The Middle East Channel

Can Yemen be a nation united?

This March is a critical month in Yemen’s political transition since 2011, when millions of peaceful street protesters ended 33 years of rule by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the coming week, the country’s transitional leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is scheduled to inaugurate the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Beginning on March 18, ...


This March is a critical month in Yemen’s political transition since 2011, when millions of peaceful street protesters ended 33 years of rule by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the coming week, the country’s transitional leader, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is scheduled to inaugurate the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). Beginning on March 18, the NDC is expected to hold a series of meetings with more than 500 representatives, who will attempt to find solutions to several pressing problems for Yemen. What hangs in the balance is nothing less than Yemeni national unity. The conference was supposed to start last year after Hadi was elevated to the post of president by public referendum in February 2012. For the sake of a successful national dialogue, it was recognized the NDC had to take place under a large tent encompassing all the major political parties and social factions. Building this tent has proven difficult. The process was postponed more than once because some parties refused to accept a predetermined number of seats, while others refused to participate under any circumstances. 

Until recently, many observers doubted Hadi would ever be able to start the NDC. If the first meeting indeed takes place, it will be a noteworthy accomplishment. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to interpret this meeting as a sign that Yemen has "turned the corner," finally overcoming its troubles. For one thing, Yemen has a long history of organizing conferences like the NDC, in which weighty national problems are discussed at length. Yet there are examples of national conferences from the past that ended with signed agreements and friendly handshakes, only to serve as a backdrop for fighting. This happened most recently in 1994 after Yemen’s "Document of Pledge and Accord" (DPA) was signed in Amman, Jordan. The DPA was negotiated by Yemenis living inside the country, much as the current NDC. It was signed on February 20, 1994, and then followed two months later by full-scale civil war. The fighting in 1994 took place between north and south Yemeni leaders who, a mere four years earlier, had agreed to unite under the new banner of the Republic of Yemen.

Regardless of what happens after March 18, even if peace prevails, there are a number of reasons why Yemen’s troubles will remain. Some of these relate to the NDC itself because its framework and agenda have been shaped by conflicting foreign and domestic interests. The role of external actors in Yemen has swelled during the past few years. There has been much recent speculation that the Iranian government is stirring up trouble. But there has been no more troubling foreign presence in Yemen than that of the U.S. and Saudi governments. Saudi Arabia has long interfered in Yemen, providing funds to conservative tribal and religious leaders who usually work at cross-purposes with Yemen’s government. For more than a year, the United States has operated a little "Green Zone" in the capital Sanaa, while the U.S. military operates lethal predator drones in the country’s airspace. As a result, the United States has sown more suspicion and local opposition than any other country. Meanwhile, the United States serves as one of the primary sponsors of Yemen’s political transition, along with Saudi Arabia. By shaping this transition to serve outside interests, foreign actors have fueled tension among domestic actors.

There are three main internal sources of trouble in Yemen. First, the vast majority of Yemenis have experienced severe economic hardship. Since the middle 2000s, the economy has gone from bad to worse in a brutal downward spiral. By 2011, poverty and unemployment had reached catastrophic levels, affecting as much as 50 to 60 percent of the population. It was largely for this reason that the government became dependent on external actors, namely Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as well as the United States, Britain, and other western member states comprising the "Friends of Yemen" (FOY). It is important to bear in mind that, unlike other countries caught in the wave of "Arab Spring" revolutions in 2011, Yemen was already looking at total collapse one full year earlier. As early as 2009, observers not only speculated that Yemen’s president could be overthrown, but many thought the country was on the verge of becoming a "failed state." It was largely for this reason that the FOY was formed in late 2009, holding its first meeting in January 2010 in London, where participants pledged billions of U.S. dollars in emergency aid. In short, the historic events of 2011 may have surprised leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, but this was decidedly not the case in Yemen.

Second, during the past decade, Yemen became increasingly divided along regional lines. Indeed, these divisions were the source of major internal rebellions beginning in the middle 2000s, which more recently complicated the national dialogue process and delayed Hadi’s opening of the NDC. The greatest regional divisions are located north and south of the capital Sanaa. Northward in Saada province along the border with Saudi Arabia, a fierce armed rebellion against the old regime started in 2004. It took the name of the rebellion’s leader, Hussayn al-Houthi, son of a traditional Zaidi religious cleric who called for a revival of Zaidi rule, not seen since the end of the North Yemeni Zaidi Imamate in 1962. Once the son was martyred in a battle with government troops in September 2004, his tribal supporters gained increasing control of lands in Saada and neighboring provinces until 2011 when they replaced central government authority across wide swaths of territory. South and east of Sanaa, a separate rebellion, called al-Hirak or "the movement," began in 2007 with peaceful forms of resistance. The old regime tried to suppress al-Hirak, first using a campaign of arrests and then armed force. This caused many of the movement’s supporters to adopt militant calls for secession in early 2009, intending to revive the old independent southern state. Today calls for secession are even stronger, and al-Hirak’s supporters are the greatest opponents to dialogue in the NDC. 

