A two-day academic conference on the future of Yemen opened in London on Friday. Organised by the London Middle East Instituteand the British-Yemeni Society, it comes at a timely moment as Yemen prepares for its national dialogue – a key step in the country's political transition plan.
The London conference has generated a surprising amount of interest. Some 270 people registered to attend and the organisers say a further 150 had to be turned away because there were no more seats available.
At the opening session, Alan Duncan, Britain's minister of state for international development said 2013 is going to be "very challenging" for Yemen and warned that urgent action is needed over the next year. He told the conference:
"Just over 12 months remain before the date of the presidential election which was promised to the Yemeni people by the GCC agreement [which led to the resignation of President Saleh], so between now and then a lot of ground will need to be covered.
"Given the preparations required for elections, substantial progress needs to be made in the next six months if Yemen's leaders are to keep their promise to their people."
Duncan said the national unity government has already made some progress towards establishing the national dialogue "but it does remain off schedule, which is seriously undermining confidence in the transition process". He continued:
"The UK and others will continue to do everything we can to support [Yemeni] the government to overcome the remaining challenges and help establish the national dialogue conference as quickly as possible, because the delivery of a successful national dialogue on schedule would be a major signal to the Yemeni people that their leaders are serious about addressing the divisive issues which drive conflict in the country.
"In Riyadh and New York in September the international community came together in a show of unprecedented support for Yemen. Nearly $8 billion was pledged to support the Yemeni people in this hour of need. This money is ready and waiting to be spent on urgent priorities such as basic services and repairing damaged infrastructure.
"We are working with the [Yemeni] government and other partners to undertake decisive action to present project proposals to donors so that the funds can be unlocked and begin to flow to where they are desperately needed. We can't afford to have these promised billions sitting around unused.
"I think the biggest challenge facing Yemeni ministers ... is for them to work with each other and with the relevant Yemeni institutions and alongside international organisations such as the World Bank and development banks and other government so we can get this money moving into constructive projects."
Two Yemeni government representatives also spoke at the opening session: foreign minister Abubakr al-Qirbi and planning minister Muhammad al-Saadi.
Qirbi agreed that any delay in the national dialogue will delay the second phase of the transition plan. There are a number of crucial questions to be debated – not least in the drafting of a new constitution. Is Yemen to have a federal system or not? A parliamentary system or a presidential one? There is also the question of southern separatism – which is "the one people disagree most on", Qirbi said.
Southern separatism was the topic for one of Friday's panel discussions. Others covered the Houthi issue in northern Yemen, and the international dimension. I hope to post reports on those in the next day or two, together with notes from Saturday's discussions.
The Twitter hashtag for the conference is #YemenFutureConf.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 January 2013