Published on Arab Voices

The National Dialogue in Yemen should be about more than politics

World BankYemen is currently engaged in a national dialogue. It is a vital phase of the reconciliation process launched in the aftermath of last year’s crisis. A political agreement was reached, sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council and supported by the international community, which included a commitment to reform the structure of the state to address long standing political fault lines between the north and the south, and regional grievances over the concentration of power in the capital, Sana’a. While these are vital themes, as it discusses the structure of a future state, the national dialogue should also consider critical economic and environmental factors. A new decentralized and federal model could offer more than political solutions to historical divisions; it could also provide the path to the kind of sustainable growth capable of generating the millions of jobs needed over the next ten years.

For centuries, Yemenis have lived mostly in the highlands. This was due to the simple fact that the highlands have the most rainfall which supported the traditional subsistence on agriculture and livestock. Population growth, however, has made these traditional forms of subsistence unsustainable.

While the amount of rain in the highlands can support one, two or even five to ten million people, the number of Yemenis now living in the highlands ranges between 15 and 20 million, which is expected to increase to around 40 million over the next 20 years. The traditional agriculture that is supported by the rainfall in the highlands will not be enough to sustain reasonable living conditions for this large a population.

Hydrological studies show that the Sana’a water basin is being rapidly depleted, and may run dry in the next five to ten years. Building alternate industries to employ this large number of people in the highlands may not be competitive because of the high transport costs. Bringing desalinated water in from the coast is a very expensive process due to the distance and elevation it must travel to reach the highlands.  

Rather than ferrying water to the highlands, and developing industries in unsustainable conditions, Yemen should look to the coast. A plan to focus development where conditions are favorable and sustainable, such as the coastal cities of Aden, Hudeida, Mocha and Mokalla, among others, should also be a vital component of the national dialogue.

The clear political motivation for decentralization, or federalism, should not lose sight of the economic context. Indeed, economic autonomy, along with political autonomy, for the various regions of the country can be an important source of growth.  This would involve devolving a host of administrative issues to local authorities, such as investment policy, local tax structure (other than the national tax structure), and local economic development planning. This will enable the various regions and cities to compete to attract investment from both the Yemeni and international private sector.

In turn, the national government should evolve from its role as the sole decision maker to becoming a source of regional support and integration. It could champion development while promoting regional integration by focusing on key infrastructure and resources, such as building and maintaining the national highway system and managing inter-regional water issues, as well as encouraging investment in the various regions.

Critical to the decentralization of the political system, and vital for the success of economic decentralization,  will be the creation of accountability measures to ensure open and transparent economic decisions, at both the national and local level, and the guarantee of checks and balances between the various branches of government. Otherwise, the decentralization process would end up decentralizing corruption and mismanagement.

Dubai is a good example of the potential benefits of such a process. Some of the main reasons for its success have been its economic autonomy, bold leadership and the strong partnerships it established with the private sector. Can Yemen create a system that will enable Aden, Mukkalla, Hudeida and Mocha (and others) to become another “Dubai” of Yemen? Economic decentralization would be a first step.

The East Asia economic miracle was also built on decentralization. China, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, all have decentralized/federal systems where investment decisions are made at the local level.

This is in no way an attempt to downplay the vital role that decentralization can play in the political reconciliation process. Once I was told by the head of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, who for years fought for the independence of Moslem Mindanao, that decentralization delivered more than he ever achieved in his 30 year struggle with the government. He was elected the governor of Catabato City in the late 1990s, where his administration was responsible for all local economic decisions and the delivery of local services.    

My goal is to encourage all Yemenis to look at the economic and environmental dimensions as integral parts of the national dialogue. Any discussion of decentralization or federalism should be about more than simply drawing lines defining administrative entities that balance geography with political and tribal identities. Including the economy and the environment at the center of the national dialogue will provide a great opportunity to set Yemen on the path to sustainable development, with the benefits shared by all its citizens.


Wael Zakout

Senior Technical Advisor and Global Lead, Land Policy and Geospatial

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