The Arab Spring has not been kind to Yemen even when mostly peaceful protests succeeded last year in removing President Ali Abdullah Saleh who has ruled this impoverished country for more than three decades. But seven months since his departure many Yemenis still believe that Saleh's grip on power remains strong. Even though his predecessor, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has taken bold steps to cleanse the army from Saleh's relatives and cronies, the former president is believed to wield power in key military and security units.
Meanwhile President Hadi has warned last week that Yemen, a country of 25 million, risks a descent into a civil war "worse than Afghanistan" if upcoming national dialogue fails. The dialogue is expected to create consensus on the remaining steps to complete post-uprising political transition.
Saleh's possible meddling in Yemeni affairs is worrying Washington and neighboring Gulf states, especially after the storming of the U.S. embassy in Sanaa on Sept. 13. Reuters reported that soldiers of two units under the control of Saleh's relatives allowed hundreds of protesters through checkpoints around the embassy. One senior Western diplomat in Sanaa told the news agency that there are concerns over the role played by the former president and those loyal to him, adding that "they were undermining the government and hindering the transition."
Saleh was forced out of office under a Saudi brokered deal that gave him and members of his family immunity from prosecution. But recently the government agreed to set up a commission of inquiry into violations committed during last year's uprising, which claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people. Most Yemenis want to see Saleh prosecuted.
But Saleh's meddling is only part of President Hadi's immediate problems. He has to bolster his role in fighting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has strongholds in southern provinces such as Shabwa and Abyan. Recently the army succeeded in driving terrorists from a number of towns in the south but that created an influx of refugees who fled to the port city of Aden.
President Hadi, who was in Washington last week, has praised the controversial drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in his country. He told reporters that he personally signs off on all drone attacks carried by the U.S. in his country. But he added that Yemen and its counter-terrorism partners are taking steps to avoid past mistakes, alluding to strikes that have killed Yemeni civilians.
In addition to continuing Yemen's mission in the fight against al-Qaeda, President Hadi must oversee the political transition process at a time when the country is still recovering from the Houthi revolt in the north. The November national dialogue is being viewed as a crucial milestone in confronting what President Hadi calls the triple crisis facing Yemen — economic, security, and political. The success of the national dialogue should pave the way for new elections and provide closure to the era of the former president.
The economic challenge in particular is putting unprecedented pressure on the country. Last week a New York "Friends of Yemen" meeting provided $1.5 billion dollars in aid bringing the total funds promised since last year to $ 8 billion. But Yemeni officials were quoted as saying that the country, one of the poorest in the world, needs double that amount to revive its economy and rebuild infrastructure in the wake of the 2011 uprising.
Still a shocking report last week by the U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) called for urgent financial aid to stop Yemen from sliding into a humanitarian crisis. The report said that nearly half the population, about 10 million, is going hungry. WFP's spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said Yemen "now also has the highest level in the world of malnutrition among children, with two million stunted and one million acutely malnourished."
She said that the program desperately needs money adding that $ 223 million is required to fund its operations in Yemen through the end of the year, and it is still lacking $ 69 million.
The Gulf states need to focus on the current plight of Yemen for strategic reasons. The stability and security of Yemen are essential to the GCC and to the West as well. Food shortages and worsening humanitarian conditions will eventually foil President Hadi's efforts to complete the political transition successfully. His failure will give Saleh and his cronies an opportunity to interfere even more in the country's internal affairs. Saleh made comments recently warning of impending chaos in Yemen while portraying himself as essential to preserving the country's territorial integrity.
Furthermore, any relapse in Yemen at this stage will allow al-Qaeda to regroup and may reignite rebellions in the north and south. President Hadi must be helped to succeed in his mission not only by the international community, but most importantly by Yemen's Gulf neighbors.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. The article was published in the Saudi-based Arab News on Oct. 3, 2012