Yemen’s collapse derives from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of a poor population, and international interventions, both from the neoliberal international financiers and the politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions
Yemen remains in the grip of its most severe crisis ever: the civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the one side and those of the alliance between the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other has devastated the country. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe the situation in a turbulent region. With no immediate prospects for the stable, peaceful, and democratic state that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for during the 2011 uprisings, what went wrong? Why is there no prospect even of an internationally brokered plan to help end hostilities, let alone find peace? Conflicts in Yemen stem from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of an increasingly impoverished population, interventions from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and western states and neoliberal financiers.
On 12 July 2017, the United Nations Special Envoy told the UN Security Council, ‘The situation in Yemen remains extremely grave. The intensity of the conflict increases day after day…The humanitarian situation is appalling…The country is not suffering from a single emergency but a number of complex emergencies, which have affected more than 20 million people and whose scale and the effect will be felt long after the end of the war.’ The UN also declared the spread of cholera in Yemen the worst ever recorded worldwide. There are now over 300 000 suspected cases and over 1 700 people have died as a result of the epidemic. Fourteen million people are food insecure, of whom almost 7 million are at risk of famine.
This paper probes the main causes behind the disintegration of the Yemeni state established in 1990 and discusses early promises that were dashed by a succession of problems culminating in the 2011 uprisings, the failed transition of 2012-14, the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, their alliance with Saleh, and the Saudi-led intervention. It also deconstructs the rationale behind the events that led to the collapse of the Yemeni state, as well as the reasons why the international military intervention, starting in 2015, has ensured the prolonging of the war, and its catastrophic consequences for the population.
Origins of the New Republic
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former resulting from the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 by a group of Republican officers, and the latter emerging from British-administered Aden and the protectorates. These states had different political orientations; the YAR following a capitalist one while the PDRY was the only socialist state in the Arab world. Despite these differences, the two states shared common features that made Yemen a nation: a common culture, a similar fundamental social structure despite both regimes’ efforts to transform society in divergent directions, and a shared economic base of agriculture and fisheries with hopes of discovering oil. Families – and both states – relied considerably on remittances from migrant labour elsewhere in the peninsula and beyond.
Unification was the most popular political slogan on both sides of the border and was embraced by both populations. But unification was born by forceps rather than through a democratic process: Saleh, who was president of the YAR (1978-2017), persuaded southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to agree to a full merger only hours after the PDRY’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) had confirmed its commitment to a federal agreement that left considerable autonomy to each former state. This shift laid the basis for tension and led to a short civil war in 1994, decisively won by Saleh with the military support of the factions that had been defeated in the 1986 internal conflict in PDRY, including current ‘legitimate’ president Hadi, and the Salafis returning from Afghanistan.
Mounting Crisis and The 2011 uprisings
The Republic of Yemen’s first two decades were characterised by economic crises. More than 800 000 Yemenis were deported from GCC states when Yemen voted against UNSC Resolution 678 that approved military action against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This reduced foreign economic aid to Yemen to almost zero and added close to a million job seekers at a time of high unemployment. Although this crisis receded by 1995 and aid was resumed, it is worth remembering that remittances from workers abroad, mostly in GCC states, remained more important to Yemen’s economy than aid. Moreover, remittances directly reached mostly rural households, while aid went to state institutions in the early years. This shift changed in the late 1990s when IFIs actively weakened the state by financing organisations such as the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project, which operated according to ‘efficient’ private sector principles, though in fact, they are parastatals whose salaries allow them to poach the best staff from line ministries, thus reducing their technical capacity. Other factors, such as climate change, rapid population growth and the corruption of the ‘elite’, contributed to increasing poverty and worsened the gap between the majority of the population and the small group of beneficiaries of the Saleh regime. Earning potential within Yemen and beyond was negatively impacted by constraints on migration and lack of job creation policies at home.
Political tensions increased through three episodes:
1. Opposition parties in parliament regrouped in the Joint Meeting Parties in 2003, composed of Islah (the largest party, itself combining northern Hashed tribes and supporters of Muslim Brotherhood throughout the country), the YSP, Baathists, Nasserists, Popular Forces and al-Haq parties.
2. The emerging Houthi movement began armed opposition to the Saleh regime in 2004, resulting in six short wars until 2010.
3. The rise of the southern separatist movement from 2007. It was initially peaceful, but the regime’s aggressive response contributed to the growth and increased influence of the movement.
