Sunni and Shia Islam has further battered the country.
This year’s regional Arab Spring added to Yemen’s complexity. More than 10 months of popular protests against the 33-year rule of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh resulted in his official abdication of power in November 2011, when he handed the reins to his vice president even though he continues to hang on.
If all goes according to plan, however, Saleh will vacate his office by February, in time for elections, becoming the fourth Arab ruler forced out by mass demonstrations. Most recently, he decided not to travel to the United States for medical care, in keeping with his erratic behavior, further stressing the democratic prospects of Yemen, a country about twice the size of Wyoming with 24 million people and an economy struggling with dwindling oil reserves.
UN’s Envoy in Yemen
The United Nations has had a representative on the ground since April, Jamal Benomar, a special adviser to the secretary-general and envoy to Yemen, to provide help during the country’s tumultuous transition.
A Moroccan by birth, Benomar brings his own complicated past into the Yemen picture. He was tortured and jailed by the Moroccan regime from 1975 to 1983; after he escaped, he went to Paris and worked at a think tank. His academic background is in international law, economics and political science, having studied in Morocco and at the Sorbonne in Paris and completing his doctorate at the University of London.
He has extensive experience in rule of law, governance, peace-building and conflict-resolution issues, working in more than 30 countries. At the UN, he worked in numerous offices: as director of the rule of law unit in the executive office of the UN secretary-general; interim director of the peace-building support office; chef de cabinet for Ali Abdussalam Treki, the Libyan president of the General Assembly, in 2009-2010; and special adviser for the UN Development Program. He was also the chief of technical cooperation in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for four years.
Benomar had a high-profile job in Iraq as the principal political adviser to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special representative to Iraq, before de Mello was killed in a bomb blast in Baghdad with 21 others in 2003. Benomar remained in the country through 2004. He has written numerous publications on governance, rule of law, constitution-making and peace-building and is fluent in five languages.
Back and Forth to Yemen
In Yemen, Benomar has worked tirelessly to help pull the country back together. Engaging in shuttle diplomacy between the divided camps and consulting with the Gulf Cooperation Council, a powerful group of Arab nations, and the UN Security Council, Benomar has traveled to the country seven times this year. In November 2011, he was the mediator in the negotiations that led to the signing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, of the Yemeni agreement in which President Saleh will cede power to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi and Saleh is granted immunity from prosecution.
The peace-making work is hardly over. By the Feb. 21 elections, various parties will need to be cajoled to the negotiating table.
In press briefings at UN Headquarters in New York, Benomar displays a polished and reserved manner, answering questions conservatively, reiterating that there is no panacea for the country’s woes. When asked if Yemen would grow to resemble war-wracked Somalia, he replied, “I do not make comparisons, its situation is unique.”
Encouraging political discourse instead of physical violence has been one of the UN’s primary objectives in Yemen. According to a Security Council press statement after the signing of the Riyadh agreement, the deal also entailed a mechanism that includes “a national dialogue, a constitutional review and a program of reforms that start to tackle the profound humanitarian, economic and security challenges that Yemen faces.”
As Benomar said at a briefing, “Serious commitment from all sides will be required to make these inroads to stability a success, and the UN will continue its close engagement and monitor its progress.”
Earlier results of his work on the peace deal culminated in Security Council Resolution 2014, which endorsed the transition plan drafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council, calling on all groups to “cease the use of force to achieve political aims.” The resolution also specifically denounced the recruitment of children for use during combat.
“We want to see a Yemen where the streets belong to the people, not the militia,” Benomar said at a briefing. “We want to see Yemenis able to go about their daily lives and grow their communities – where civic leaders are the ones shaping the future of the country, not those with arms.”
Recent endorsements of the peace plan by dissidents may validate the UN’s efforts in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet the country’s enormous humanitarian problem poses a major threat to peace. Oxfam has put malnutrition rates in the country above 30 percent and food prices have jumped 50 percent. Less than 3 percent of the land is arable, and water is scarce.
The country has “made some progress on the political front, but if humanitarian needs of people are not met, then this can undo the positive steps taken in the political scene,” said Naveed Hussain, a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Refugees streaming in this year from mostly Somalia and Ethiopia only deepen Yemen’s problems. The UN reported in November that 85,000 people have fled the Horn of Africa to Yemen this year. They stay at UN camps or go north to Saudi Arabia, where they hope to find jobs, however elusive, and stability.