Yemen is “on the brink of famine”. It is the facing the “worst humanitarian crisis on the globe”. The UN and major international humanitarian relief organisations have sounded these alarms on numerous occasions during the past year.
What brought Yemen, nicknamed “The Blissful”, to this point? Could the country where the Arabs originated, according to many historians, have averted such a grim fate? What became of the dreams of the republic declared in the 1960s and of the unity declared in 1990?
In addition to dire warnings, 2018 also brought the most violent fighting since the outbreak of the current conflict in March 2015. But the year also occasioned some serious attempts to make peace or, at least, to secure a truce.
Most recently, representatives of the Yemeni factions headed to Stockholm, in the first week of this month, to take part in UN-sponsored peace talks.
While informed observers do not foresee a solution emerging from the talks, UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths hopes to avert a full-scale battle in Hodeida that would cost thousands of lives and push the country over the precipice into full-scale famine.
Throughout most of the war, the front lines have barely budged between the forces of the Ansar Allah Movement, more commonly known as the Houthi movement, and the forces fighting on the side of the internationally recognised government headed by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The Houthis (who had allied with late former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who retained the loyalty of a large segment of the army and the government apparatus) continue to control the north while President Hadi’s forces control the south.
The latter are primarily made up of a loose alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood’s political facade in Yemen, the Congregation for Reform Party, frequently called Al-Islah, and the Southern Transitional Council, a southern secessionist movement, as well as a number of small parties.
But neither have the warring parties managed to make a significant breakthrough in several rounds of negotiating processes held in Kuwait and in Geneva.
In fact, the last round in Geneva, in September, did not even get off the ground because the Houthi delegation was unable to make it to the Swiss city.
In order to help the Stockholm negotiations succeed, Kuwait offered to put one of its planes at the service of the Houthi delegation. That the UN special envoy and the Kuwaiti ambassador to Sanaa were travelling to the Swedish capital on the same flight gave the Houthis the reassurance they needed.
In addition, Oman agreed to receive dozens of wounded Houthi soldiers for medical treatment. They were evacuated to Muscat on an Omani plane ahead of the peace talks in Sweden.
On 6 December, indirect “consultations” between the two sides began with the stated purpose of “building trust”. But the negotiating delegations quickly began to escalate.
The Yemeni foreign minister, who heads the government delegation, demanded that the rebel militias (the Houthis) withdraw completely from the western coast and hand the area over to the legitimate government.
He was alluding, in particular, to the city and port of Hodeida which is a main artery for the survival of millions of Yemenis.
In response, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, head of the Houthis’ Supreme Revolutionary Committee, warned that if the Sanaa airport is not reopened to civilian traffic, his movement would close it on the ground to all traffic including UN flights.
Although the “indirect consultations” lasted a week, time is on no one’s side in Yemen. This applies, above all, to Yemeni civilians. Following his visit to Yemen in late November, the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock warned that the country was “on the brink of a major catastrophe”.
The UN wants to halt the fighting in and around Hodeida so as to be able to use the port, which is controlled by the Houthis, as a hub to convey humanitarian assistance to millions of Yemenis.
From Monarchy To Republic
The year 2018 marked the centennial of the establishment of the first Yemeni state in the modern era. The Mutawakkilite Kingdom was founded on 1 November 1918 by Imam Yehia bin Hamideddin Al-Mutawakkil, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
However, the state never achieved stability, although it would manage to survive for 40 years until the revolution of September 1962 and the creation of the Yemeni Arab Republic.
The new kingdom inaugurated what, for Yemenis, proved to be a lost century. The kingdom’s Zaidi imams (Yahya, his son Ahmed and his grandson Al-Badr) wasted the monarchical era in conflict with neighbouring tribes and then with neighbours in order to expand their control.
They then spent the rest of the time quashing revolts against their hereditary feudalist rule. According to Mohammed Al-Mikhlafi, professor of law, undersecretary-general of the Yemeni Socialist Party and minister of legal affairs from 2011 to 2015, the rule of Imam Yahya and his progeny was absolutist and coercive: “It had no room for persuasion as a means to convince the people of its legitimacy.”
Bin Hamideddin began with a small sheikhdom north of Aden in 1919. However, after his defeat at the hands of the British occupiers of that strategic southern port, he turned northwards toward Hodeida.
After a number of attempts, he managed to seize control of the strategic port and then moved on to add several nearby towns and cities to his possession.
In 1934, his expansionism was checked by King Abdel Aziz Al-Saud who compelled him to sign the Taif treaty in 1934.
From then on, the legitimacy of his monarchy began to erode. For the next three decades, Yahya and his descendants fought uprisings against them until the monarchy collapsed.
“Yemenis rose up several times against the monarchy,” Al-Mikhlafi said. “Once was in 1948, following the assassination of Imam Yahya. The people then rebelled against his son, in 1955. The last uprising was against his grandson, Al-Badr, in 1962.”
According Al-Mikhlafi, the fact that Yemenis, at the time, lived in “self-sufficient” villages was a factor that worked to the advantage of Bin Hamideddin and his insular policies.
