Writing about the Republic of Yemen is a pretty new thing. Just a few years ago, we had have to talk about the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), a republic since 1962, and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen), controlled by the British till 1967, and under a Communist government afterwards.
The modern Republic of Yemen was born in 1990 when traditional North Yemen and Communist South Yemen merged after years of clashes. We will see this later.
Yemen is a country of the Middle East. It is bordering the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea, between Oman and Saudi Arabia. It’s a strategic location on Bab el Mandeb, the strait linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which is one of the World’s most active shipping lanes. The African nations of Eritrea and Djibouti are across the Red Sea to the west and southwest, respectively, and Somalia is across the Gulf of Aden to the south.
Its climate is mostly desert; hot and humid along the West coast, temperate in the Western mountains, affected by seasonal monsoon and extraordinarily hot, dry and desert in the East. Due to these extreme conditions and other factors, there’s a limited natural freshwater and inadequate supplies of potable water. Its natural resources include petroleum, fish, rock salt, marble and small deposits of coal, gold and copper among others.
It has been at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East and Asia for thousands of years thanks to its position on the ancient spice routes. It is one of the possible locations for the Biblical kingdom of Sheba.
North Yemen had previously become independent in 1918 from the Ottoman Empire, and became a republic with the overthrow of the theocratic Imamate in 1962. South Yemen at its turn, became independent in 1967 from the UK.
A short civil war in 1994 ended in defeat for separatist southerners, but regional tensions re-emerged in the summer of 2009 when government troops and Houthi rebels from the Shia Zaidi sect clashed in the north, killing hundreds and displacing more than a quarter of a million people.
The official language in Yemen is Arabic, and 99.1% of the aprox. 26 million of its population is Muslim; an estimated 65% are Sunni and 35% Shia.
Al Jumhuriyah al Yamaniyah, as is the local long form to name the Republic of Yemen, has its capital in Sanaa, which is at it turn, one of the 20 governorates of the territory.
Its constitution was adopted by referendum in 1991, following the unification, and has been amended several times, last being in 2009. They have a mixed legal system of Islamic law, Napoleonic law, English Common Law and customary law. Yemen is a non-party state to the ICCt.
And yet, more data; Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Since unification Yemen has been slowly modernising and opening up to the World, but still retains much of its tribal character, being the northern rebels, known as Houthis or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) the main group. They adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism. Zaidis ruled North Yemen for almost 1000 years until 1962.
A history of conflict
Since the formation of Southern Yemen –PDRY- in 1967 and the beginning of the nationalization programme, armed groups were formed in bid to overthrow the government and border clashes between the Yemen Arab Republic –YAR-, in civil war royalists, supported by Saudi Arabia vs. republicans, backed by Egypt, since 1962, and the PDRY, and later on, fresh fighting, occurred.
In the government, Ali Abdallah Saleh was named president of YAR in 1978, while President Ali Nasser Muhammad fled the country and was sentenced to death for treason in 1986, when the new government was formed. A few years later, in May 1990, the Unified Republic of Yemen was proclaimed, under Saleh presidency.
In 1991 Yemen opposed US-led action against Iraq in the Gulf War, and a year later there were food price riots in major towns.
The coalition government, made up of ruling parties of former north and south, was formed in April 1993, but soon after Vice-President Ali Salim al-Baid withdrawed to Aden, alleging that the south was being marginalised and that southerners were being attacked by northerners.
The situation got so tense that in 1994 Saleh declared the state of emergency and dismissed Al-Baid and other southern government members, following a political deadlock and sporadic fighting. Soon, foreigners fled the escalating fighting. That same year, Al-Baid declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Yemen. Saleh rejected secession as illegal.
In 1995, Yemen and Eritrea clashed over disputed Hanish Islands in the Red Sea. The conflict was resolved by the Permanent Court of Arbitration when it determined that most of the Zukur-Hanish archipelago belonged to Yemen, in 1998.
Al-Qaeda attacks started in 2000 with a suicide attack in Aden that killed 17 US personnel and a bomb at the British embassy. During the run-up to municipal polls and referendum in February 2001 which backed extension to presidential term and powers, violence broke out.
Shortly after snubbing a third attempt at mediation by the six-country Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), informally headed by Saudi Arabia, President Saleh sent his forces to fight the leaders of his country’s most powerful tribe, the Hashid. They were bankrolling the opposition and helping to sustain the tens of thousands of protesters who were camping out on the streets of Sanaa. On the ground, they were firing everything from pistols to anti-aircraft missiles at each other, as they jostled for control of government buildings and the airport.
Led by the al-Ahmar family, Saleh’s bitterest rivals, the tribesmen gained control over the interior and water ministries, the ruling party’s main building and one of the city’s main police stations.
