Why the World Missed Yemen’s Downward Spiral

The U.N.’s spin machine sold the West on a stable Sanaa even as the country teetered on the brink of disaster.


One glance at the comments on former U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar’s Facebook post announcing his resignation on April 16 is enough to make clear that he wasn’t the most popular guy in the country.

“Shame on you … you are the hands that shed innocent blood in Yemen,” said one commenter, who identified himself as a Yemeni from Aden. “You made a war in yemen,” wrote another from Aden, promising that Yemenis “will not forget what you do.” And these are just the comments with language fit to print.

While these opinions ostensibly come from Yemenis with little role in politics, those deeply involved in the country’s political scene voice similar sentiments.

“I think it’s time for him to leave and somebody else to come now who can run a real dialogue and reconciliation,” one former official, who was also a member of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, told me by phone.

As the United Nations’ man in Sanaa since April 2011, Benomar had spent years publicly declaring that the transition in Yemen from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was progress that Yemenis could be proud of. With the Saudi-led military campaign and internal fighting plunging the country deeper into chaos, the Moroccan diplomat announced that he was leaving his post as Yemen’s political broker.

“When I was assigned to this post in 2011, it was in the context of the Arab Spring. That conflict was a domestic affair. Now the country is in a state of war. The drivers of conflict are no longer just Yemeni; they have become regional,” Benomar said in a phone conversation on Sunday, April 19, as to why he stepped down now. “The tools we used to support the transition are no longer the appropriate ones. It is the start of a new era.”

But it was in the years leading up to the current war that the outside world either downplayed the fraught reality of Yemeni politics or falsely portrayed Yemen as a success story in the Middle East. Benomar often was at the forefront of that publicity campaign.

In April 2013, the U.N. envoy praised Yemen as “the only example in the region of a peaceful negotiated transition that is based on a comprehensive road map and a genuine national dialogue.” In November 2013, after noting the existence of “spoilers” to Yemen’s political transition, he said that, overall, the country “continues to make remarkable progress despite evident challenges.” In January 2014, he praised Yemenis for stepping back from the brink of civil war and “negotiat[ing] an agreement for peaceful change, the only such in the region.” That same month, he told a pan-Arab newspaper that “those who tried to impede the wheels of progress were overcome.”

However, the past weeks have shown that civil war has not been averted in Yemen since Hadi became president in February 2012. In fact, the country’s internal divisions have only been inflamed. Internal conflict has wrecked Yemen’s southern cities: In Aden, local journalists told me, the dead are left on the streets for fear that those who try to retrieve their bodies will be killed by snipers. The Saudi-led air campaign has attempted to decimate the military infrastructure of the Houthi forces — the group that took over the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and forced Hadi to flee — but has killed dozens of civilians in the process. Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis is deepening every day: The country’s borders are effectively closed and Yemenis are running out of basic goods like water, while a fuel scarcity means that even those who want to flee war-torn cities for villages can’t find enough gasoline for the journey.

“The international community, including the UN and Western governments, exaggerated the level of progress and success of Yemen’s political transition,” a director of a development organization that worked in Yemen during the transition told me.

While the main crux of Benomar’s public statements was Yemen’s incredible achievements and peaceful transition, the U.N. envoy said that behind closed doors, a different message was being relayed to the world’s major powers. “I worked for three years to convince the Security Council that this transition was in trouble and warned repeatedly that unless some early and serious action is taken, the transition would collapse,” he said.

That may be the case, but the overly sunny public rhetoric on Yemen was one reason the world didn’t sound the alarm about its downward spiral earlier. It’s not as if the country had been in the midst of a model transition to democracy and only just slipped off the rails. Conflict between the Houthis and their tribal foes had already kicked off in northern Yemen well into 2013; Hadi was a weak president propped up by foreign powers; and Saleh, who remained in the country and has since partnered with the Houthis, never really stopped scheming for a return to power.

