Riyadh talks turn a new page in Yemen crisis
The talks on Yemen in Riyadh last week succeeded even before they started — and their eventual outcomes exceeded expectations. As soon as the Gulf Cooperation Council announced its intention to host intra-Yemeni consultations over a 10-day period (March 29 to April 7), unstoppable momentum was unleashed. Hundreds of Yemeni political and community leaders, activists, intellectuals, journalists and experts expressed their desire to take part, even before receiving the invitations, indicating a strong thirst for dialogue and reconciliation. Ultimately, nearly 1,000 participants descended on Riyadh for the talks.
The momentum grew as consensus evolved around a number of key issues, but especially when the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen announced a unilateral truce and the Houthis also made some noises about a truce of their own, enabling the UN envoy to work out a two-month halt to fighting, starting on April 2, while the Riyadh talks were in their early days.
Discussions progressed along six parallel tracks — political, security, economic, social development, humanitarian and media — meeting daily at the GCC complex. In addition, intensive deliberations were taking place in other locations among political leaders and parliamentarians, serving as advisory assemblies for the talks, as the two groups interacted on a daily basis to coordinate and exchange views.
Two days were dedicated to meetings between those involved in the talks and the full government, led by the prime minister. After 10 days and nights of extensive discussions, the talks reached consensus on important issues along all six tracks.
The GCC invited the Houthis to the talks, but they did not show up, perhaps because they knew their views were at odds with those of most Yemenis and the talks would expose that fact. There was a clear consensus in the talks that the Houthis were responsible for the crisis, but that the conflict’s resolution should nevertheless be at the negotiating table.
Besides the issue with the Houthis, there was agreement on the urgent need to reassess some state institutions to enable them to carry out their mandates and make the necessary war and peace decisions.
Several options were discussed, the most popular of which was, from the outset, the formation of a presidency council, comprising the most effective parties on the ground, to deal with the stagnation of the political and military decision-making processes and end the infighting within the pro-government camp. Presidency councils have a long history in Yemen. The Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, which participated in the talks, published a paper on the subject that concluded that such a council was necessary. There was only passing opposition to the idea, voiced by a representative of one political group, which later joined the consensus. On April 7, the last day of the talks, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued a decree establishing the Presidential Leadership Council, composed of eight members representing the most important factions in the government camp.
After 10 days and nights of extensive discussions, the talks reached consensus on important issues along all six tracks, including the establishment of a presidency council.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
One of the most important but overlooked recommendations called for the resumption of regular meetings by the parliament, in person or virtually, to exercise its constitutional duties. The parliament has met only a few times since the war started. The return of effective parliamentary oversight could have a significant impact on the quality of government services. It would also reassure citizens and the international community of the governance of public institutions.
Participants also called for the safeguarding of the independence of the judiciary and public prosecution, both of which have, during the war, been subjected to threats and political pressure. The participation of the Supreme Court president in the talks helped shape this and other recommendations.
As military solutions have failed in Yemen, the Riyadh talks called on the Consultation and Reconciliation Commission, set up by a presidential directive on April 7, to help bring the warring parties closer together and to the negotiating table.
Also discussed were the shortcomings of internal security forces in parts of the country and their overlapping mandates with those of militias and regular forces, leading to violent clashes and security vacuums. The detailed suggestions put forth during the talks will be presented to the Joint Security-Military Committee, which was established on April 7 and charged with reestablishing the rule of law, integrating the various armed forces and ending armed conflicts between them. It reports to the PLC.
Economic policy was another subject of extensive discussions, with technical papers and briefings presented by the UN Development Programme and the World Bank, as well as Yemeni and GCC experts. Several policies and implementation mechanisms were agreed. These aim to start Yemen’s recovery and stabilization, reignite economic activity where possible, streamline public finances, safeguard central bank independence and manage natural resources, including oil and gas. The participants in this track suggested the establishment of a dedicated economic team to advise the PLC. That team was empaneled on April 7, the day the talks ended.
Fighting corruption was one of the main preoccupations of the participants. Before the crisis in 2014, Yemen had adopted the National Reform Agenda, at the urging of donors and international institutions, and set up several entities to implement reforms. The talks called for the reactivation of those reforms and of regulatory and oversight institutions.
The talks endorsed quite strongly the idea that Yemen’s future is tied to that of the GCC bloc and that Yemen should play an active role in preserving regional security.
The aid package announced near the end of the talks was a strong vote of confidence in the newly established PLC and its ability to translate the consensus reached in Riyadh into actions for restoring peace and security and improving the living conditions of Yemenis. Saudi Arabia is set to provide Yemen with $2.3 billion in new economic and humanitarian aid, with the UAE contributing $1 billion in economic assistance.
The Riyadh talks represent the first step in an ambitious roadmap to save Yemen from a destructive path of war. It is now up to the PLC and the new entities reporting to it, as well as the Yemeni parliament, judiciary and executive, to take the next steps.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views.