The Houthi insurgency to win greater autonomy for their heartland of Saada province and to protect Zaidi religious and cultural traditions from perceived encroachment by Sunni Islamists, started in 2004, when hundreds died as the troops battled the Shia insurgency, led by Hussein al-Houthi in the north. He was killed later that year by government forces. However, that didn’t marked the end of the insurgency, as in 2005, several people were killed in fights between government forces and al-Houthi’s supporters. Others across the country were killed as they protested about a cut in fuel subsidies, and when a landslide destroyed a mountain village around 20km from Sanaa.
In 2006, more than 600 followers of al-Houthi who were captured following the rebellion he led in 2004 were released under an amnesty. Soon after, President Saleh won another term in the elections. Under his government, in 2007, security forces and al-Houthi rebels clashed in the north, but the conflict diminished when rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi accepted a ceasefire.
As suicide bomber attacks continued being common each week, citizens were banned from carrying firearms in Sanaa, and demonstrations without a permit were outlawed. That didn’t end clashes; Yemeni tribesmen and army personnel protecting a Ukranian oil company clashed in Shabwa province in November 2007, and two months later, renewed clashes between security forces and rebels loyal to Abdul-Malik al-Houthi erupted as the volcano that had destroyed Jabal al-Tair military base a few months before.
Bomb attacks on police, official, diplomatic, foreign business and tourism targets continued, and US embassy evacuated all non-essential personnel in early 2008. Some months later, an attack killed 18 people in that same embassy in Sanaa, and President Saleh announced the arrest of suspected Islamist militants allegedly linked to Israeli intelligence.
The demands of the population for electoral reform and fresh polls were frequent, and people were displaced by the fighting in the Northern provinces as well as along the common border with Saudi Arabia, whose government was accused by the rebels of supporting the Yemeni government.
At the start of 2010, Saleh opened the government to talks with al-Qaeda militants, provided that they renounced to violence, and signed a ceasefire with the northern rebels, who released 178 captives after the government accused the Shia Houthi group of failing to comply with the terms of the reached truce. The focus was then in the southern Shabwa province, where the government launched an offensive against the separatists.
In October 2010, after packages containing explosives originating in Yemen were intercepted on cargo planes bound for the US, the international arena cared about a possible global terror alert, and US Secretary of State visited the country over “urgent concern” at al-Qaeda activities.
Saleh pledged then not to extend his presidency in 2013 or to hand it over to his son when pro-reform demonstrations took place, motivated by Tunisian street protests which unseated President Ben Ali. Police snipers opened fire on a pro-democracy camp in Sanaa in March 2011, killing more than 50 people. In that event, senior military figures including key general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, declared their backing for the protest movement, and several ministers and other senior regime figures also defected to protesters. The President imposed the State of emergency, as the unrest was said to risk plunging the country into civil war.
The Alliance of Yemeni Tribes, an alliance of tribes in Yemen opposed to the government Saleh was formed amidst the civil uprising in Yemen to defend anti-government protesters. Its leader, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar of the Hashid tribal federation, stated his intention to remove Saleh and his sons from power in his capacity as head of the Alliance.
The situation kept getting worse as Saleh vowed to remain in office, and clashes between troops and tribal fighters were so brutal in Sanaa, the airport shut and thousands fled the city. As President Saleh was flown to Saudi Arabia after being injured in a rocket attack, British and French forces prepared to evacuate foreigners in the event of a civil war. The President returned in September 2011, when US-born al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki was assassinated by US forces. Just a month later, UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning violence, and called for transfer of power.
Saleh finally agreed to hand over power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and left the country with full immunity granted. A unity government, which included a PM from the opposition, was formed, and Hadi inaugurated as President after uncontested elections in 2012. Meanwhile, the country was on the brink of a serious food crisis, after receiving more than 4 billion dollars in aid.
Strongholds and leaders from al-Qaeda were re-captured by the army and killed by drone strikes by the US, as they fought back with car bomb attacks and attacks and killings in embassies, such as the shooting to a Saudi diplomat and his bodyguard. Hence, several foreign embassies shut temporarily.
In March 2013, the most delayed national dialogue conference begun with aim of drafting a new constitution and Ahmed Ali Saleh, son of ex-president Saleh, was removed as head of the Republican Guard. It wasn’t till 2014 when the National Dialogue Conference winded up after ten months of deliberation, agreeing a document on which the new constitution would be based. As part of its political transition, Yemen became then a federation of six regions.
The country’s largest oil pipeline was blown up by tribesmen in July 2014, disrupting supplies from the interior to the Red Sea export terminal, before a month in which Hadi sacked his cabinet and overturned a controversial fuel price rise. In the streets, anti-government protests were constant, with Houthi rebels being heavily involved. They finally took control of Sanaa and rejected the draft of a new constitution proposed by the government.