Many Yemenis and Yemen analysts saw at the time that the focus on adhering to the steps of the transition initiative was counterproductive at best and potentially disastrous. Yemeni journalists warned that the Houthis were consolidating power and conflict was a real possibility. They worried about the ramifications of not addressing security and economic issues in the southern port city of Aden so that its population didn’t feel that the government was ignoring them, thus flaming secessionist movements. They warned that the economy was headed for disaster and that average Yemenis had yet to see any material improvement in their lives. These issues were put on the back burner for the sake of pretending that the national dialogue was “a blueprint for building a more peaceful and prosperous Yemen,” as a United Nations Radio program characterized Benomar’s view in 2013.

Ignorance is also partly to blame; few outside Yemen know much about the country. It’s a confusing place after all, one where government spokespeople aren’t necessarily speaking for the government and tribal alliances mean more than anything parliament says or does. Thus, this disingenuousness found space to perpetuate. Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon seemed to buy into the notion that peace was spreading across Yemen, stating in January 2014 that “Yemen has demonstrated to the region that positive change is possible when pursued through dialogue and compromise.”

U.S. President Barack Obama also was guilty of painting too rosy a picture of events in Yemen, capitalizing on outsiders’ lack of knowledge about the country. In a September 2014 speech about how the United States planned to fight the Islamic State, he praised the U.S. “strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us,” saying it was one “we have successfully pursued in Yemen.” In reality, U.S. counterterrorism policy in Yemen is no model to follow elsewhere: Attacks perpetrated by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) within Yemen have escalated since 2012, and the current chaos in the country may only serve its interests further. A recent prison break orchestrated by the jihadi group in the southeastern provincial capital of Mukalla freed as many as 300 prisoners, many of them jihadists who will swell AQAP’s ranks.

Yemen has long been a diplomatic backwater, and there are few “experts” on the country. When I first moved to Yemen in 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa was staffed mainly with young foreign-service officers on their first assignment. When chaos broke out in the country in 2011 as a result of the Arab Spring, I saw that Gerald Feierstein, then the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, appeared to have relatively free rein over how to implement the U.S. goal of encouraging Saleh to resign as president. The U.S. envoy was part of the negotiations for Saleh to step down from the very start, in March 2011, and he was part of the original drafting of what would be known as the Gulf Initiative, the deal that made Hadi president and let Saleh remain in the country, with legal immunity.

But Saleh didn’t step down from power as easily as the U.S. Embassy had anticipated. That was partially because Saleh lied — a signature move of his — about his willingness to hand over power to Hadi and also because he had disagreements with leaders of the opposition coalition. That’s when Benomar came into the picture, to try to lend a hand at brokering the transition deal.

It was no secret in Sanaa that Feierstein and Benomar did not get along — at all. Benomar, in fact, suggested to me in the fall of 2011 that I should write an article in the New York Times, the newspaper for which I was reporting as a freelance correspondent in Yemen, about how poorly the U.S. Embassy was handling the initiative that would usher Hadi into office. I asked Benomar whether he had a different plan for transition and how to solve the political gridlock. As far as I could ascertain, he did not, so I believed there was no story worth writing at the time.

Benomar succeeded in positioning himself, not Feierstein, as the diplomat leading the transition from Saleh to Hadi. It appeared to Yemenis that the U.N. envoy had immense sway over the new president — Hadi could hardly make a major political announcement without Benomar in the country, holding his hand. It was Benomar who was most often seen in Sanaa advising the president, seemingly to give Hadi the backbone to deal with others in Yemen’s fraught and fractured political milieu.

“Hadi used [Benomar] as a stick against his opponents,” Mustapha Noman, a former Yemeni ambassador who was close to the transfer-of-power negotiations, wrote in an email to me.

This did not sit well with many Yemenis, and the incredible amount of influence the United Nations and Western countries had over Hadi’s regime was one of the Houthis’ main selling points as they expanded their influence.

Benomar’s Yemen model has now proved to be a failed enterprise. As Yemeni journalist and activist Farea Al-Muslimi wrote recently, violence is the only certainty in the country: It is the civilians trapped among the chaos of the Saudi bombing campaign, Houthi violence, and al Qaeda’s power grab who are paying the real price. As for Jamal Benomar, many Yemenis have told me they thought he was too close to the political process — more of a player than a facilitator. This is how he will ultimately be remembered in whatever the future of Yemen will be.

Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Laura Kasinof is a journalist and author of Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen. She was the New York Times correspondent in Yemen during the Arab Spring. Twitter: @kasinof

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