- By Jeb Boone
On June 3, Yemen’s long-ruling President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly injured in an attack by unknown assailants. His departure from Sanaa to a military hospital in Saudi Arabia seemed to many people to have finally resolved the long standoff between Saleh’s embattled regime and a variety of political challengers. But the intervening weeks have brought Yemen no closer to resolving the political uncertainty.
Anti-government protesters first erected tents in cities like Sanaa and Taiz. Tribal leaders then began to slowly come out against the Saleh government and express their support for the youth movement. As the once resilient tribal patronage system began to break down, chaos erupted across the country, leaving Saleh with only a small piece of real estate in a northern mountain valley to reign over. With Saleh in Saudi Arabia and no replacement in sight, who is running Yemen?
In the vacuum created by Saleh’s absence, his politically crippled deputy has been left as a steward to Sanaa’s empty seat of power. Just days after his unplanned departure, Saleh’s son Ahmed took up residence in the presidential palace, sending a message to protesters and defiant tribesmen that his father’s will would be done through his proxy. Meanwhile, Yemen’s political opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties, has taken control of Sanaa’s Change Square protest camp, attempting to solidify its political life in any new government. While Sanaa’s power brokers look to posture themselves to take seats of power, the Yemeni government has lost total control over the rest of the country.
Yemen’s rugged northern tribal regions have rarely been ruled directly by president, imam, or foreign colonizer until the rise of Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1978. Learning from the dismal failures of the Ottomans and succeeding five failed presidents, two of which were assassinated, Saleh took a more nuanced and delicate approach to ruling the fractured region. Instead of governing Yemen’s tribes by force or sheer military domination, Saleh began to co-opt the tribes into Yemen’s government through a system of patronage. Some sheikhs received government stipends while others were placed in prominent political and military positions.
Throughout most of his political career, Saleh maintained a subtle but stable hold on the Yemen Arabic Republic, known as North Yemen. In 1990, he became the first ruler since the Queen of Sheba to rule over the entire historic region of Yemen (except for northern regions now under the control of Saudi Arabia). In spite of a civil war in 1994, he continued to hold North and South Yemen together in one state.
Fissures began to appear in Saleh’s fragile dominance over Yemen’s north in 2004 when a group of tribesmen, calling themselves the Believing Youth, rose up in armed rebellion against the Saleh government. While the Yemeni government claimed that the Zaidi Shiites of the northern Saada governorate sought to reinstitute an imamate, the rebels themselves claimed that they were marginalized and discriminated against by the government. These Houthi rebels, named after their now dead leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, fought a series of six wars against the Yemeni military, with the last war ending in 2009. Ironically, what was once the most war-torn region of Yemen is now the safest. With most of the military focused on maintaining control of major cities swarmed by anti-government protesters, the Houthis have had an opportunity to rebuild their communities and live in complete lack of state control.
Sanaa: Saleh’s last bastion
One of the last remaining vestiges of government control in Yemen is the country’s capital, Sanaa. In spite of Saleh being whisked away to Saudi Arabia to receive treatment for wounds sustained in an attack on his palace, his son Ahmed, commander of the Republican Guards, and his eldest nephew Yahya, commander of the Central Security Forces, have maintained a stranglehold over the city. Military checkpoints still dot the city; more ominously, soldiers of the Central Security Forces, the only Yemeni military branch that has remained ostensibly loyal to President Saleh, still roam the streets. All along the city’s major thoroughfares, Yahya’s men stare intently at passing traffic, looking down the barrels of Russian heavy machine guns mounted in the back of camouflage-painted pickup trucks.
The rural north: The land of tribal autonomy
Yemen’s tribal areas have never been friendly to centralized control, at the behest of foreign powers or Yemeni leaders. The country’s most powerful tribal confederation, Hashid, has even managed to bring the fight to Saleh’s doorstep in the capital. Under the leadership of Sadeq al-Ahmar and his younger brother Hamid, a billionaire businessmen and opposition political figure, the Hashid confederation and Yemen’s Republican Guards engaged in a 13-day-long war in downtown Sanaa. After Saudi mediators managed to negotiate a cease-fire, fighting began in several tribal strongholds such as the city of Arhab, just a few miles outside Sanaa. With fighting still ongoing, tribesmen are showing no intention of coming under the umbrella of Saleh’s government ever again.
