The Yemeni political experiment has fallen short of realising the state ideal. After the February 2011 Revolution in Yemen, a revolutionary call to rebuild the state was heard among the ranks of the rising political elite, who made this a theme of the national dialogue during the first transitional phase. But the slogan was not translated into reality.
The idea of state reconstruction was reduced to political reconstruction in accordance with interim mechanisms imposed by the political class that led the post-revolutionary moment. But as the reconstruction did not address structural dysfunctions and imbalances, it soon stalled. The political reconstruction was limited to reproducing the exclusionary, authoritarian practices of the old regime. The invasion of the capital and fall of the legitimate government in September 2014, followed by the outbreak of civil war, demonstrated the fragility of the Yemeni state.
Numerous obstacles have impeded efforts to rebuild the Yemeni state, including the dominant political culture, political experiences, and Yemen’s geography and historical development. Other obstacles have been more contingent, emerging as a consequence of the fragility of the state and coming to the fore only with the project of reconstruction.
Yemen offers an exceptional model of the modern nation-state in the region. Various obstacles emerged during the historical process of state building, and these have continued to plague the state’s development.
First, the state in Yemen did not develop along conventional lines, and tribalism was always its dominant political component. The main political building block of the country, tribalism in Yemen brings together various clans in a loose, tribal state in which basic state institutions are no more than formalised arrangements for the distribution of political spoils along tribal lines. In the period of republican government in Yemen, the idea that the country’s ruler should be a northerner from one of the major tribes around the capital Sanaa became a deeply rooted cultural norm among northern Yemenis. The ruler also protected tribalism, which in turn secured his own political position.
Yemeni political analyst Abdel-Aziz Al-Majidi said in an interview that “Yemen is still captive to its early pre-state composition due to the dominance of tribalism in governance and authority. There’s no rotation of power on the tribal level. This is limited to the tribal descendants of Hashed and Bakil in the far north. The more urbanised social formation in the central part of the country, where Taiz is located, and in the south, around Aden, is different, but it too has been dominated by tribal conflicts. This social constituency is no more than a quarter of the population, so in effect there is an urbanised minority in a broader tribal context.”
Other institutions in Yemen such as the parliament are also simply updated versions of traditional tribal councils. The same thing is true of the Yemeni ruling party, which reflects the tribal partitioning of the state. As a result, it has been only natural that the state would experience periodic local conflicts as expressions of the tribal conflicts that have ebbed and flowed according to tribal laws, traditions, and interests.
Second, Yemen has remained captive to changing regional currents and conflicts. The war in Yemen in the 1960s was a reflection of a larger regional conflict that has been reproduced today but with a different cast of characters. A direct consequence of the conflict was to postpone the development of a modern state project in Yemen. In terms of the country’s underlying structure, there are still no clear milestones marking the transition from the traditional imamate state to the republican state to the post-revolutionary state. Tribalism remains at the heart of the Yemeni state.
When the state is weakened, political divisions come to the surface and quasi-state entities emerge within it such as the mini-state run today by the Houthi Movement.
Third, the feebleness of central political authority in Yemen is the result of a failure over four decades to bring in new political blood and the lack of mechanisms for the development of political institutions, especially party institutions. Although Yemen has had political parties for the last 35 years, which is plenty of time for them to have politically matured and have developed their own visions of sound political action, partisan politics have continued to move along the same traditional lines.
Tribalism in the North has been channelled into the ruling party and other party forms spanning the political spectrum from left to right. These parties have functioned less as entities representing a popular base than as a framework for the country’s elites. Recently, even this elite presence has been reduced, either because of the war and subsequent emigration or because of the absence of prominent figures from the political movements born in the 1960s and 1970s. There has also been a failure to cultivate a new and cohesive political vanguard during the revolutionary phase.
Yemeni Ambassador to London Yassin Saeed Noman said in an interview when he was still a leading politician in Yemen that “the regime that took shape after 1994 was a mix of dominant forces of a tribal, political, military and opportunistic nature, but it did not have a real national project capable of state-building. The idea of the nation-state was postponed and in fact was undermined. The despotic nature of the political regime is always at odds with the state and state institutions because these institutions act to constrain the ruler and he evades this by weakening them.”
“It is not a tribal mentality that dominates governance in Yemen. It is a corrupt, despotic mentality. Even tribalism has gradually been transformed from tribalism with values to tribalism without values. The tribal community in Yemen used to possess values, but tribalism has become subordinate to corrupt authority, meaning that everything valuable about it has been subverted. Tribalism is also no longer a social formation capable of development in accordance with its own customs and values. Instead, it has developed in accordance with warped, internal interests by attracting tribal heads and notables and co-opting them to the corrupt authority of the corrupt regime. As a consequence, tribalism is reproduced in a completely different form.”
“Given this situation, I think that the national cause – the cause of unity –has been a central issue because the regime that emerged after 1994 was unable to produce a genuine national project to meet Yemen’s needs. People in the South began to see this unity as something like an occupation, burying the national and social dimension in an integrated system. Economic and social dysfunctions began to appear. Distorted economic growth produced a distorted society, and this brought Yemen to a dead end,” Noman said.
