Mareike Transfeld

Yemen Policy’s Forward Thinking Vision for 2021: Combining Empirical Research with Imagined Alternatives


December 7, 2020

As Yemen is entering the 6th year of conflict, the state is fragmented and the nation is in shambles. The country’s state institutions have largely disintegrated, its security sector is ripe with divisions, exacerbated by political infighting, exploited by foreign actors, and aggravated by the UN mediation process’s lack of progress towards a resolution. It’s not surprising that, against this backdrop, Yemenis have little, to no hope, for a political solution that could revive the state they once knew. With national politics in limbo, and no truly inclusive discussions on the shape of a possible peaceful future for the country, international attention has shifted to the local level.

With our work, at the Yemen Policy Center, we want to contribute to peacebuilding through a discussion which -not only- sheds light on local politics but scales up creative local solutions to the national level. We do so through rigorous field research, conducted by our sister organisation, the Yemen Polling Center, coupled with an imaginative approach to social and political identities and everyday national politics. At YPC we believe that “the peacebuilder must have one foot in what is and one foot beyond what exists.” Only then, can we begin to think outside of the box, and generate new impetus for peacebuilding.

Throughout the last several years, the field researchers at the Yemen Polling Center have conducted hundreds of interviews with security officials throughout Yemen. We have learned how, at the outbreak of the 2015 conflict in the southwest of the country, security institutions have collapsed in heavily embattled areas. We have also come to recognise how instead of unifying troops under the “National Army,” the re-establishment of institutions through localized recruitment efforts has furthered fragmentation.

Regional support to the state security sector, as well as other non-state actors has created a mosaic of military and para-military formations, with conflicting missions and motivations. After having expulsed the internationally recognized government from its interim capital, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) now controls police and para-military forces in and around Aden. This is, de facto, a building block for what the STC wishes to become an independent South. In the North, we learned through our research, that the ways Ansarallah gained control over the state, systematically weakens tribal structures and uses security forces to crush any spaces for opposition. These dynamics have created an impasse for the peace process.

As a consequence of the deadlock on the national level, opportunities for peace on the local level are now paramount. Although the parties to the conflict have enlisted journalists, intellectuals, civil society and religious leaders to defend and further their narrative, and despite political rifts dividing communities, neighbourhoods and families, networks of non-violence continue to exist. It is here, and against all odds, that community initiatives, civil society organizations, artists and intellectuals are challenging the status quo created by the conflict parties.

The Yemen Policy Center project, al-Madaniya Magazine, has reported, amongst other stories, about women’s groups advocating for the opening of roads and airports. Youth initiatives, such as “Meemz,” the Cultural Center in Sanaa, or the Basement, have revived culture and art within communities. Other groups have become active in environmental preservation, food and medicine distribution and security.  In the context of suspended state funding and violent conflict, communities come together to enable their children to receive an education. Civil society organizations have worked towards the strengthening of the rule of law by training police officers and neighbourhood chiefs (Aqils) in administrative processes.

While the Yemeni state with its institutions has fragmented into a seemingly irreversible reality, the framework of the UN peace talks is expected to recreate the pre-conflict status quo; a framework that has little to offer to convince conflict parties to compromise. A return to the pre-conflict state is highly unlikely given the changed realities on the ground. Since the outbreak of the war, national politics have perished; country-wide institutions no longer exist, elites sought refuge abroad. Within the country, political groups appear to pull the state and its institutions further apart, rather than compromise to unify the country. A public debate about what peace could look like in Yemen, and what kind of state could realize peace are suspiciously weak.

John Lederach, a recognized Professor in international peacebuilding, with experience in  Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Colombia and Nepal argues that “moral imagination” is required to “generate constructive processes that are rooted in the day-to-day challenges of violence and yet transcend these destructive patterns;” “moral imagination” is the capacity to rise above “divisions and reach beyond accepted meanings;” it is the discovery of “untold new angles, opportunities, and unexpected potentialities”. To enable this moral imagination, space for creativity must be given. At Yemen Policy, we want to combine empirical political analysis with creative visions for Yemen’s future to enable the moral imagination to emerge.

In our project funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, al-Madaniya magazine, our imaginative Kaleidoscope, next to the empirical analysis of the Majlis will allow our readers to re-imagine the complexities of the Yemeni war. We want to use this approach to identify local peacebuilding initiatives and creative solutions, and – if it makes sense – connect them with national level peace-making.

YPC does this through an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together various academic disciplines. We include fiction writers and artists, combining empirical research, with imaginative writing. The team takes advantage of the expertise of young Yemenis who, since the war, have been able to take educational opportunities abroad, and brought back inspiration from other societies and systems. They share the space with their in-country colleagues, who live the reality of war and trauma every day.