Combined with the social and economic crises, the only missing element was a trigger for a major uprising. The turning point came in the form of the apparently successful overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, encouraging Yemenis to believe that fundamental change was possible. Symbolised in the slogan ‘Saleh out’, the movement included thousands of independent youth and women and members of opposition parties who were later joined by their leadership. With a split in the military/security forces in March 2011, the country came close to large-scale warfare between opposing military factions, while the anti-Saleh peaceful civil movement persisted but was increasingly influenced by the political parties, particularly Islah and the Houthi movement. These developments led to intervention by the ‘international community’ in the alleged pursuit of a peaceful solution to the crisis.
The GCC Agreement and the transitional regime
Various events in the course of 2011 gradually weakened the Saleh regime and led, by the end of the year, to the GCC Agreement, which included Saleh’s resignation and his replacement by his former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was to lead a transitional regime. According to the GCC Agreement, the two-year transition would get the political and economic support of the international community. It included a government of national unity that brought together Saleh’s forces and the opposition’s forces, the restructuring of the military/security sector, and a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to design Yemen’s post-transition structures. This was to be followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee, a referendum on the draft constitution, and elections.
Most of these steps were formally undertaken between 2012 and 2014. However, they failed to achieve the desired result, largely due to inherent design faults, such as allowing Saleh not only to stay in the country, but to continue leading the GPC, and allocating half of the government posts to his party. While this arrangement reflected the actual balance of power in 2011, it jeopardised the national unity government’s potential as ministers from the two main groups (GPC and Islah) competed for power and actively undermined each other. The government developed an unenviable reputation of being Yemen’s most corrupt ever, while failing to halt the deterioration of living conditions. The international community also shared considerable responsibility for the absence of social and economic development. Close to USD 8 billion was pledged for Yemen in September 2012, but these funds were withheld under various pretexts, resulting in continued deterioration in public services.
This period witnessed the quiet rise of the Houthis, who consolidated their control over the northern governorate of Sa’ada. They expanded their control zone militarily and politically westward towards the Red Sea, aiming to control the small port of Midi to ensure they were not landlocked, as well as controlling the entire western part of the border with Saudi Arabia. They also moved east into Jawf governorate, again on the Saudi border, but this time in the belief that the area had significant oil resources. Moreover, they expanded southwards and reached Amran town in mid-2014, only fifty kilometres north of Sana’a, after taking over the stronghold of the senior Hashed leaders.
There have been several points of correlation between the waning transitional regime and the rise of the Houthis. The former was known for its corruption, incompetence, and inability to address the social and economic problems of the population, whereas the latter benefited from their (secret) alliance with Saleh. A final contributor to their success was the internal rivalry within the transitional regime. Hadi had sought to weaken Islah by allowing the Houthis to defeat it, with the intention of controlling the Houthis. One can only presume that he was unaware of their cooperation with Saleh.
In the summer of 2014, large anti-government demonstrations contested the IMF-recommended rises in fuel prices. The Houthis capitalised on their image as an oppressed minority, supporting the popular demands and pushing for government accountability. They managed to take over Sana’a on 21 September 2014 and consolidated their position in the following months.
By January 2015, the submission of the new constitution draft to the post-NDC body was an excuse for a final showdown. Both Houthis and Saleh regarded the proposed federal state as unacceptable for different reasons. Hadi and his new government were placed under house arrest as the Houthi-Saleh military forces moved further south and captured Aden by March. After escaping from Sana’a, Hadi named Aden the country’s interim capital. He and his ministers escaped to Riyadh, while requesting the GCC to provide military support to restore the transitional regime.
A Wider Radius of the War
In the regional context, there was a likelihood of victory in favour of the Saleh-Houthi forces in spring 2015. The newly-appointed minister of defence in Saudi Arabia, ambitious young Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), saw the Yemen downturn as an opportunity to prove himself as a new leader, full of initiative, and determined to solidify Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. He presumed his modern air force, equipped with the latest western weaponry, would easily defeat the ill-trained forces of the poorest Arab state. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed the Yemeni airforce on the first day of the war. By the summer of 2015, it became imperative to involve ground troops, mostly from the UAE and other coalition members, primarily Sudan, alongside mercenaries from various Latin American states. This tactic enabled the coalition forces to ‘liberate’ the area of the former PDRY and some of the northeast of the country by the autumn of 2015. However, the military stalemate has prevailed.
The UN-sponsored negotiation process has thrice failed to stimulate a settlement plan between the warring parties. Since mid-2016, UN mediation has not been able to convene another round of talks. There have been two main political developments in the last two years:
1. In the areas controlled by the Houthis, worsening tension within the Houthi-Saleh alliance culminated in Houthis killing Saleh in his Sana’a residence on 4 December 2017, leaving them in full control of the northern highlands. This may well be the peak of their power, as they now have to add forces loyal to Saleh to their list of rivals.