In January 2015, they seized state TV and clashed with troops in the capital, in what the government called a coup attempt. President Hadi and his government resigned in protest at the takeover by Houthi rebels of Sanaa. He later fled to his native city of Aden and rescinded his resignation. In February, Houthi rebels said that they were seizing power and that transitional five-member presidential council will replace President Hadi, but the move was denounced by UN Security Council, who demanded they negotiate power-sharing agreement under the Gulf Cooperation Council aegis.
Considering the sputtering nature of UN-mediated talks aimed at brokering a new political accord, the deep risk of fracturing, if not descending into civil war of the country was quite obvious. Yemen has collapsed, to what Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy to Yemen, has described as an “Iraq-Libya-Syria” scenario.
Once hailed by international diplomats as a model for the region, for months now Yemen has appeared to be bursting apart at the seams. In recent years Yemen has seen violent conflicts largely caused by underlying problems of unequal access to power and resources.
There have been six rounds of fighting between the state and the Houthis in the north; separatist unrest in the south; frequent attacks by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); power struggles between tribal and military factions; and the crackdown by Saleh’s supporters on the protests by youths and pro-democracy activists that eventually forced him to hand over power to Hadi.
The instability and resulting large-scale displacement, as well as weak governance, corruption, resource depletion and poor infrastructure, have hindered development in the poorest country in the Middle East.
Unemployment, high food prices and limited social services mean more than 10 million Yemenis are believed to be food insecure.
Yemen has been in political limbo since President Hadi and the government resigned after the Houthis seized the presidential palace in a struggle to tighten control.
Members of the UN Security Council pledged unanimous support to the legitimacy of embattled President Hadi. Meanwhile, Shia Houthis seized control of the strategic southern city of Taiz, raising concerns that Aden, where Hadi took refuge, may come under attack. The US evacuated its remaining personnel from Yemen amid the deteriorating security situation. Separately, ISIS claimed responsibility for the multiple suicide bombing attacks in Sana’a that left at least 137 people dead and 357 wounded. That was just two weeks ago.
The fear was back then that the Houthi advance would drive a fresh wave of militarisation and radicalisation in the Sunni-majority Yemeni heartland, acting as a recruiter for jihadis. Western intelligence already considered the local al-Qaida faction (al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP), the World’s most potent franchise, a growing threat seeking to exploit regional turmoil to widen its scope.
The recent events have serious implications for Yemen, its neighbors and key Western ally, the US.
As Shia Houthi forces seized a strategic air base, thirty-five miles outside of Aden, the stronghold of embattled President Hadi, residents in Aden reported that warplanes fired missiles at the district where the presidential compound was located. Hadi requested then UN military intervention in Yemen to defeat the Houthis. In the cities of Taiz and Torba, witnesses said Houthis used tear gas and fired on protesters, killing six demonstrators and injuring many others. Meanwhile, US officials said that Saudi Arabia, whose government accuses Iran of sowing sectarian strife in its support for the Houthis, was building up heavy military equipment in areas along the Yemeni border.
If the proxy war route is pursued, the conflict is likely to rage for years. Rugged geography and broad spaces will make it hard for any side to hold land, and poor populations with little to lose will find themselves used as cannon fodder by one side or another. Jihadi groups of various stripes are bystanders to the principal fight between the rump government and the Houthis, but they will surely benefit from the widespread suffering.
Just few weeks ago, when writing this article, the current situation was deeply unstable, but despite this, there was some hope for a deal, as power-sharing remained and, to certain degree, remains in all parties’ interests. However, any deal will have had to overcome the deep spirit of distrust governing relations between Yemen’s political parties, as well as moving power-sharing from paper to reality, which will require reckoning with the many mistakes and false assumptions that have brought the country’s post-Arab Uprising transition to the brink of failure.
A new deal is needed, a better one. One which does not contemplate privileges to the traditional elites over all other parties, one which makes power-sharing and inclusivity a priority, while including a roadmap to end its never-ending transition.
Regional players such as Saudi Arabia or Kuwait could play very positive roles as mediators. Instead, a ten-country Gulf coalition led by Saudi Arabia, worried about losing influence in the region favoring Iran, and including Egypt and Jordan, launched a robust air campaign in Yemen against Iran-aligned Houthis, backed by the White House, who provided logistical and intelligence support. This, among others, affected oil prices, which surged following reports of the Saudi-led campaign and ongoing fighting between Yemeni factions. Yemen has now become another battleground where the two sectarian rivals will struggle against one another.
In the International arena, Europe has a strong role to play, as it is viewed positively by Yemenis, acting decisively and together with its political and donor coordination to foster a solution. Owing to the increasingly intractable nature of the political crisis, Europe should prepare for the option of Yemen’s continued fragmentation, but it must also exert itself to help prevent it by supporting negotiations towards a power-sharing deal. Yet, its role is poor and indecisive for the moment being.