Bam shuts the town down

December 3, 2012

By David Arnold, reporting from Sana’a

Since arriving in Sana’a three weeks ago, I’ve been shocked by the contrast Yemen’s cosmopolitan capital provided to scaremongering international representations. For those outside it, Yemen remains synonymous with terrorism, yet in my experience people here are less concerned with Al-Qaeda bomb scares than with where next months salary will come from.

Yet as Yemeni’s express increasing frustration at the pace of change after a hard-won revolution, the government and the international community seem progressively disconnected from the reality of everyday life. This became obvious last week when UN Secretary-General Bam Ki-moon made an unannounced stopover in Sana’a that brought the city to a standstill.

Bam’s flying visit to the poorest country in the Middle East was timed to celebrate the first anniversary of the signing of the Gulf Initiative, a power transfer agreement brokered by the US and Yemen’s neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Initiative, signed in late November 2011, saw Ali Abdullah Saleh concede to popular demand, handing his presidential mandate to Abd Al-Rab Mansur Hadi and the Government of National Unity.

Marked as a success by the international community, the agreement paved the way for a democratic transition and the restoration of relative stability in Yemen, yet a year on, how much progress has been made in laying the groundwork for the National Dialogue, and what tangible changes have occurred in the lives of Yemeni’s?

Sitting amongst my fellow disgruntled commuters, late for work due to a marked increase in street security, I was hard pressed to find someone who felt that Bam’s visit was something that marked a celebration. Some argued it as nothing more than a United Nations PR stunt that attempted to shift the focus from their recent failures in Syria. More inconvenienced than indulgent, the general consensus was that international organizations and governments have missed the point over the last year about how to achieve sustainable peace and development.

Although the transitional governments efforts have resulted in a marked improvement in the security situation, many feel that economic, social and humanitarian agendas have become marginalized in a government that increasingly caters its policies towards international – specifically American – security agendas.

As Bam Ki-moon noted in his speech “transitions are difficult.” In a country where nearly half of all children are at risk of malnutrition, with the second highest unemployment rate in the Middle East a focus on a global agenda risks missing the needs of the Yemeni people.

Speaking to Yemeni friends about the growing emphasis on the ‘war on terror’ and Al-Qaeda draws reactions akin to when a vegetarian gets told chicken isn’t meat.

However, motivated by his relative success in ridding Abyan province of Al-Qaeda, Hadi political rhetoric is increasingly aligned with that of Washington. The question must be asked whether it is at the expense of addressing issues that matter to Yemeni’s.

With the country preparing for the National Dialogue, a process that will determine the long-term political vision of the country, Mohammed Adulahoum’s – the president of the Justice and Building party – comment “it’s either dialogue or chaos” could never be truer. The test for Hadi will be whether he can correlate the support of foreign backers with the needs of his population.

From the debab conversation, a token visit from Bam Ki-moon does little to change the daily reality for most Yemeni’s trying to get their lives back on track after a tumultuous year. The pressure for substantive change is growing with every day.

David Arnold is an Editor at the Yemen Times in Sana’a. He graduated from SOAS in 2011 where he studied in Anthropology and History. Prior to arriving in Yemen he worked at the International Council on
Security and Development for 7 months on projects relating to good governance, conflict resolution and grass-root community engagement.