Playing Zaidis against the Shafiis (affiliates of the Shafii school of Sunni Islam) also helped him consolidate his rule, while the lack of an effective media and modern education, combined with the prevailing tribal system, contributed to perpetuating the monarchy.
When Al-Badr succeeded his father, Imam Ahmed, in 1962, Colonel Abdullah Al-Sallal spearheaded the third revolt against the monarchy and declared the founding of the Yemeni Republic. Al-Sallal, an army officer who had trained in Egypt, appealed to Cairo for help and Cairo responded.
With South Yemen’s declaration of independence in 1967 followed by the victory of the republic in the north in 1970, Yemen was plunged into a period of civil warfare. Civil war broke out in the north in 1978, in the south in 1985, and between the north and south in 1972 and 1979.
In 1986, President Haidar Abu Bakr Al-Attas assumed power in Aden and initiated a drive to unify the country. Unity between the north and south was achieved in 1990.
Unity And Loss Of Hope
“Democracy and the peaceful rotation of power was the key to unity. But in 1994, Ali Abdullah Saleh fabricated a reason to go to war so that he could monopolise power,” said Al-Mikhlafi.
In the course of three months, in the summer of 1994, Saleh proved himself the unchallengeable Yemeni strongman. He would become even more powerful when, the following year, the International Court of Arbitration ruled in Sanaa’s favour in the dispute between Yemen and Eritrea over the Hanish Islands in the southern part of the Red Sea.
Saleh was able to build his popularity on the unity of the country and the restoration of sovereignty over the islands, as well as on the corruption that enabled him to win the support of many social classes and tribal forces, according to Al-Mikhlafi, who added: “Throughout the remainder of his rule, Saleh promoted tribalism, ignorance and corruption. In the end, he tried to promote hereditary succession.”
But a strongman at the helm did not mean that Yemen could become stable. With the turn of the millennium, the country descended once again into warfare, first with Al-Qaeda’s franchise in the Arabian Peninsula, which had taken a foothold in central Yemen, and then with the Houthis in the north.
Sanaa fought six rounds of battle against the Houthi stronghold between 2003 and 2009 while, simultaneously, there were recurrent secessionist stirrings in the south.
Eventually the pressures from the three conflicts, plus the inequities stemming from widespread corruption in the poorest Arab state, built up to bursting point. The eruption struck with Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
A Year Of Revolution Under The Strongman
It took several months to finally bring down the regime that had managed to perpetuate itself for 33 years.
However, Saleh’s network of allegiances and vested interests, combined with the actions of the Houthis in the north, the Sunni Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood Islah Party and the Salafists), and the secessionists in the south, disrupted the dream of stability and democracy.
“Now,” says Al-Mikhlafi, “we’re at the Stockholm stage. We need to benefit from the international desire to end the war in Yemen.
At the same time, we have to be prudent. Peace comes with conditions. This means ending what led to the war, namely the coup (the Houthi putsch in late 2014), and recognising the legitimate government (of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi).”
The former Yemeni minister stressed that the Houthis are mistaken if they believe that the problem can be solved militarily, which is the impression given by some of the messages Houthi leaders have conveyed.
Simultaneously he cautioned against the notion, voiced in particular by the Americans, that the Houthis are a minority who have the right to self-government in their homelands.
“This is misguided, because even in Saada the Houthis are not the only ones living there. Also, as we know, the seat of the Zaidi sect is in Dhamar, but even there Sunnis who belong to Salafist movements live alongside them. Yemen is not just Zaidis and Shafiis. There are Ismailis and other religious sects. It is misleading to talk about a civil war between the two largest camps in the country.”
The Western press frequently casts the conflict in Yemen as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Yet the fact is that the two sides have both Sunnis and Shias in their ranks.
But to Al-Mikhlafi, perhaps a worse commonly disseminated misperception is created by the failure to take into account the political parties in the country.
“In the eyes of the UN and Western powers, the war is between the Houthis and the government, even though there are many large and influential parties in the country,” he said. While acknowledging the many difficulties political parties have to contend with, he maintains that “politics is the arena for political parties whereas war only has room for weapons. Therefore, we need to restore peace and, in this, the political parties will have many important parts to play.”
Al-Mikhlaf urges a return to the outcomes of the national dialogue, namely the need to establish decentralised government and the need to resume the democratisation process.
But how would Yemen be divided in a decentralised system?
“The national dialogue conference did not stipulate a particular formula,” he said. “However, Yemen does not have to reinvent the wheel. There are international criteria for decentralised, federal systems of government. We can choose what is right for us.”
The criteria for decentralised government might be political, geographic, economic or ethic/sectarian. It appears that Yemen still has to contend with the battle over which of these criteria to adopt and how.
Meanwhile, regardless of the results of the consultations in Sweden, the Stockholm stage will have an impact. The parties to the conflict in Yemen cannot return to where they were before.
The world can no longer tolerate more failure in the face of the spectre of an impending humanitarian catastrophe for which all will pay the price.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Yemen: Stability impossible?