Khaled Fattah
Last updated: 29 December, 2014

“It is important to remember that the roots of the current turbulence in Yemen lie not in sectarian grounds”

As the year 2014 draws to a close, Yemen continues to yearn for security, stability and predictability. The four years of Arab Spring-related power struggles have drained Yemen, divided and demoralised its military and security forces, and left its fragile national economy in ruins. Instead of being the year that saw the rise of a new state centre that can address the drivers of conflict, which were identified by the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the year 2014 will go down in the modern history of Yemen as the year of the loss of the state’s relevance as a centre.

In light of the current weakness of the political administration, the Yemeni state is meeting the New Year without a centre for any major political, military and economic decisions. Although such a centre was never the glue that holds Yemen together, the on-going erosion of the Yemeni state and the inability of President Hadi to enforce his decisions outside the walls of the presidential palace is an alarming development that must be reversed. Bearing in mind that Yemen’s political power is synonymous with military power and military power is synonymous with access to the resources of the centre, the consequences of a prolonged absence of a centre for decision-making could well be catastrophic. 


Yemen’s NDC was often cited by regional and western policy-makers and diplomats as a model: it was inclusive, locally managed and owned, and legitimate. However, the post-NDC climate of violence and chaos suggests that the NDC was used by local elites as merely a ‘talking shop’ for venting frustrations, and as a strategic tool for postponing battles, not ending them. Eleven months after the official closing ceremony of the thorny NDC, on the 25th of January, 2014, the Yemeni state’s presence in much of the country has dissolved, elite competition over the badly shrinking national cake is fierce and deadly, and the country’s fragmented social forces are hunkered down behind sectarian, tribal and regional covers. There is a dangerous political stalemate on the ground, and no significant breakthrough is in the offing.

It is not the NDC that should be blamed, but the political behaviour of the country’s warring elites, who are unable or unwilling to compromise, as this might negatively affect their respective gains, interests and positions. Complicating the situation further for the newly appointed cabinet of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, sworn in on the 9th of November, 2014, the Saudi kingdom, fearing that the rise of the Zaydi Shiite Ansar Allah movement will galvanize a sectarian war which al Qaeda and its offshoots could exploit and launch attacks against the kingdom, has suspended most of its vital financial aid to Yemen.  


In addition to Yemen’s new powerbrokers, the Houthi-Ansar Allah movement, who capitalised on public anger against the dysfunctional transitional government and shook the kaleidoscope of Yemen’s politics by swiftly capturing Sanaa in September, the Yemeni state, including its military and security institutions, is currently controlled by a constellation of non-state actors and powerful individuals, who shape the dynamics of daily politics in the vast rural and tribal areas through informal networks that can quickly shift between alliance and rivalry.

In Yemen’s political arena, where the most important book is its encyclopaedia of genealogy, President Hadi, who hails from the southern province of Abyan, lacks a power base or traditional constituency in the northern highlands, where the central nervous system of politics and the main nodes of Sanaa and Riyadh’s patronage networks in Yemen are located. Mr. Hadi is a stranger in Yemen’s shifting political world of hard-core tribalism.

Since he took the oath of office in the Parliament on the 25th of February, 2012, under the terms of a phased transition plan brokered by the GCC, with the support of the UN, Washington and the EU, President Hadi has been struggling to deal with the inherited “administrative feudal system” and a patronage-based precarious balance, created by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the man who ruled the difficult-to-rule Yemen though politics of survival, and the mastering of the language of the armed-to-teeth tribes. More than two years since his formal departure from the Presidential Palace, Saleh´s personal shadow continues to loom large over Sanaa.


It is important to remember that the roots of the current turbulence in Yemen lie not in sectarian grounds. The ancient Yemeni nation lacks the sharp sectarian divides found in places such as Iraq and Lebanon; there is no historical legacy of sectarian violence. Rather, the roots are in the quest for political power and material gains, the long-neglected legitimate grievances in Saada and southern provinces, and in the psychological distance between the elite in Sanaa and the widely dispersed local communities in rural and tribal areas, where more than 70% of the population reside. Other roots can be clearly seen in the web of regional and international self-interest, culminating in raw geostrategic calculation.

“The post-NDC climate of violence and chaos suggests that the NDC was used by local elites”

Yemen offers an immense challenge to anyone willing to tackle its deep, complex and overlapping political and security problems. The country needs dramatic changes in the conduct of its political elite, and transformation of the political culture of its military. At the strategic level, regional and international sponsors of the post Arab Spring transition in Yemen, especially Washington and Riyadh, must realise that a central government which does not serve the very basic needs of the people will not be able to defeat al Qaeda or limit the growth of pockets of disorder. 

Somalia, just across the sea from Yemen, teaches us that a period of extended anarchy without a central authority can persist for a long time. Sponsors must also realise that national ownership and internal coherence are critical for the success of any stabilisation and counterterrorism efforts.

Yemen is one of the places on earth where the shortsighted counterterrorism campaign of Washington is helping to keep instability and the anti-western fires burning brightly. Attention must be paid to the fact that squeezing down militant jihadism in the GCC countries lead to the popping up of transnational militant jihadism in Yemen. As the weakest link in the chain of the GCC security, ignoring Yemen and its complex socio-economic problem will have dire consequences. The exposure of the GCC security as a result of the upheavals in Syria and Iraq, and unrest in Egypt should stimulate the GCC to pay full attention to the expanding insecurity at the southern gate of the Arabian Peninsula.

In the year 2015, the people in the Arab Middle East will continue their quest for a middle ground between autocracy, democracy, and theocracy. The people of Yemen, on the other hand, will continue their search for a centre.