The National Dialogue Conference, with its thousands of recommendations for the future Yemeni State, is the closest the country has come to a vision of the future and can serve as a point of departure for further deliberations. This is where our imaginative approach comes into play: what if the National Dialogue produced a national consensus, what if the Dialog would have concluded successfully? What would Yemen look like today, and what would it look like 20 years from now? What can we learn from this to make peace today?

Next week we will publish a short story by prominent Yemeni author, Wajdi al-Ahdal, which takes the reader on a journey through political change in Yemen. By scaling up local peacebuilding efforts and imagining what solutions could look like on the national level, we hope to contribute to a fruitful discussion on peace in Yemen.

Translator : Abdulsallam al-Rubaidi

Editor : Mareike Transfeld

Photographer : Maeen al-Eryani

Donor : German Federal Foreign Office

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References :

[1]YPC nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019. Data cited in this paper is drawn from this survey unless otherwise indicated.

[2] UN News “Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN” Feb 2019. https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/02/1032811 (Accessed 3 March 2020).

[3] Wadhah Al-Awlaqi and Maged Al-Madhaji, Rethinking Yemen’s economy: Local governance in Yemen amid conflict and instability, July 2018. https://devchampions.org/files/Rethinking_Yemens_Economy_No2_En.pdf (Accessed 8 March 2020); Mansour Rageh, Amal Nasser, and Farea Al-Muslimi, “Yemen without a Functioning Central Bank: The Loss of Basic Economic Stabilization and Accelerating Famine,” Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, November 2016. http://sanaacenter.org/publications/main-publications/55 (Accessed 23 May 2018).

[4]Data source: OCHA, “Humanitarian needs overview 2019: Yemen”, December 2018. https://yemen.un.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/2019_Yemen_HNO_FINAL.pdf (Accessed 11 March 2020).

[5] Final report of the Panel of Experts on Yemen, addressed to the President of the Security Council, January 2020. https://undocs.org/S/2020/70 (Accessed 11 March 2020).

[6] Mareike Transfeld, “Implementing Stockholm: The Status of Local Security Forces in al-Hodeidah,” YPC Policy Report, Yemen Polling Center, Policy Report, November 2019. http://www.yemenpolling.org/Projects-en/ICSP_EU_HodeidahReport2019November30.pdf (Accessed 16 February 2020).

[7] Mareike Transfeld and Shaima Bin Othman, “The State of the Police in Western Yemen”, YPC research debrief, Yemen Polling Center, Research Debrief, January 2020. https://www.yemenpolling.org/4325/ (Accessed 16 February 2020).

[8] Amnesty International, “Yemen: Fierce new offensive displaces tens of thousands of civilians from Hodeidah” May 2018. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/05/yemen-fierce-new-offensive-displaces-tens-of-thousands-of-civilians-from-hodeidah/ (Accessed 5 March 2020).

[9] Maged Sultan, Mareike Transfeld and Kamal Muqbil, “Formalizing the Informal State and Non-State Security Providers in Government-Controlled Taiz City,” YPC Policy Report, Yemen Polling Center, July 2019. https://yemenpolling.org/advocacy/upfiles/ICSP_EU_FinalTaizReport2019July19.pdf (Accessed 16 February 2020).

[10] Nadwa al-Dawsari , “Tribal Governance And Stability In Yemen “, The Carnegie papers, Carnegie endowment (April 2012). https://carnegieendowment.org/files/yemen_tribal_governance.pdf (Accessed 5 March 2020).

[11]CIVIC, “We Did Not Know If We Would Die From Bullets Or Hunger” Civilian Harm and Local Protection Measures in Yemen “, Jan 2019, https://civiliansinconflict.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/YEMEN_BulletsorHunger_FINAL_PROOF.pdf (Accessed 5 March 2020).

[12] Fatima Saleh and Ahmed al-Sharjabi “Institutional Prerequisites for the STC “Coup” in Aden and Perspectives on the Jeddah Deal” , research debrief, Yemen Polling Center, Oct 2019. https://www.yemenpolling.org/institutional-prerequisites-for-the-stc-coup-in-aden-and-perspectives-on-the-jeddah-deal/ (Accessed 16 February 2020).

[13] Human Rights Watch, “Yemen: Riyadh Agreement Ignores Rights Abuses”, December 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/12/yemen-riyadh-agreement-ignores-rights-abuses Accessed 5 Mar 2020; Human Rights Watch,  “Yemen: UAE Backs Abusive Local Forces” June 2017.

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