A milestone in Yemen's political transformation was reached on Monday when president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi signed his approval of a proposal for the nation to become a federation of six regions. The model to be adopted is similar to the federations of the United States and Australia, among others, where the capital Sanaa will be administered separately, and not subject to any regional authority. The move has not pleased all parties, but it offers a practical way forward for Yemen, which has endured years of civil unrest that culminated in a popular uprising in 2011.
Signed after a two-week discussion that followed last year’s National Dialogue, the agreement significantly eschews a proposal that would have seen just two states – South Yemen, which was once an independent nation, and North Yemen. Instead, there will be four states in the north, and two in the south. This system, allowing limited autonomy to the six regions while retaining a homogenous nation, demonstrates that federalism – a concept often regarded as divisive in the Arab world – can work within the existing borders drawn up 100 years ago by colonial powers. It may serve as a model for Iraq, which has resisted any devolution of power to its regions, and for a post-civil war Syria.
While many of the parties are in agreement, there is considerable resistance to the plan. Shia rebels in the north claim the division will not distribute the national wealth evenly, while some southern factions are demanding more autonomy, up to full reinstatement of the separate state. Nevertheless, this proposal remains the best hope to save the nation from an escalation of sectarian violence.
It’s important to note the input of external players, especially the Gulf nations, in brokering this outcome. The UAE and its neighbours have an obvious, vital interest in what is happening in Yemen, and it is right that they continue to offer assistance and advice to the nascent federation. The role of the US was also important in making the political process possible, although it has been criticised for its use of drones – sometimes with catastrophic misjudgement, causing civilian deaths and widespread resentment.
There is still a long way to go; the federation proposal must be enshrined in a new constitution before elections can be held. But there is a fresh hope that, with good will internally and the support of its neighbours, Yemen can proceed along a path to unity, stability and prosperity.