Ranging from hopes for better living standards, a more open and fair society, to improved public services and higher levels of security, Yemenis have justifiably high expectations of the country’s National Dialogue Conference, underway since 18 March 2013. The conference, part of the GCC plan for the Arab Spring’s only negotiated transition so far, is of great significance for not only for Yemen, but for the wider region and beyond. Making a success of the conference is vital for the continued existence of Yemen as a state – literally, by offering a credible alternative to Southern secessionists, and more figuratively by avoiding a decent into a protracted civil war. In many ways, this is also the spectrum of success: a minimal version of avoiding violent anarchy and a contested state break-up, and a more maximalist approach that sees success defined by the more ambitious goals outlined at the beginning of this paragraph.

The prospects of success, however defined, are complicated by the wide range of diverse demands and political players inside and outside Yemen. The youth movement, which was instrumental in starting and sustaining the protests that forced President Saleh to step down after more than three decades in power, has rather different expectations, and thus criteria for success, than the representatives of the former PDRY, themselves split between those for whom a return to independent statehood is the only option and others who would be content with significant self-government in a federal-style Yemen. More self-government is also high on the agenda for the Houthi rebels in the north, who are embedded in the country’s Shi’a minority, which is politically and religiously active in the Zaydi revivalist movement. Sunni political Islamic movements are much more fragmented, and there is significant antagonism between the more modernist Muslim Brotherhood, represented politically primarily in the Islah party (whose leadership is under pressure internally from more radical elements, and externally from liberals), and political Salafists (who have yet to form a nationwide political party but are certain to do so before elections scheduled for early next year). Tribes, tribal coalitions, and the relations between them further complicate the picture, linking political parties, including Saleh’s own General People’s Congress (GPC), and their leaders, to tribal power bases maintained through patronage networks and sustaining an increasingly corrosive system of corruption that further debilitates the capacity of state institutions to deliver security and other basic services.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its military wing Ansar al-Sharia, have a long-established presence especially in the south and east of Yemen, dating back to the later 1980s, early 1990s. With a predominantly local and regional (i.e., Saudi) leadership, AQAP is sensitive to the local context and recruits locally from a significant, and growing, pool of disaffected youths. Its strategy to obtain territorial control beyond its bases and training camps in the eastern mountains in more urban and infrastructurally developed parts of southern Yemen (e.g., in Abyan and Shabwa provinces) saw some temporary success in 2011 and 2012, but was ultimately futile as government forces and local tribal militias regained control, aided by targeted US drone strikes. The weakness of government security forces and the limited presence and effectiveness of central state institutions, however, has left the field to tribal militias that are able to provide a modicum of security only. While AQAP benefits from the general instability and unrest in the south, and has fomented it by embarking on a more traditional insurgency campaign since being ousted from the areas it had captured, the group has little to gain from actively disrupting the National Dialogue Conference. Nonetheless, links between Ansar al-Sharia and radical elements among the militarised sections of the secessionist movement, as well as alleged links with Iran mean that, at a minimum, there is little appetite among significant players in the south for an outright success of the National Dialogue.

These various dynamics play out in a situation in which the vast majority of Yemenis face a daily struggle for survival in a country that has a very limited resource base on which to develop economically, including severe water shortages and poor water management, low levels of education, an annual net increase in the population of around 3% and consequently a significant youth “bulge” and high levels of unemployment. Reduced levels of labour migration, especially to Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, further reduce the contribution that remittances can make to alleviate a growing humanitarian crisis, let alone contribute to any kind of sustainable economic development.

Against this background of social fragmentation, political division, and economic deprivation, any widespread perceived failure of the National Dialogue would quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given the high, and almost unrealistic, hopes tied to the negotiations in Sana’a and conducted among primarily urbanised and educated elites, it is important to manage expectations of what can be attained in which sequence, timeframe, and degree of completeness. This is a difficult challenge for both internal and external stakeholders in the process, but comparative experience from other managed transitions would suggest a number of important considerations.

First, a prioritisation and sequencing of tasks are required. Meaningful constitutional reform and its sustainable implementation are at the heart of the negotiations in the National Dialogue. For it to succeed, capacity needs to be built to enable local (as well as regional) actors to come to grips not only with the complexity of issues involved but also to embrace the full spectrum of options available to address them. This is particularly obvious in relation to the future territorial structure of Yemen that needs to accommodate demographic, political and economic heterogeneity in equal measure to ensure a viable future state in Yemen. This does not only involve a technical solution for the varied aspirations in the south and north and Sa’ada region, but also a range of guarantees and dispute resolution mechanisms to enable parties to commit to a solution and to resolve difficulties in the implementation process and beyond. While difficult questions, such as a possible referendum on southern independence cannot be put off forever, they can also not be resolved immediately. In other words, the “Southern issue” is clearly a make-or-break challenge in the National Dialogue, but its solution has to involve more than thinking purely about north-south relations.

