Kuwait City, Asharq Al-Awsat—With the Yemeni national dialogue moving closer and closer to a resolution, with a number of work committees having already submitted their final reports, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi about the expected results of the dialogue, the prospects of Southern secession, and combating Al-Qaeda.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat against the backdrop of the Third Arab–African Summit in Kuwait City, Qirbi highlighted the importance of inter-regional conferences, particularly the role that this could play in resolving potentially divisive issues, not least the Nile water crisis.
He also touched on what is currently happening in Yemen and the disturbances being witnessed in the southern regions of the country, indicating that the president will seek to adopt a series of popular measures to alleviate the suffering in the region.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What were the outcomes of your visit to China with President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi? What will Beijing offer to Yemen in the near future?
Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi: The visit to China was highly important for Yemen, and I imagine it was similarly significant for China, since the visit took place on the basis of an invitation from the Chinese president. Its importance stems from the acknowledgement of China as one of the ten countries which—through their ambassadors in Yemen—are overseeing the implementation of the Gulf Initiative. It also stems from China’s supportive stance towards Yemen at the UN Security Council, its continuing emphasis that the Gulf Initiative is the best solution to the political crisis, and its desire for stability and unity in Yemen, particularly given the country’s geographical importance.
Further to that, China has become a global economic giant, and is able to extend its hand in partnerships with other countries, as it is doing in Africa. Yemen is looking to establish precisely this kind of economic partnership, particularly in the strategic port of Aden and in the extra-territorial regions that the Yemeni government is intending to set up—hence Yemen’s readiness to welcome Chinese investment in the country.
Q: Would it be possible for this cooperation to be implemented quickly in order to play a part in alleviating the extreme tension currently afflicting the South and other regions of Yemen?
The politics of such a partnership could be resolved swiftly, but the economic aspects might well require more time and greater economic feasibility to be achieved. As for the matters that have already been put in motion, we anticipate they will be completed in the foreseeable future.
Q: Have you agreed on any grants or financial assistance?
There were indeed grants offered during the visit, yet I believe that we are more interested in soft loans with low interest rates. We could invest in these, in order to implement projects, particularly infrastructure projects. This will form the basis of attracting investments to Yemen.
Q: Following President Hadi’s visit to both the US and China, are there plans for other similar visits to help support the political and economic situation in Yemen?
Since his election in February 2012, the president has visited a number of capitals, including those of the United States, Britain, France, Germany and now China, in addition to his visits to Gulf Cooperation Council states. He is only limited in these activities abroad by his domestic commitments in Yemen, particularly concerning the national dialogue and monitoring its operations.
Q: How far has the national dialogue progressed? Could it play a part in the restoration of the status quo, particularly as regards the South of Yemen?
The comprehensive National Dialogue Conference is considered to be in its final stage. It was due to finish on September 18, but not all the objectives were achieved by that date owing both to technical difficulties and to disagreements between the elements that make up the dialogue. There are nine such elements taking part, including political parties, civil society, women and the country’s youth.
Q: What are some of the obstacles to agreeing solutions through the national dialogue?
The aim of the national dialogue has been to establish solutions to the problems—primarily the political ones—facing Yemen. These problems have their roots in the economy, growth, poverty and unemployment. Currently in Yemen, around 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25; as such, it is easy to understand the size of the challenges concerning young people who are striving towards a better future. They, more than others, sense the importance of the reforms. All these issues pose challenges to the Yemeni government, and it is these challenges that underlie much of what has happened in Yemen. Today we can appreciate just how vital it is that elements participating in the national dialogue are committed to achieving its primary goal: addressing various problems through mutual agreement. Chief among these issues is the building of the modern Yemeni state, the establishment of good governance, reforming its institutions, and drafting a new constitution. It is this constitution that will lay the foundations for the new state, in such a way that we avoid the mistakes of the past.
Q: Despite this ongoing national dialogue, there is continuing escalation in the South and even talk of a new war for independence. What’s your view of this emerging attitude?
This attitude is on the rise, yet unfortunately it is exaggerated by the media. The truth of the matter is that people from the Southern provinces represent almost 50 percent of the participants in the current dialogue conference, even though they only make up around 20 percent of the population of Yemen. Nevertheless, they are granted this level of representation in order to reassure them that we truly want to reach solutions through this national dialogue, and ensure that there is a balance in legislation between the northern and southern provinces.
The national dialogue includes 282 participants and the southern separatist Al-Hirak movement has 85 seats, which is almost a third of all seats. However, the political parties, civil organizations, women and the country’s youth who do not belong to Al-Hirak are not demanding the break-up of the union, or the separation of the North and the South, as some are advocating.
Q: When will the National Dialogue Conference end? When will it issue its final recommendations?
We are all hoping that it will reach its conclusion as soon as possible. However, it should not be a question of ending the discussions before there is real consensus between all parties on the conference’s decisions. Concessions will be one of the most important guarantors of success during the implementation phase. Another marker for success is when people feel that the majority of their demands have been accepted and dealt with, and it goes without saying that all parties should offer concessions to one another until they reach an accord.
Q: What are the outstanding issues from the national dialogue?
There are certain important issues, but others have been invented. The central issue for us is the question of the form of the state. Now, the majority of people support the parliamentary system in Yemen and its transformation into a federation. As such, the discussion revolves around federalism: the concept itself is agreed upon, yet the disagreement concerns the number of provinces, since Al-Hirak and the Socialist Party are calling for two provinces—the North and the South—as the situation was before unification. They are looking on this as an opportunity to bring about complete division in the future, and therefore we are insisting on five provinces in the establishment of a federal system, rejecting the notion of two provinces. This is an issue which has not yet been resolved.