Third, since the creation of a transitional government in early 2012, powerful players associated with the old regime have continued to exercise influence in political, military, and economic fields. Indeed, one of the problems with the GCC-brokered agreement to remove Saleh from office was its granting of generous amnesty terms to Saleh, his family, and key associates, thus protecting them from prosecution for human rights violations. There was virtually no one held accountable for horrific violence during and before 2011. As a result, Saleh, along with his sons and nephews (who held top command posts in Yemen’s armed forces) have been able to hang around the capital, interfering in various affairs. In 2012, Hadi gradually restructured Yemen’s military and security forces, ordering some of Saleh’s nephews to resign their posts and merging branches previously under the control of Saleh’s oldest son, Ahmad. Yet as recently as February 2, Ahmad has led meetings of senior military officers in Sanaa, speaking as commander of the Republican Guard in open defiance of Hadi. Meanwhile, Saleh, who always had the reputation of a wily fox, denied that his resignation as president applied to his position as head of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party. Thus, in bizarre circumstances, Saleh still directs a party that holds half of the transitional government’s cabinet posts and the lion’s share of seats in the upcoming NDC.

In the final analysis, Yemen’s NDC is likely to fail because of these incongruities between the country’s domestic and international arenas. While the United States and Saudi Arabia seek to shepherd the country through its political transition, they have also ensured the amnesty enjoyed by Saleh and his family, allowing the latter to con
tinue shaping events. Saleh has long served Saudi and U.S. interests. The United States built much of its post-2001 military strategy with Saleh’s assistance. Saleh approved the United States’ first drone warfare assault in 2002, and U.S.-trained and funded counter-terrorism units were commanded by Saleh’s oldest son and nephews. Given U.S. and Saudi desires to battle al Qaeda on Yemeni soil, neither state has any interest in losing control of these counter-terrorism units. Members of the Saleh family have too much knowledge and experience to be cast aside. The same applies to Saleh’s fellow tribesman and former regime enforcer, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who abandoned Saleh in support of the 2011 revolution. If any one of these individuals were barred from the country, they would look for ways to undermine internal security through proxy tribal and military forces. And as long as they remain inside the country, there will be no genuine change. 

Beyond problems in the military and security field, there are fundamental conflicts about the best solutions to Yemen’s economic problems and regional divisions. Foreign economic aid enters Yemen through central government offices, thus outside actors and politicians in Sanaa will want to maintain this centralized system because it offers them greater control. However, the proposed solution for mending Yemen’s regional divisions involves decentralizing the functions of government, perhaps reforming Yemen’s constitution along federal lines as recently suggested by Hadi in a visit to the former southern capital Aden. The issue of federalism may be the ultimate stumbling block in the NDC, just as it was in Yemen’s 1994 DPA. In 1994, Saleh, al-Ahmar, and other tribal, military, and religious leaders in Sanaa accused southern proponents of federalism of committing treason, and it was on this basis that the former fought a costly civil war. There is a great likelihood that tribal and military actors in Sanaa will reject a federal solution to Yemen’s regional divisions, especially if it is seen as being imposed by foreign actors. Yet without a federal solution, it is difficult to envision how the supporters of al-Hirak in the south and al-Houthi in the north will ever support Yemen’s political transition. The reality on the ground in Yemen today is a country divided among different regional authorities, both formal and informal.

The greatest source of Yemen’s continuing problems is the poor foundation of its 1990 national union. The political culture of this early union unfortunately showed an intolerance of differences among people from multiple regions. Yemeni society was always more diverse than indicated by the old north-south border. Intolerance of political and social differences existed on both sides of this border. But it was especially bad in the north among Sanaa’s elites, most who preferred to define the national interest in exclusivist terms. Through much of the 1990s and 2000s, these elites refused to admit a prominent newspaper publisher from Aden, the late Hisham Bashraheel, had as much right to define the national interest as anyone in Sanaa. Bashraheel and his family were constantly harassed by Saleh’s regime, which raided the Bashraheel home in 2010 and closed down their newspaper, al-Ayyam, the oldest in the country. Many other Yemenis, like factory workers in Tihama, business entrepreneurs in al-Mukalla, and devout Zaidi followers in Saada, have also been denied opportunities to define the national interest in their own terms. Until all Yemenis find a way to create a system of government tolerant of differences, the country will be burdened with division, conflict, poverty, and a lack of development. Indeed, the tolerance of differences is the only way for Yemen’s national union to continue.

Stephen W. Day is an assistant professor of political science at Stetson University in Florida and Author of "Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union" (Cambridge University Press, 2012).