Fourth, state institutions in Yemen were born weak and did not evolve in such a way as would have allowed them to address their latent dysfunction. Centralised security, political, economic, cultural and social state institutions functioned on the basis of tribal divisions, and tribalism also coloured the conventions governing the country’s political framework and its legislative, executive and judicial institutions. There was no room for more modern state developments.
Women remained shut out of this system, even if they had a small symbolic presence, and the military was restrained by tribal considerations and led by tribal figures. Even the Yemeni legislature was governed by tribal calculations. The country’s laws did not evolve into a modern legal corpus, but continued to be bound by traditional ideas inherited from the past and largely tribal in nature.
Ali Al-Dabibi, a researcher in Yemeni political affairs, commented that “tribalism relies on the idea of plunder, meaning the spoils of war. In politics, during stable periods governance is grounded in a central tribe balanced by other tribes, as is the case with the Sanhan tribes from which [former president] Ali Abdullah Saleh descends. When conflict breaks out, ideas of loyalty and plunder dominate tribal culture and are agreed upon by senior members of the tribal councils that in fact represent a governing or state council.”
INSTITUTIONS AND CONFLICT: The Yemeni military cannot be treated as a genuine state institution, as throughout the republican period it underwent no genuine modernisation towards becoming a regular national army.
Only the country’s Republican Guard was modernised, and this for political ends under the son of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who established it and long headed it. Even membership of the military is not governed by regular rules, and those rules that do exist are easy to circumvent in order to support a particular tribe’s interests.
The post-revolutionary period has added a new dimension to the fundamental structural flaws of Yemeni institutions in the form of membership on the basis of political affiliation. The Reform Party, the political branch of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, has put tens of thousands of its members into the country’s military, while the Houthi Movement has demanded that some 15,000 of its adherents be integrated into the army on the basis of religious affiliation and as an affirmation of its political strength.
Positions in the Yemeni police, security and intelligence bodies are doled out using the same logic. High-level positions are distributed among families, while further down the hierarchy tribal and geographically based appointments are routinely made. The question of qualifications is rarely raised. This weakens the military’s ability to deal with genuine challenges in the country, making it simply a tool that can be used to settle political scores between various tribes.
The civil war of the 1990s between the North and the South of Yemen extended tribal power in the South, as southerners in all state institutions were forced into retirement in the wake of the war as part of the division of spoils among the winners and regional compromises to prevent the rise of a socialist state in South Yemen. Tribalism then acquired a religious dimension, also linked to regional contexts, leading to conflict in the north of the country against the Houthi Movement.
Nasser Al-Tawil, a spokesman for military veterans, commented in an interview that “Saleh formed the security establishment from a group of his own loyalists, his family and his allies. The central security system was controlled by his brother and then his son, and it only took action on their orders. The army was made up of 34 brigades under the command of Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar and 34 under that of Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Much of the army is also fake as there are 25,000 soldiers in the Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh forces who receive pay without working. The first armoured division is a fake. Every sheikh can produce 300 recruits who receive salaries, but they’re also fake. Saudi Arabia provides 47,000 Yemeni soldiers with salaries of 10,000 to 25,000 riyals.”
When a conflict turns into a cultural or historical one with real dividends for certain interests and opportunities for profiteering, a vendetta mindset can arise. This has been manifested in various ways in Yemen throughout its modern history, and the recent war demonstrates how deeply ingrained it is in Yemeni culture. The Houthi Movement emerged from its stronghold in the northern city of Saada to seek vengeance against its bitter foe the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, which it saw as its real enemy in the conflict between 2004 and 2006.
This was why the Houthis launched an orchestrated reprisal, a so-called “seventh war,” from its strongholds in Dammaj, Imran, Hajjah and Hasaba, followed by its “corrective revolution” in the wake of the fall of Sanaa in September 2014. After taking Sanaa, the drive for vengeance allied to the country’s tribal culture propelled the movement into cementing its foothold on the Yemeni scene and in future state institutions.
Regardless of administrative divisions, there are also geographical, demographic and political differences that have undermined communal harmony in Yemen. The North, far North, and South of the country all have their different patterns of life, and these geographical differences have posed a challenge to the territorial cohesion of the state.
“Before unification, we were one state made up of two,” Al-Tawil said. “After it, we became two states in one because unification only cemented the radical division between the North and the South.”
Indeed, the union between North and South Yemen never succeeded in practical terms, only in formal ones. Southern resentment of northern rule, seen as an extension of tribal rule, festered. During British colonial rule and until the fall of the southern socialist state, the South saw some aspects of the modern state emerge. And after unification it demanded to secede, with southern forces lining up on the side of secession after 2007.
The movement began with the unemployed and retired military personnel, after which the Southern Movement appeared to demand the return of the former southern state. The Houthi attacks on the South in March 2015 only reinforced these demands. The southern members of the National Dialogue then adopted the project for a two-region federation of Yemen that was seen by southerners as the first step on the road to secession.
