A visit to Yemen

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said turns to Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour


In each of my last three weekly columns I discussed three Arab reform states: the Arab Republic of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The common denominator here is “Arab” regardless of its syntactic position in the name. It is also the cultural and historical bond that united them during the more recent phases of the modern Arab state’s evolution, beginning with the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring, which sent tremors across the region against existing regimes and the prevailing nature of the state.

Nevertheless, the approaches and methods of reform and the paths they took differed. Egypt had lived through that “spring” from start to finish.

Its youth poured into the squares to protest, but without a programme to steer the state to a better path. It also endured the full experience of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which hijacked the “revolutionary” squares and came to power without a concept for governance in the framework of the modern state and its prerequisites.

Fortunately, the Egyptian Armed Forces, the essence and shield of Egyptian patriotism and identity, played a fundamental role throughout as the protector of change during the first and second transitions. In the latter, it safeguarded the profound, rapid, and sweeping reforms of the Egyptian political and economic structure. 

The UAE followed its own unique course as it has always done since independence. At the turn of the century, its leaders resolved to transform their loose gathering of federal entities into something closer to a unified state. Its singular identity as such has since developed and matured through the processes of change and modernisation, making it a source of inspiration to its fellow Gulf states. In Saudi Arabia, the gap between the state and the modernity of the twenty-first century had been huge.

It took an ambitious wide-ranging reform revolution in the political, economic, and social domains to close that gap. In the process, the country discovered Saudi history from the pre-Islamic ages as it set its sights to the future and becoming a pioneer of the ages to come. 

As different as these three cases were, they all focused on building the state on solid foundations. Other Gulf countries and Jordan and Morocco had similar experiences. Having weathered the quake of the Arab Spring, they understood that the state could not continue as before, and that reform was essential. This contrasts starkly with the experiences of other Arab countries where the state collapsed and has since defied resurrection.

The Civil War in Syria continues. The country is still fragmented, occupied and invaded by neighbours, exploited by foreign powers and non-state actors, and unable to liberate its territory.

We see the same in Libya, Sudan, and Palestine. The latter fragmented even before the establishment of the state. Yemen stands out as a glaring instance of this phenomenon. This ancient land, once known as “Arabia Felix” (Happy Arabia), from which Queen Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba) sent the hoopoe to King Solomon informing him that hers was the only kingdom on earth not subject to his rule, and whose southern city of Aden had been likened to Eden, is today bitter, torn by a decade of Civil War. 

At the beginning of this month, I had the opportunity to visit that country, at the kind invitation of the Chairman of the Presidential Council Rashad Al-Alimi.

The Presidential Council heads the internationally recognised Yemeni government, the reformist-minded leadership which is still engaged in the confrontation against the same type of forces that have rent other countries, namely the radical sectarian militias that are trying to drag their countries back to ancient eras.

Yemen is a quintessential model of the problem. It is plagued by violence, arch-reactionism, intolerance of minorities, repression of women, and hostility to the West and the contemporary world. Geopolitically, Yemen is currently divided between three political entities.

The first is the legitimate Yemeni government which, fortunately, still controls 80 per cent of the territory from Aden in the southwest to the border with Oman in the east and northwards to parts of central and northeastern Yemen. The Houthis are the second entity. They control the capital, Sanaa, which they seized in 2014; their traditional stronghold in the north, the governorate of Saada; and portions of the Red Sea coastal areas, including Hodeida and other ports cities. The third political entity is represented in the Presidential Council.

It consists of proponents of the revival of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen, although they are currently concealing that secessionist desire. 

Partition or the desire for it is the primary trait of Arab political entities that sprung from the alleged “Spring.”  In Yemen, as in Iraq, serious attempts are in progress to counter that divisive trend, which combines with the usual penetration of Iranian influence, and to restore cohesion. Accordingly, the forces of reform are working to restore security, re-establish sovereignty, and regenerate the government’s ability to reform education, deliver healthcare services, and perform other basic functions of the state, towards which ends they are trying to marshal the necessary resources for development and change.

Perhaps one day, the Yemeni story will not only be about the tragedy that befell this ancient Arab land but will also tell us of the heroic struggle to save it from the clutches of division, steer it back to unity, and join its fellow Arab countries in the drive to build and develop.  However, another part of this process entails restoration of the cohesion of the state, which depends on unified and cohesive national forces and their ability to forge a pro-unity critical mass.

The success of these efforts is possible with the support that Yemen has always received from Saudi Arabia, whether in the form of the Decisive Storm Operation or through striking a regional balance with political forces that have entered into shameful alliances with factions allied with shades of Islamist radicalism that have no compunction against joining forces with terrorist groups.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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