What the National Dialogue will need are also some early successes to validate and legitimise itself and enable participants to agree, if necessary, to an extension of proceedings beyond the current timeframe. The important issue is one of balance: while extending the National Dialogue conference beyond its current deadline, or even postponing presidential and subsequent parliamentary elections, may well be prudent and expedient to avoid all-out failure, doing so without demonstrating its value on the basis of some tangible outcomes will, over time, render the National Dialogue as a means of resolving Yemen’s myriad problems meaningless and increase political disaffection of ordinary Yemenis, thus in turn creating the space, and legitimacy, for irreconcilable positions inside and outside the current framework to become more and more entrenched.

Second, all stakeholders need to be realistic about how many and how much of their stated objectives they can attain. Hopes for rapid economic development to achieve living standards similar to those in GCC countries are as unrealistic as expectations that Yemen will quickly become a beacon of a democratic society free of corruption, governed by the rule of law, in which minorities are respected and protected, and which is an anchor of regional security and stability. While none of these prospects are completely unrealistic in the long term, it is difficult to imagine how they could be achieved in the short term. Moreover, the National Dialogue conference can, at best, create a framework for achieving them: establishing the necessary institutions and building the trust among all stake holders to implement, and abide by, them. This is a message that participants and stakeholders in the National Dialogue must embrace themselves, and they need to communicate it to those they purport to represent.

Third, expectation management also requires a greater degree of alignment of objectives among stakeholders. Regional stability (and the associated management of threats from international terrorism and piracy, to name but two) is a key concern for external stakeholders from neighbouring Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries, to the US, Russia, and the European Union. Avoiding a violent escalation of tensions inside Yemen and managing an increasingly grave humanitarian situation are among the crucial problems that domestic stakeholders face. These are not mutually exclusive objectives, and in fact they are closely related to, and in their attainment dependent on, each other. Hence, beyond acknowledging their existence, internal and external stakeholders in the National Dialogue process need to work with, and mutually support, each other. This means that adequate resources are allocated to addressing all these challenges beyond the narrow core objectives of individual stakeholders’ individual concerns. In other words, Yemen’s problems are more complex than al-Qaeda, military restructuring, and preventing (or obtaining) southern independence. It also means flexibility in terms of negotiating positions and a preparedness for concessions and compromise on how much can be achieved and how fast. Lastly, it also requires all parties to remain engaged in the process beyond attaining their goals to contribute to as comprehensive an outcome of the National Dialogue as possible and ensure its sustainable implementation. External stakeholders will need to continue to make available resources beyond the endpoint of the National Dialogue Conference, domestic stakeholders must really live up to the commitments they make rather than just paying lip service to them once a new constitution, among other things, has been agreed.

Among the external stakeholders, the GCC countries play a particularly pivotal role. It was the GCC plan endorsed by the UN Security Council that has structured the transition so far, and if it fails, the onus will be first and foremost on the GCC to offer an alternative. Key states within the GCC, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Dubai, and Qatar, however, have other incentives as well to work for the success of the current plan centred on the National Dialogue Conference: civil war in Yemen and state breakup would affect them most immediately and directly. At the same time, they are well placed to facilitate success because of their long-standing involvement (for better or worse) in Yemen, their ties with key political players in the National Dialogue, and their links to members of the Yemeni, and especially Southern, diaspora, including some who do not currently participate in the Conference. Important as they are as influencers and stakeholders, however, they are not the only ones, and if greater alignment of external stakeholder objectives is to be achieved, more clarity of what the GCC countries’ priorities and red lines are will eventually be necessary.

As an exercise in public diplomacy and publicity, expectation management, finally, also requires responsible engagement with and through different media – from public meetings, to print and electronic media and a range of social media and networking. It means that media professionals and civil society activists are recognised as stakeholders in the process and that they assume to concomitant responsibilities this entails for ensuring that the National Dialogue does end in failure. It means that participants in the National Dialogue conference visibly maintain, and as necessary publicly underline, their commitment to its established principles, including inclusiveness, effectiveness, and transparency. In turn, external stakeholders must demonstrate unity in their commitment to the National Dialogue as the only way to begin addressing Yemen’s complex challenges, and they need to do so in word and deed, including by providing adequate resources and political support.

While relatively minimalist in its outlook, the view that Yemen has already achieved a lot (and more than many may have expected) by managing a negotiated transition of power and initiating a national dialogue on its future political system is both a realistic and optimistic perspective on the challenges that the country continues to face. It is realistic in the sense that it does not suffer from exaggerated expectations of what can be achieved now and in the future, and it is optimistic in still sharing a lot of the ambitions that Yemenis have for their country. Translating this perspective into an approach to the National Dialogue Conference and managing expectations accordingly inside and outside Yemen will eventually enable broadly acceptable outcomes to be achieved by participants in the conference and their subsequent sustainable implementation by all stakeholders.