Among the keenest observers of the process are western diplomats, their governments fearful of the consequences of Yemen slipping into chaos and the attendant risk of the spread of terrorism and instability on the Arabian peninsula.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the British Ambassador to Yemen, Nicholas Hopton, spoke about the position of the UK towards Yemen’s ongoing political and economic problems, and his hopes for the outcome of the National Dialogue, which began on March 18.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Are you optimistic that the national dialogue in Yemen will be successful?
Ambassador Hopton: I am happy that the dialogue has started, even though it was delayed. I believe that the presence of all other parties and groups at the conference to discuss Yemen’s future is considered a big achievement.
Q: Do you believe that a kind of strategic relations will be established between Yemen and the United Kingdom?
I believe that currently there is a strategic partnership between Yemen and the UK. The two countries have a desire and common interest to work together in order to achieve peace, stability and prosperity in Yemen. This is what is happening.
Q: How do you view President Hadi’s leadership during the transitional phase?
President Hadi has done an encouraging and splendid job since he was elected in February 2012, and it seems that his approach has begun to yield good results in Yemen, especially when taking into consideration that the political process is still ongoing and that the National Dialogue has just begun. The parties are now meeting to discuss ways to build Yemen’s future, and this is undoubtedly an achievement. I believe that we should fully appreciate President Hadi for leading this transitional phase.
Q: You just met with President Hadi. What issues did you discuss with him?
We discussed the developments in the dialogue process, and I congratulated him on the formation of working groups, which is the latest stage in the development of the dialogue. I also made it clear to him that the United Kingdom is committed to fully supporting Yemen, and specifically the National Dialogue. This is confirmed by the fact that the United Kingdom is the largest donor to the UN fund dedicated to supporting the transition process in Yemen and the National Dialogue. Accordingly, the United Kingdom’s commitment to supporting Yemen financially is equal to its commitment to supporting Yemen politically.
Q: Some observers hold the view that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh continues to play a pivotal role in the political process, and that sometimes his role might not be in line with the requirements of the political transition in the country. What is your opinion on this issue?
Former President Saleh served an important role in the creation of an atmosphere favorable to a peaceful handover of power when he agreed on the Gulf states’ [GCC] initiative in Riyadh in November 2011, and this a credit to him.
The initiative stipulates that the former president will have no influential role in the political process in Yemen after he steps down, and we hope that he will honor the conditions of this agreement.
On the other hand, the UN Security Council recently expressed concern over reports indicating that both the former president and [former vice president and South Yemen separatist leader] Ali Salim Al-Beidh may not be playing the constructive roles that are expected of them in the political transition process. The UN Security Council and the international community expect the former president to play a constructive role in the peaceful transition process and also in the National Dialogue in order to support the Yemeni people’s will to build a new Yemen in the future.
Q: Do you have any apprehensions that the National Dialogue might fail?
Failure of the dialogue remains a possibility. As I said, there are indications at this stage that prompt us to look at things positively. I believe that right now, the United Kingdom and the international community should focus on supporting the dialogue process and encourage the participants to seriously bear their responsibilities. They should understand each other’s stances during the dialogue, reach a compromise, and agree on the results of the dialogue conference, which are expected in the early autumn.
These results will lead to a new constitution, a referendum on the constitution, and elections that are expected to be held in February 2014. Accordingly, there are grounds for hope that Yemen’s future will be a promising one.
Q: But you did not mention the threats that might make the dialogue conference fail.
Nothing can be taken as certain—success is not certain. Yes, there are threats to the National Dialogue and to the political process as a whole, and some of them are known.
Q: Such as?
Such as the terrorist threats, which are serious and tangible. I believe that the Yemeni people do not want any terrorist groups in their country, and there is no doubt that the Yemenis will receive support from the international community to defeat terrorism.
Q: And what else?
There are threats from outside Yemen. The UN committee that deals with sanctions on Iran is investigating a report that a ship loaded with weapons and explosives was sent from Iran to Yemen in an attempt to undermine security and stability. And if the reports turn out to be true, of course such action will not be acceptable.
Also, there are other threats from which Yemen has suffered a great deal: violence and tribal conflicts. Besides, there is a need for economic growth. On the other hand, certain political groups—be they from the North or the South—need to be included in the political process. These are sensitive issues. That is why security in Yemen remains fragile. I hope that national reconciliation will be achieved between all parties in the country during the National Dialogue, so that they may work together to resolve their political disagreements. By doing so, these parties will be able to build a new Yemen together.
Q: Since you have mentioned Iran, how do you view the role that Iran plays in Yemen?
I believe that it is worrying for us that a state like Iran plays a role in undermining stability in Yemen. We hope that the Iranians will understand that it is in the interest of the entire region to have a safe and stable Yemen. It will be a mistake to play any role in undermining security in Yemen, particularly during the transitional phase.
Q: In your opinion, why are the Iranians attempting to undermine security in Yemen?