Marib governorate: Yemen’s Wild West
The Marib governorate, east of Sanaa, has been wracked with chaos ever since the death of Jabr al-Shabwani, son of prominent Sheikh Ali al-Shabwani, killed by a U.S. drone strike in May 2010. To take revenge for his son’s death, Ali destroyed a section of one of Yemen’s largest oil pipelines, leading to billions of dollars in lost revenue for the Yemeni government. As anti-government protest began sweeping the country, Ali and his tribesmen ramped up their campaign against the government’s infrastructure. The oil pipeline was attacked several more times, and attacks against power stations began. In addition, tribesmen still control a long stretch of road leading into Sanaa, blocking shipments of fuel.
Taiz: The hub of the youth revolution
Last February, protesters first erected tents in the city of Taiz, Yemen’s intellectual and industrial capital. Since the first tent spike was driven into the asphalt, crackdowns on protesters have been worse than in any other city in the country. Also unlike anywhere else in Yemen, tribesmen have been fighting back against security forces in Taiz. Sheik Hamoud al-Makhlafi, a former member of Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress Party, has declared himself and his tribe to be defenders of the youth revolution. Street battles are a common occurrence in this contested city as Saleh and his relatives attempt to retain control of Yemen’s second-largest city.
Aden: South Yemen’s former capital
Founded in 2007, Yemen’s southern separatist movement has suffered extremely violent crackdowns and political imprisonments. Claiming to be under the occupation of the northern tribal regime, the southern movement has come out of the shadows in Aden and is operating in the open. The military personnel loyal to Saleh’s regime are distinctly absent in Aden. Unlike Yemen’s capital where anti-government banners and signs are found only near Sanaa University, the port city is emblazoned with anti-government graffiti on walls and shops and even across the high security walls of now empty government buildings. The flag of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the former state of South Yemen, is a ubiquitous symbol, hastily spray-painted throughout the city.
The Abyan governorate: Under AQAP control?
Last month, armed militants descended from the surrounding mountains into the city of Zinjibar, the capital of the Abyan governorate. The militants were able to seize control of the city and adjacent villages with ease, according to Abyan residents and witnesses who say that Yemen’s elite American-trained counterterrorism unit inexplicably withdrew from the area hours before the attack. Since the seizure of the area by what the government claims to be al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants, a war of attrition has been waged by the Yemeni military through constant airstrikes and artillery bombardments. Thousands of Abyan residents have fled the intense violence.
With southern Yemen falling away from government control and the north embroiled in political and tribal chaos, Yemen’s fractured entities show little sign of coalescing. While several tribes, including the Houthi rebels and the Hashid Confederation, have expressed support for the youth revolution, few people, if any, have command of the vast tribal network that Saleh utilized so masterfully. Along with disparate northern tribes, many southern Yemenis have expressed a desire to secede from the north completely regardless of who is in power in Sanaa.
Prospects for the future
Whatever government is born from Yemen’s conflict, if any, it will face the almost insurmountable task of re-creating a state out of a county that has descended into regional control. With the economy gradually slipping into complete free-fall, powerful tribesmen have taken it upon themselves to supply Sanaa with gasoline and other basic essentials, increasing personal revenue and solidifying their control over major highways. With Yemen importing most of its supply of wheat grain and other basic foods, the power to distribute fuel to trucks bringing food into major cities has fallen to tribes. Any new government that is born from Yemen’s political turmoil would face these tribes as powerful rivals to consolidated central government.
With tribes seizing control of the northern economy, Yemen’s south is left to suffer the consequences of what has essentially become a foreign economic crisis. As already deep-seated hatred for northerners continue to fester as the conflict continues, south Yemen, similar to Somaliland, may simply find it more prudent to secede and avoid undue suffering.
Jeb Boone is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen, and managing editor of the Yemen Times.