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Nicholas Hopton

Head of UK Embassy to Libya

Part of UK in Yemen

3rd April 2013 Tripoli, Libya

Green shoots in Yemen

There is a body of opinion that argues Yemen’s problems are so deeply embedded that the country will never overcome them. It is true that the tribal culture in the north and the Cold War and post-unification legacies in the south – not to mention the scourges of terrorism and corruption – pose formidable obstacles. They block the creation of more representative democracy, rule of law and unity in the poorest country in the Middle East. So commentators may be understandably quick to assume that the only shooting going on in Yemen involves AK47s or more heavy weaponry.

These Cassandras of doom are wrong. There are green shoots sprouting all over Yemen. And these shoots are not just on the omnipresent qat plants to which the nation is addicted. The green shoots I’m talking about suggest that a better future for 25 million Yemenis is not an impossible dream.

In my travels around the country I’ve seen four particular green shoots:

  • On the island of Soqotra this week I found a population who felt they had been neglected by the central authorities and were still struggling to have their voice heard. At the same time, they demonstrated a remarkable unity of purpose and community solidarity. Unlike the rest of Yemen, there are no weapons on Soqotra. With the right support, this island of exceptional beauty has great potential to be a magnet for tourists and to develop quickly into a model of prosperity and security for other parts of Yemen.
  • The people in and around the Red Sea port city of Hodeida are suffering from a humanitarian crisis, and malnutrition is widespread. The situation of women and children is particularly desperate. I visited a feeding centre where some mothers had walked long distances to bring their skeletal children in the hope that they could be saved. The UK has recently announced £70 million of support for humanitarian projects throughout Yemen including for malnutrition, but the reality is that many children will still die of malnutrition and from preventable diseases until the world fully recognises the extent of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis. Yet, even in the midst of such human suffering, there are reasons for hope.  Since the UK began its support treating malnutrition in Yemen nationwide six months ago, nearly 18,000 acutely malnourished children have been able to receive treatment. The barbaric practice of female genital mutilation is widely practiced in the area (in a new £35 million programme Britain is working  to end the practice worldwide within a generation). Now women’s groups in Hodeida are organising themselves, running women’s literacy and other development projects. The sisterhood I met there are strong and determined. As I’ve often remarked, if Yemen’s women can realise even a fraction of their potential, they will make a huge and positive impact on the state of the nation.
  • Taiz, one of the biggest urban centres in Yemen, faces huge social and security challenges. However, I found in that city, once one of Yemen’s capitals, the stirrings of an entrepreneurial culture that could transform Yemen’s financial prospects. Under dynamic leadership from the governor and some leading business families, investment is taking place, jobs are being created and solutions are being found to the existential problem of vanishing water resources. Taiz has the potential to become a business and governance model for the rest of the country and to help drive higher economic growth.
  • My last blog (The Art of Dialogue) offered some gentle encouragement to the 565 delegates of the National Dialogue Conference to overcome their differences by listening and trying to understand each other and then building consensus recommendations that will move the country forward. Along with some diplomatic colleagues, I met most of the delegates this weekend. They are a remarkable group of individuals who collectively reflect the wide diversity and richness of Yemen’s human potential. Most encouraging was that, after a fortnight of the Conference, they seem to be shouldering their huge responsibilities and starting to work together across the usual tribal, gender, north/south, age and sectarian boundaries. Particularly encouraging were the dozen young people, both male and female and from a range of political parties and groups, who buttonholed me for an intense discussion. Though they had entered the Conference representing different interests, the most striking thing was how they were prioritising the future of the country – the future of Yemen’s youth – over the narrow partisan agendas that have dominated Yemeni politics until now. If the future of a country is its young people, then the future of Yemen could be bright indeed.

Of course, green shoots can only develop into mature plants if they are nurtured and given adequate sunlight and space to grow. The Government of Yemen has a great responsibility to adopt the right economic and political policies to ensure this happens. Given Yemen’s last half century of failure and bloodshed, and the ongoing fragility following the conflict of 2011, the international community still has a vital role. It must continue to support Yemen’s development and growth through funding, advice and, when necessary, more decisive action against those who threaten it. Most immediately, it falls to the delegates of the National Dialogue Conference to work together over the summer in their nine working groups to encourage national reconciliation and build a consensus around proposals that will meet the demands of Yemen’s long-suffering people and improve their prospects.  If they do this, the green shoots around the country will have an opportunity to flourish to the benefit of all Yemenis.

2 comments on “Green shoots in Yemen

  1. Great job, and very well analysied I shall try to see if it could be translated so as to be of benefits to the people.

    1. Perhaps you have already seen that there is a translation on my blog page. Thank you for your kind remarks.

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About Nicholas Hopton

Nicholas Hopton is former UK Ambassador to Iran, Qatar and Yemen. Nicholas is a career diplomat who joined the FCO in 1989 having studied at St Peter’s School, York, and…

Nicholas Hopton is former UK Ambassador to Iran, Qatar and Yemen.

Nicholas is a career diplomat who joined the FCO in 1989 having
studied at St Peter’s School, York, and Cambridge University (Magdalene
College).  He has also studied at La Sapienza University in Rome and ENA in Paris.
With the FCO he has also served overseas in Paris, Rome, Morocco and Mauritania.
He is married with five children.