Yemen: descent into anarchy

With the resignation of its president and prime minister, Yemen lacks the capacity to steer its political transition towards the goal of greater stability. The alternative, however, does not bear thinking about.

Aaron Edwards
28 January 2015

Will he grow up in a united country? Flickr / Martin Sojka. Some rights reserved. 

Recent violence in Yemen points to the resurgence of tribal fault-lines which were previously managed by playing off interest groups against one another or, in more recent years, seeking to redistribute political power federally under the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

The NDC initiated a political transition, with ambitions for security sector reform and a more vigorous counter-terrorism strategy to combat al-Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP). Now, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), which has been keeping a watching brief on the country’s progress, the only real choice open to Yemenis is the inclusive process mapped out by the NDC agreement in January 2014 … or a descent into civil war along Libyan lines.

The World Development Report: Conflict, Security and Development, published by the World Bank, shows how countries which have experienced conflict are more likely to suffer further violence: 90% of today’s armed conflicts had a predecessor of some kind, a ratio which has doubled since the 1960s. And Yemen has experienced conflict of some kind throughout the past half century.

Between 1962 and 1970, North Yemen was locked in a bloody civil war among the republican forces which had dislodged the ruling imam from power on 25 September 1962. Meanwhile, conflagration spread to the south, which witnessed an insurgency between 1963 and 1967, ending with the withdrawal of the British colonial authorities and the establishment of a Marxist-orientated government.

By the mid-1980s the two Yemens were again locked in a brief civil war—a conflict which flared up again in 1994, four years after the unification of the country. Then, the Saleh government, which had ruled the north since 1978, depended on the standing of the southern general Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi, who would serve as Ali Abdullah Saleh’s deputy until he became president in the transitional political deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council in November 2011.


Recent violence from the Houthi movement in the north may have begun in 2004 with the assassination of the tribal leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi by the government in Sanaa, but it has deeper roots and can be traced back to the Zaydi lineage which produced the Shia imam for over two centuries. The launch of an attack on the capital on 25 September last should leave no one in any doubt that the Houthis believe they are the direct descendants of the imam and, therefore, entitled to a greater share of power. They have come down from the mountains to which they were banished in the civil war half a century earlier.

Again according to the ICG, the violence has the potential to spread far and wide and threaten the stability of the entire country, as the Houthis square up to take the fight to AQAP. The latter has sought to capitalise on the disaffection among some Sunni tribesmen, who fear the sectarian overtones of much of the language employed by the Houthis.

There is an old saying in Yemen that ‘a camel is actually a horse created by committee’.

Instability is endemic to Yemen because the state was formed on the basis of compromise between competing interest groups. Tribal affiliations dating back to pre-Islamic times have always exerted a powerful influence on politics and society. Long after Marxism, populism and Islamism have subsided, tribalism will continue to dominate the lives of people from the rugged mountainous region of Radfan to the urban centre of Taiz and the port city of Hodeida. And, as the ‘gateway to Arabia’, Yemen continues to have considerable strategic importance for the regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as the United States and Russia.

While attention is focused on the northern Houthi rebellion, resurgent southern secessionism continues to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people, who can be frequently seen carrying the old flags of the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen in massive demonstrations on the streets of the southern capital, Aden. The NDC plan to carve up the country into federal zones, with power devolved to four northern (Azal, Saba, Janad and Tehama) and two southern (Aden and Hadhramaut) regional units, failed to placate the mosaic of Yemeni interest groups.

There is an old saying in Yemen that ‘a camel is actually a horse created by committee’. And the inability to make the NDC agreement stick is evidence of the difficulty faced by Yemeni political leaders who have sought to implement it. But this can only pave the way for a serious deterioration in the security situation, which the ICG contends will benefit no one except AQAP.


Arguably, the greatest threat to Yemen’s stability is not the Houthi violence in the north nor even AQAP activity in the south, but the prospect of the country dividing again along pre-1990 lines. The resignations earlier this month of the president, Mansour Hadi, and his prime minister—following a Houthi attack on the presidential palace—expose the delicate balance of forces in the country.

The only person who successfully managed these relationships was Saleh. But the former president was recently accused by the UN of fomenting violence and instability and undermining Mansour Hadi, his former deputy. Saleh responded with characteristic vigour by securing the expulsion of Mansour Hadi from the General People’s Congress party, effectively isolating him from the political process.

In her scintillating book Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, Victoria Clark tellingly observed how, if the threat emanating from Yemen does demand action on the West’s part, “it would be advisable to nurture a healthy suspicion that we still do not know the half of this beautiful and enchanting, but also opaque and unstable, corner of the Arabian Peninsula”. And it would be advisable for the international community to continue to support the peaceful transition in Yemen with the proviso that it make only those contributions Yemenis themselves request. The fate of the ‘gateway to Arabia’ hangs in the balance—depending on continuing engagement and support, short of intervention.

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