I do not believe that I am in a position to answer this question. You can direct your question to the officials in Tehran to get a clear answer. What is obvious, however, is that the international community is deeply concerned over the Iranian interventions in Yemen and over any activity that might lead to the destabilization of the country.
Q: There are those who believe that some parties agreed to participate in the National Dialogue in Yemen with the aim of sabotaging it from within. Do you agree with this view?
No, no, I do not concur. I believe that all participants in the dialogue must be assessed on the basis that they have attended the conference. Regardless of their motive for attending the dialogue, their presence will make them develop proposals [and engage in the political dialogue]. This is a natural result of engaging in a dialogue like this.
Q: But there are deep disagreements between the participants in the dialogue.
Of course, some disagreements between the participants are very large, and there is a great deal of skepticism among the various parties. However, we must let the participants to present their doubts, and we expect them to take their responsibilities seriously.
Q: What can the international community do about the situation?
I do not want to expect the worst, and I do not want to see the worst happen. The international community hopes and expects the main parties and groups to participate effectively.
Q: An important faction of the Al-Harak (the Southern Mobility Movement, or SMM) refused to take part in the National Dialogue. Do you believe that this threatens the dialogue’s success?
I believe that half of the dialogue members are from the South, but they are not from the SMM. It is true that the SMM’s participation is not as large as might be hoped, and they have the democratic right to choose who they want—it is their choice. The door for other factions of the SMM to participate is still open. I hope that they will reconsider their stance when they see the National Dialogue’s progress, particularly after the working teams were formed and the discussion began to take a serious turn.
Q: What did the United Kingdom and the international community do to encourage the Southern Mobility Movement to participate in the National Dialogue?
The international community’s message to the SMM has been clear throughout the past year: they must participate in the dialogue so that the South’s grievances, which have been held since its independence, may be discussed.
Acting on behalf of the British government, I met with a number of Southern leaders in both Aden and Cairo. I discussed these issues with them, and encouraged them to participate in the dialogue. My fellow diplomats from other states did similar things and conveyed the same message. For his part, [the UN secretary-general’s envoy] Jamal Benomar held meetings in Dubai to encourage some of the Southern leaders to engage in the dialogue. Others played similar roles, and the same message was conveyed.
Q: Let us talk about Al-Qaeda. Some observers say that the size and role of Al-Qaeda in Yemen have been exaggerated. They also say that the West seeks to achieve political and material benefits.
I do not agree with this view. In fact, I believe that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a genuine threat to security and stability in Yemen in particular. Al-Qaeda also seeks to make the National Dialogue fail. I believe that it poses a genuine danger.
Last year, the government managed to drive Al-Qaeda out of the directorates it controlled, and this is a tangible development. Yet, I believe that Al-Qaeda continues to pose a genuine threat to the interests of Yemen and its international partners. Therefore, we must continue to work together to make sure that Yemen will not be a refuge for terrorism in the future.
Q: This statement suggests that you support Yemen because you fear Al-Qaeda.
There are a host of reasons why we support Yemen. It is these reasons that made us pledge USD 310 million in economic aid to support the Yemeni economy. Recently, at the conference of the Friends of Yemen that was held in London [on March 7, 2013], the British Government gave GBP 70 million in humanitarian aid to support those who have no food, from among the people who are suffering from this situation.
The United Kingdom has a long history of relations with Yemen and its people, and we believe that what is happening in Yemen is a big step toward stability and progress towards a stable, democratic future. Besides, there are joint economic interests between British and Yemeni businessmen. I believe that for all these reasons—not only because of Al-Qaeda in Yemen—the partnership and relations between Yemen and the United Kingdom are and will remain strong.
Q: Yemen is now in an important phase of its history. What should the Yemenis do to emerge from the bottleneck?
They must learn from the experiences of other countries. This is especially true because the world is now like a small village, where we can learn from each other.
When we receive Yemeni officials in the United Kingdom, we sometimes take them to Northern Ireland to talk to local leaders there. [We hope that the Yemeni visitors can] benefit from their [Northern Ireland’s] experiences and the efforts that were made and continue to be made in order to achieve reconciliation. There are lessons that might be beneficial in achieving national reconciliation.
Similarly, Yemeni political leaders can benefit from the experiences of other states, such as South Africa and Chile, and other states that went through cycles of conflict and violence that ended with reconciliation and a better future for these countries. I believe that the participants in the National Dialogue must study similar cases and try to apply some of them in a useful way, even if they cannot apply all of them.
Q: When do you believe that the Yemeni Airlines will resume its flights to London?
As you know, these flights stopped immediately after Al-Qaeda in Yemen made an attempt to use international flights to kill many people.
Q: Do you mean the attempt that was made by a young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab?
He is just one example among many others. This is indeed what made the authorities in the United Kingdom unable to receive direct flights from Sana’a. I always discuss this issue with the Yemeni authorities. It is also discussed by the president [of Yemen] and his government with the British ministers concerned. We take this issue seriously and understand the Yemeni authorities’ desire to resume the direct flights by Yemeni planes between Sana’a and London. We are working on this issue and seek to achieve progress in this respect.