2. The disintegration and fragmentation of the ‘liberated’ areas. The main characteristic of the Hadi government is its absence. Southern governorates are under the control of a range of forces including southern separatists (the Southern Transitional Council (STC) established in May 2017 is the most influential of these groups), various local regional forces, and jihadis. The UAE set up, financed, trained and deployed military and security forces – known in the western governorates as Security Belts, and in the eastern ones as Elite Forces. They are all primarily composed of local Salafis and do not form a coherent body. The northern areas are under the control of the vice president (since April 2016), Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an Islamist on the extremist end of the Islahi spectrum. State institutions have largely disintegrated, partly due to the failure of the internationally-recognised regime to pay salaries.
While the Arab Coalition includes several states, the decision-making process is controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, there is increasing divergence in policy and strategy between them, most visible in the south. Regardless of the rhetoric, Emirati forces are actively supporting separatists via the STC and the security forces. While claiming to address the problem of jihadi groups (AQAP and the Islamic State group), most of their interventions and arrests are against Islah, considered by the UAE to be Muslim Brothers, whom they pathologically detest. Outsiders have difficulty understanding support for extremist Salafi groups who are more dangerous to a moderate Islam than the Muslim Brothers. Divergence with the Saudi regime focuses on this aspect as it supports Ali Mohsen, who is an important Islah leader, and have had, for decades, very different approaches to Muslim Brother-related institutions
Deepening humanitarian crisis
In the poorest Arab country with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, the current war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million of the 29 million population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 16 million individuals lack clean water and sanitation; 18 million are food insecure, including 8 million ‘on the brink’ of famine; and more than 1 million are victims of cholera, another world record.
About 16 000 individuals have been killed by coalition air strikes, with the most effective weapon being the blockade of Yemen’s main port Hodeida and other Red Sea ports, as well as the imposed closure of Sana’a airport. Several thousands of Yemenis have died by hunger, disease and other side effects of the blockade, a driving force behind the humanitarian crisis.
An Open-ended war?
The perpetuation of the Yemeni war derives from two main reasons. First, international intervention has added another layer of complex issues, which seem irrelevant to Yemen and Yemenis. The main issue is the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Saudi accusations that the Houthis are no more than ‘Iranian proxies’ have become part of the official discourse throughout the region and beyond, including in the USA. While the reality is that Iran’s actual involvement is minimal, it benefits from a massive propaganda advantage in exchange for limited practical support to the Houthis. This added element tends to complicate the pursuit of a solution.
The second reason is both internal and external vis-à-vis Yemen. In the domestic context, numerous figures on all sides benefit from the war. Not only do they have no incentive to end it, but they have every incentive to prolong it. They include men and boys manning checkpoints and ‘taxing’ passengers and goods (including the basics to keep people alive: food, fuel and people seeking medical aid). Next are the Houthis in areas they control. They both fill their pockets and finance their ‘administration’ through the ransoming of traders and others, but do not use these funds to pay salaries of medical, education or any other civil staff. In the ‘liberated’ areas, the beneficiaries of the war include any number of groups, ranging from AQAP and IS militants to officials of everything from the various southern separatist groups to the few remaining Hadi loyalists. Outside the country, members of Hadi’s government collect massive salaries, submit exorbitant bills to the coalition, but fail to pay staff inside Yemen. This is the irony of the political economy of war.
On the international level, western states sell sophisticated and expensive weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to SIPRI, in the period 2013 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second largest importer of arms in the world, with 10 percent of all arms imports. Its share of imports had risen by 225 percent from the previous five-year period. About 61 percent of its weapons came from the USA, 23 percent from the UK, and 3.6 percent from France. In the case of the UAE, the fourth largest importer, the USA is also its largest supplier (58 percent) followed by France (13 percent) and Italy (6 percent). Recently, the US president, Donald Trump, sat with MBS and did a ‘show-and-tell’ display of the latest proposed sales.
This paper has provided a rapid sketch of the events which led to Yemen’s disintegration. Fundamentally, the collapse is due to a combination of internal rivalries between elites, the rising demands of a population which has experienced increased hardship, and the impact of international interventions, both from neoliberal international financiers and politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions.
The Yemeni war shares some characteristics with the Lebanese civil war, with different external actors attempting to use local factions to pursue international rivalries. Yemenis suffer the consequences to a nightmarish extent. A small ray of hope emerged early 2018 with the appointment of a new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General, as well as the presence in the UNSC of members who are committed to ending this war. This window of opportunity, however, will demand major transformations of the current UNSC resolutions, as well as a new complex and sophisticated approach involving many actors currently excluded from the official negotiating process. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed, particularly in view of the complicated international dimension of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.
* This article was first published by Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies
* Helen Lackner is a research associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and author of the forthcoming book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, neoliberalism and the Disintegration of a State