“Even when secession was on the horizon and all the tools to further it existed, it did not happen because it was unrealistic. None of the other projects being talked about are genuine either in a Yemen that is experiencing local and regional conflicts and wars,” Al-Majidi commented.
CONSEQUENCES: In the wake of the collapse of the Yemeni state, other problems have emerged as consequences of the foundational obstacles to state building in the country. These will also be manifested in the political transition that will follow the civil war that still rages in Yemen, even as peace talks have been underway in Kuwait since April.
The negotiating process should produce mechanisms for stability in Yemen that will end the fighting and cement the peace process. But this will only happen as a result of a political compromise that satisfies all the parties. Otherwise, the period will simply be a temporary cessation of hostilities.
The talks will be followed by a lengthy procedural stage that will lay the groundwork for a second transition in Yemen. Committees will be formed to implement UN Resolution 2216 on the return of the Yemeni government-in-exile, the reinstatement of state institutions, the surrender of weapons to the military leadership and the exchange of prisoners.
The work of these committees throughout the preparatory phase will be about ending the impact of the war, and it is the transitional phase that follows that will complete the process of state rebuilding. Several challenges have already emerged in the negotiation process. It has been decided to replicate the pre-war state model, with some improvements dictated by the balance of forces that took shape during the war.
Undisclosed understandings between the Houthi Movement and Saudi Arabia will use the Gulf Initiative as a regional settlement, and the Houthis will also use it to their advantage by portraying it as a Saudi dictate like former president Saleh.
The culture of tribal and political divisions still dominates the way the Yemeni political forces see the negotiations and what they want to get out of them. It has been difficult for them to agree on a genuinely national project for the country amid the continued conflict, jockeying for position and the failure to carry out genuine community reconciliation. There have been no apologies for what the civil war has wrought or resolutions of the social divisions that have resulted from the war.
As a result, every party involved in the negotiations intends to take what it can to serve its own interests, given the lack of consensus on a national project to rescue Yemen and rebuild the state. One of the main reasons is the fact that the negotiating parties are the same players as those involved in the conflict. The Yemeni government-in-exile in Riyadh was engineered along the same lines, setting up conflict for the future.
A further important issue that must be addressed is national reconciliation and the defusing of social animosities, particularly in regions that saw severe violations of human rights, such as Taiz, as well as forestalling political reprisals between forces tasked with rebuilding the political system in Yemen.
Moreover, retaining the centralised state with the old tribal system of political power-sharing while expanding it to include parties that were previously excluded but have now gained a foothold by force of arms, such as the Houthi Movement, will simply increase the number of those who benefit from a communal-based system of rule. Such individuals will be given important positions, and their militias will be integrated into the army without regard for recruitment rules and a shared esprit de corps with the military establishment. There will also be no reform or modernisation of the military to remedy divisions, this requiring its own independent programme.
Certain forces will remain significant even as the circle expands. The South is still clearly cut off from the developments underway in the talks, and it will later be brought into the mechanism for political dialogue that results from them. In other words, the terms of the Kuwait Declaration will be imposed on the South.
Numerous competing and at times mutually exclusive ideological and political projects have been proposed. A federation is one, seen by some as a prelude to partition. Others, however, see it as a way to correct the flawed unity project in Yemen, even if there are some who see the whole idea as futile.
RECONSTRUCTION: Ordinarily, physical reconstruction would be seen as an indication of the beginning of peace and a move towards the restoration of mutual trust between the political actors in the transition period and a step on the road to rebuilding the state.
However, in the case of Yemen physical reconstruction will likely be yet another realm for political competition and a channel for the division of the spoils by forces overseeing the future political landscape.
It is feared that Saudi Arabia will bear the main cost of funding the reconstruction, especially since Yemen offers little to potential international parties. Yet, Saudi Arabia already has extremely costly financial obligations to other states amid low international oil prices and a sovereign fund burdened by the costs of the war and the last few years of weapons purchases. There will need to be broad coordination on organising an international conference on Yemeni reconstruction.
The Kuwait Declaration may not end the polarisation in Yemen. There is one issue that has not been settled by the warring parties, former president Saleh’s relationship with Riyadh, since the latter has emerged as a competitor to him and to his Houthi successor. This issue will be a threat to his power in the future and may set the political process on a different course. Moreover, there is no guarantee that Iran, which armed and financially supported the Houthi Movement, will remain content to stand by if the regional balance shifts.
Despite the strong interest on the part of regional and international forces in ending the war in Yemen, there has been a marked rise in terrorism and violent extremism in the country that must be addressed through security methods. These include the building of a rapid-response force to confront terrorism by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, a force that currently does not exist within the Yemeni military.
Operations launched by regional forces like Saudi Arabia in areas of Hadramawt, especially the Al-Qaeda-controlled area of Al-Mukalla, are not expected to succeed in wholly rooting out terrorism, which will likely constitute an additional security burden in future. There are also other obstacles that have emerged against the backdrop of recent transformations in Yemen, and these cannot be separated from them.