The second central issue has been Al-Hirak’s demand that in the period following federalization there be a referendum over secession, something which has been rejected by the majority of political participants, since unity is one of the national constants. As for procedural and marginal issues, they have provoked negative reactions by going outside of the parameters of the Gulf Initiative.
Q: Can you give some examples of this?
There are those who are claiming that the transfer of power has still not taken place; yet how can that be the case, since we have held presidential elections, the former president handed power over, and a new government has been formed by political parties and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi? This is not to mention the fact that the ministers who belong to the General People’s Congress were chosen by the current president and not the previous one, as they are claiming. This was one of the issues. Another issue concerned the possibility of revoking diplomatic immunity, which is considered a fundamental pillar of the Gulf Initiative.
Q: By diplomatic immunity, just what are you referring to? Are you referring to any specific figure’s immunity from prosecution?
It is for the former president and those who worked with him during his 33-year rule, and as such it applies to many of the opposition. On a final note, elections should take place following the conclusion of the national dialogue, the drafting of the constitution, and the holding of the constitutional referendum. As such, they [the opposition] want to return to a formative stage of development. This is in contradiction with the Gulf Initiative and would lead to more economic difficulties, because there will not be an active government able to deal with its responsibilities.
Q: What is the current role of UN envoy Jamal Benomar and the United Nations, particularly insofar as it supports the Gulf Initiative and the national dialogue?
Jamal Benomar is still working with us, and is playing his part in the discussions; so too is the GCC, which is working on securing rapprochement between various points of view, as and when the solutions between the different Yemeni parties become problematic. I think that everyone realizes that the solution has to be a purely Yemeni one in order to ensure its success and implementation.
Q: How do you view the occasional calls by some of the leaders of the Socialist Party for secession, civil disobedience and escalation?
The Socialist Party signed the Gulf Initiative, and therefore it must remain committed to what it signed. We will find it difficult to engage in the future with any group that attempts to evade its responsibilities in this regard. Thus it finds itself in a tricky situation, since it is trying to compete with Al-Hirak for popularity in the South. It has to either look to the unity and stability of Yemen or enter into a struggle for the populist vote—and this is a struggle which could lead anywhere.
Q: Do you have fears about the calls for civil disobedience in the South?
I do not believe that will pose a problem, because since the national dialogue started the president has dealt with and resolved many issues. Likewise, councils have been set up in order to deal with the situation of pensioners and the problem of land ownership, as well as the council formed to deal with the “20 and 11 points” [a list of demands submitted by Southern participants] to prepare the climate of the discussions. All of this has changed the mood in the South to one of positivity and contentment.
Q: What about the struggle against Al-Qaeda in Yemen? Are there new measures in place to get rid of its negative influence?
The Al-Qaeda phenomenon considered a regional and international problem, as evidenced by what is happening in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya and even Egypt, as well as in the Maghreb states. As such, it must be dealt with on a regional and international level, rather than being treated as a problem unique to Yemen.
Q: Has Washington committed to supporting Yemen in this confrontation?
Yemen has been met with support in this regard from the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and other nations. However, unfortunately, the struggle with Al-Qaeda is focused even now on the security aspect alone, while other areas have been neglected, such as the economic, educational and religious aspects, among others. These issues must be included in this confrontation, particularly raising awareness regarding a correct understanding of Islam. We need to deal with the reason these people are becoming radicalized.
Q: Is Yemen sympathetic to the former Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government? And why has there not been any contact with the new military-backed interim government, or even a statement of support since Islamist President Mohamed Mursi’s ouster?
All Yemeni people, whether they are Islamists or represent other parts of the majority, stand by Egypt for many reasons, particularly in view of the historical bonds which unite Yemen and Egypt. Egypt’s prestige and its regional and international influence are very important, and as such we do not want to see it facing violence and instability. This affects everyone, and there is nobody in the wider Arab world who will not feel its impact. It follows that there is a continuing bond between Yemen and Egypt, and that relationship will never be broken, nor will our abiding interest in what happens in Egypt ever falter.
Q: How do you evaluate the work of the Arab–African Summit?
During this conference, we must appreciate the role of former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, since he always strove for the creation of ties between the Arab world and their neighbors. This conference will have positive repercussions. The outside world does not want these summits to take place, and we realize today that Arabs must join their future with Africa, so that the issue we are witnessing with Egypt and the Nile waters is not repeated in the future. Therefore, it is essential that there is an intertwining of interests in order to benefit all parties.
Q: Will the Yemeni president participate in the summit?
The president is indeed participating in the conference and will make a speech. He has a number of proposals, and we hope that they will be met with approval. It is well known that Yemen is affected by what is happening in Africa, because Yemen has over a million refugees from the Horn of Africa, yet this is an issue disregarded by the West. Immigration, when it relates to crises affecting Europe, provokes a great deal of interest, yet because this problem is in Yemen, far removed from Europe, they do not pay attention to it.
Q: There is great discussion surrounding the subject of immigration in the Arab–African Summit, as regards its treatment and characterization. How do you see it?
Two days ago we convened a conference concerning asylum and immigration from the Horn of Africa, attended by GCC member states. It was extremely useful in terms of how to tackle this problem, and we established a three stage approach: First, by solving the political problems which lead to immigration. Second, by dealing with the economic problems in these countries by opening the doors to a legally managed labor force in accordance with international labor treaties. Third, by utilizing special funds dedicated to dealing with problems of poverty and unemployment.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.