Yemen’s troubled transition

In Yemen a transition towards a new political dispensation is threatened by Islamist violence, drone strikes, southern secessionism and tribal militancy. But concentrating on the first alone and failing to understand the wider context will not secure it.

Aaron Edwards
6 March 2014
female demonstrators wrapped in red

Still red for revolution? Marking second anniversary of 2011's youthful idealism. Demotix / Luke Somers. All rights reserved.On December 5th 2013, 52 people were killed in an Al Qaeda attack on the hospital inside the Ministry of Defence complex in Sana’a. In the deadliest episode in the capital since May 2012, a suicide bomber rammed the gates in a truck laden with explosives. Over the city’s ancient skyline the cloud of smoke and debris could be seen for miles. The bomber’s accomplices, disguised as soldiers, fired on terrified civilians, brazenly disregarding international humanitarian law—doctors, nurses and patients were callously cut down by a determined, emotionless gunman. Seven foreigners were also murdered in the incident, which drew condemnation around the world.

As often before, there was disagreement at first over whether the perpetrator was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)—arguably the organisation’s most deadly franchise—or other militants with an altogether different set of grievances. Suspicion fell briefly on the Houthi (Believing Youth) movement concentrated in northern Yemen. The Houthis belong to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam and have been fighting for independence from Sana’a ever since the Yemeni government killed their leader, Husayn al-Houthi, in 2004.

A few weeks later, AQAP’s military leader, Qasim al-Raymi, emerged to admit responsibility for the incident—and to issue a rare apology: he claimed the attack had not been sanctioned. But AQAP alleged that the hospital had housed the nerve centre of the government’s drone programme.

We know comparatively little about a drone strike on a wedding party a week later, in which 12-15 people were killed. This incident also brought an international outcry. Human Rights Watch called on the Yemeni and US authorities to investigate—a plea which fell on deaf ears but nevertheless prompted Yemen’s parliament to agree a moratorium on drone strikes on its soil.

Questionable though drones may be in tackling the root causes of AQAP violence, there is a lot more going on in Yemen beyond the unending cycle of atrocities and attempted assassinations targeting Islamists, which contribute to countless deaths of Yemeni citizens. The kaleidoscope includes southern secessionist protests, tribal infighting in the vast eastern province of Hadhramaut and the Houthi rebellion.


Yemen is one of the world’s most unstable states. Ranked 160th of 186 on the United Nations Human Development Index, it is scarred by illiteracy, gender inequality, unemployment and poverty. In the absence of a viable economic base, it depends on aid for survival. In 2011, when the “Arab spring” exploded across the Middle East and North Africa, in Sana’a the regime of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, wobbled under the weight of protests that spread quickly across the country. Women and youth, backed by key segments of Yemeni civil society, took to the streets to bring attention to unemployment, corruption, health, education and economic volatility.

The protests created an opportunity for violence. After a rocket attack on the presidential compound, in which Saleh was temporarily incapacitated, his deputy, Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi, took over as Acting President—an appointment confirmed by an election, in which he was however the only candidate, in February 2012.

In November 2011 the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered an agreement on political transition. This established a National Dialogue Committee (NDC) embracing political, social, tribal and ethnic interest groups, to create the conditions for democratic elections in March 2014. To ensure effective stewardship, the UN appointed the veteran Moroccan diplomat Jamal Benomar as its Special Representative, signalling the international community’s backing for the NDC process.

The United States, United Kingdom and Russian Federation have all spoken of the need to allow the political transition to run its course, while calling on the Yemeni government to reform the security sector and better combat the threat from AQAP. But the roots of the challenges that still threaten to unravel Yemen’s transition have been insufficiently addressed.

A divided history

Yemen’s failure to consolidate its state structures can be traced back half a century to the second “Arab awakening” (the first being in the 19th century). Anti-colonial forces turned to violence to try to overthrow the traditional rulers in the two separate states of North and South Yemen.

North Yemen had been under the control of an ancient pre-Islamic imamate, dislodged from power on 26 September 1962. The imam, Muhammad al-Badr, was overthrown by a military coup and for eight years fought a bloody civil war. This saw 70,000 Egyptian troops intervene in support of the fledgling republican regime, while a covert mercenary unit of British and French special forces provided technical advice to the ousted royalists.

In South Yemen, the British (who called it South Arabia) were maintaining a foothold in Aden, their only port colony in the Middle East. Indirect rule over its hinterland was achieved by wooing powerful tribal confederations with guns and cash, bluffing them into thinking they were in control of their destiny and, on occasion, bombing them. This policy worked until Arab nationalism took root in the fertile revolutionary soil of North Yemen and spread like wildfire across the porous border into the south.

Yemen is one of the world's most unstable states.

Facing economic crisis at home and the resilience of Nasserite nationalism in the region, in 1967 the British reached a deal with the National Liberation Front (NLF), which had been consolidating its hold over South Yemen in the previous four years. After their departure, the NLF’s ideology gravitated from Arab nationalism on the right to a form of “Marxism-Leninism” along Soviet lines. By the time the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of South Yemen was born, the civil war in the north had ended in stalemate.

After the assassination in 1978 of the north’s president, Ahmad al-Ghashmi, his close friend Major Ali Abdullah Saleh, an artillery officer based in Taiz’z, assumed power. The distribution of patronage—“dancing on the heads of snakes”, he called it—among the tribal confederations, secular socialists and Islamist groupings stymied challenges to his authority for 30 years and allowed him to amass a strong political following in the guise of the General People’s Congress (GPC).

Manipulation of Yemen’s turbulent political economy allowed Saleh progressively to concentrate the state’s wealth in his own hands. Unification of what became the Republic of Yemen in 1990 accrued further problems, with the uneven development of capitalism north and south exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, inherited debt and tight control of distribution networks by a business cabal.

Grievances over perceived colonisation of the south by the north triggered the 1994 civil war but the southern forces were crushed within weeks by General Mansour Hadi, promptly rewarded with the vice-presidency. Many southerners still see the civil war as unfinished business.

Nor could the military eradicate resort to tribalism. There has been a tendency, notably in the excellent work of the late Professor Fred Halliday, to discount the allure of its “mystic exoticism”. But pre-Islamic tribal identities in the Arabian Peninsula have at times exerted a powerful hold and attempts to supplant them by the official ideology in South Yemen in the 1970s and 80s failed.

Tribalism has been one of the main sources of instability during the NDC process, from which the Southern Hirak Movement recurrently withdrew. Thanks mainly to social media, we can follow the growing secessionist demonstrations, which reflect a groundswell in the urban centres of the south in support of a return to a time when Aden served as their capital. The protests encompass a range of grievances, which coalesce around a return to political, social and economic rights purportedly usurped by northerners. The demand for an end to central-government control has also been reflected in the violence of the powerful tribal confederation in Hadhramaut, one of the largest and poorest parts of southern Yemen.

Uncertain future

The conclusion of the NDC process has seen President Hadi’s government endorse a plan to divide Yemen into six regional units: four northern (Azal, Saba, Janad and Tehama) and two southern (Aden and Hadhramaut). But this has been perceived by leaders of Hirak and the Yemen Socialist Party as stymying their designs for southern independence. The GPC’s attempts to buy off secessionism with limited autonomy do not bode well for the success of the political transition.

The threat posed by AQAP—which continues to preoccupy Western security planners—compounds the difficulty. But focusing on AQAP, without placing Yemen’s other problems in their proper context, does injustice to the complexity of Yemen and the security needs of its people.

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